Certaldo, a town about halfway between Florence and Siena, boasts an idyllic medieval village and a one very famous inhabitant. Giovanni Boccaccio, who wrote The Decameron in the 14th century, was born here (we think) and Certaldo continues to celebrate him, even 700 years after his death.
The town is divided into lower and upper parts, the lower being much larger and more modern, where people live but not so much for tourists to visit. To enjoy a leisurely day, there is a convenient car park in Piazza Boccaccio, directly below Certaldo Alto. You will know you’ve arrived when you spot the 18th century statue of Boccaccio himself, made to commemorate 500 years since the illustrious author’s death.
Heading up to Certaldo Alto on Via Costa Alberti, either by foot (10 minutes, uphill) or funicolare, one arrives in a well-preserved historic town. Via Costa Alberti turns into Via Boccaccio, a pedestrian street that serves as the main drag. Most buildings are made of brick and overall, it doesn’t look like it has changed much since Boccaccio wandered these same streets. In fact, wandering is easy to do without getting lost as almost all the main buildings are on this road.
A little ways up his namesake street, on the left you’ll find Casa Boccaccio, which now functions as a museum. On January 15, 1944 an air raid destroyed almost all of the original building, but it has since been restored to reflect what it likely looked like around Boccaccio’s lifetime. Interestingly, the only part of the house that remained after the attack was a frescoed wall by Pietro Benvenuti. The painting dates from the early nineteenth century and depicts Boccaccio sitting at his writing desk. On the first floor is a library with an impressive collection of works from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries as well as rare translations of The Decameron.
Continuing up the hill, you may notice an interesting tall tower. This tower is located at the Palazzo Machiavelli and made almost entirely of brick. It is remarkable because the tower has not been reworked since its construction sometime before the 1350’s. In the middle ages, towers were used to indicate the power of the family that built them, and as such, were often destroyed by warring factions. In later years, towers were also lopped off at the top, to be repurposed as building material for new projects. You can still see, by observing the pockmarked surface, where wooden balconies and scaffolding would have been. This tower, remaining in its entirety and in such excellent condition, is a rare architectural treat.
At the far end of Via Boccaccio is the church of Santi Jacopo e Filippo, or the church of the saints James and Philip. It was built in the early part of the thirteenth century, originally to function as a priory for the Pieve di San Lazzaro at Lucardo. In the fifteenth century, it became property of the Augustinian monks and remained so until the Augustinian order was suppressed in 1783. The building has undergone some renovations and changes but largely remains in its original splendor. One more recent update came in 1900 when Provost Pieratti had the original stucco removed and commissioned the redecorating of the church with neo-Romanesque floral murals.
Walking through the church towards the altar, Bocccaccio’s cenotaph and epitaph come into view. A bust of Boccaccio holding his famous Decameron, which was carved in 1503 by Giovan Francesco Rustici, resides over Boccaccio’s marble tomb slab. Continuing past this, heading into the chancel area, are two Della Robbia tabernacles worth stopping to admire. Also nearby is an altarpiece by Della Robbia’s workshop, which marks the tomb of Blessed Giulia, a saint born in the fourteenth century, famous for saving a child from a burning building.
After you have had your fill of saints and history, head back out into the daylight and consider stopping for a snack or a glass of wine at one of the quaint restaurants that dot Certaldo Alto’s tiny streets. Aim to have a dish with the famed red onion named after the town: Cipolla di Certaldo. In the winter there’s onion soup, in the summer panzanella, a cold bread salad with cucumber and red onions. On a nice day, sit outside and admire the impressive brick town that you have just explored, and raise a toast to the notorious author who helped ensure its extraordinary preservation.