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Colle di Val d'Elsa is an old city, probably dating from the Early Middle Ages, although the town was also known in the past under different names from the current one - namely 'Piticciano' and 'Piticciano Castle'.
The early history and origins of the town are slightly unclear but the research tells a fascinating story.
Early origins of Colle di Val d'Elsa
We do not know precisely when the old village around the castle was born, but it was certainly around the year 1000, because in a document dating from 1007, the noble Wuilla Aldobrandeschi received lands from the Bishop of Volterra, among which Piticciano was mentioned.
Other documents mentioning 'Piticcianum' date back to the 12th century. We know from these that Colle di val d'Elsa was called Piticciano, and that from 1183 we know that the city was also called Colle, because, in a Bull of Pope Lucius III (1110-1185) he gave the abbot of Santa Maria di Spugna many goods and lands, and it was said that some of these assets were close to the 'Castellum Piticcianum quod Colle vocatur'. i.e. Lucius III wrote that the possessions were close to the “Piticciano Castle, which is called Colle."
So towards the end of the 12th century Colle di Val d'Elsa was already known by that name, and is likely to be the same 'Castrum Collis' in Tuscany as was mentioned in 801 by Charlemagne (742-814).
Another important historical fact is that, around the year 1000, Piticciano was probably a fiefdom of the powerful Counts Aldobrandeschi. In fact, Countess Wuilla (mentioned above) was the widow of Count Rodolfo and mother of Hildebrand Aldobrandeschi.
Colle di Val d'Elsa in the Middle Ages
Recent historical studies have indeed shown that, in the early 11th century, Colle di Val d'Elsa was contested over between the Aldobrandeschi dynasty and the Bishop of Volterra. Towards the end of the 12th century, however, “Colle di Val d'Elsa” fell within the orbit of power of Florence, and it was usually called "Castrum Collis", or more simply "Colle".
Placed near the famous trade route called the Via Francigena (the trade route leasding to France) Colle di val d'Elsa quickly developed considerable industrial activities and a powerful mercantile bourgeoisie, as witnessed by the Tower-Houses built by the wealthy merchants of Colle and the massive walls of the city, which were extended to encompass the surrounding villages.
Under the Medici's domination, Colle had a period of great economic prosperity, because of its manufacturing and development of iron working.
By the 15th century Colle was a remarkable city, which could also withstand sieges by powerful enemies: in 1478 it was in fact attacked by the armies of the Pope and King of Naples, but it managed to resist and reject the enemies. After this event, the city strengthened the walls further, also building the so-called Porta Nuova (a work by Giuliano da Sangallo (1484-1546)), to replace one destroyed during the siege.
The power of the wealthy merchant bourgeoisie of Colle manifested itself even more with the construction of magnificent palaces, like those built by Francesco Campana (1491 ca-1546), the Secretary of Cosimo I de Medici (1519-1574). Francesco Campana also promoted the construction of other important buildings and churches, like the Palace of Justice, the Hospital of San Lorenzo, the Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace.
Colle di Val d'Elsa in recent centuries
From the 16th to the 18th century, Colle di Val d'Elsa witnessed a continuous economic growth, giving further impetus to the manufactures of the city (the wool, paper, glass and iron industries) and some agriculture-related activities.
During the nineteenth century, Colle expanded even more, at the expense of the old walls which are now almost completely lost, while it developed the glass industry, which is still one of the attractions of the city. Despite this continued expansion the old town still retains a significant amount of evidence of its past.
Note: it was only in the 19th century that “Val d’Elsa” was added to the name, to indicate the area where the city stands, i.e. along the River Elsa, the left tributary of the River Arno.
See the Colle di Val d'Elsa guide if visiting the town.