The various styles of luxury buildings, the magnificence of the towers, many of which date back to 1200, bear witness to the economic standing and wellbeing that San Gimignano enjoyed in those days.
A determining factor was definitely its strategic position between large towns such as Florence, Sienna and Pisa, and important roads, the most important of all being the via Francigena along which the town was developed and which, as well as being the route chosen by pilgrims travelling to Rome, was used by merchants to transport their wares.
A typical product of San Gimignano was saffron, which was not only used in exchanges and trade, but also as a replacement for money. In 1202 for instance, it was easier to obtain cash by pawning two pounds of saffron at Semifonte than by offering servants or land.
In 1228 the Commune of San Gimignano was forced to take out mortgages with the bankers of Colle in order to sustain the cost of the siege of Castello della Nera and at the time of repayment, in addition to money, part of the loan was paid in the equivalent value in saffron.
Moreover, it was possible to pay bandits and offer it as a gift to the ambassadors, Vicari and Vicere. In 1228 the Podestà of San Gimignano, Gregorio, was reimbursed for the expenses of the food consumed during a short trip ".in uno cappone et una gallina et in quattuor fercolis carnium porchi e in ovis et pipere et croco".
The saffron of San Gimignano was held in such high esteem that in the statutes of Volterra dated 1252, a fee of two denarii was paid for every pound "quod emerit illi de Sancto Geminiano". Because it was a product which was considered to be precious, laws were passed to guarantee the weight and protect the quality, such as the proclamation of the Podestà of San Gimignano, Bernardino Bianco dei Malevoli on December 31st 1261 "ognuno compri o venda frutti o capi (bulbi) di saffron a staio (litri 15,2) da biade colmo e nessuno tenga staio largo con cui si solevano detti frutti misurare." Saffron was used almost exclusively as a dye, but also in medicine and naturally in cooking.
Towards the middle of the 1600's, the cultivation of saffron died out. There are many assumptions as to why: the economic recession, partially due to the transfer of the via Francigena towards the valley, but above all, the importation of French saffron, which was cheaper but very poor in quality.
Legend claims that Milanese risotto was invented to satisfy the passion of a painter for the colour yellow (saffron was also used in paintings). His paintings were all dominated by yellow, so much so that someone suggested that he use it in risotto and so one of Italy's most typical dishes was born.