Prato, Tuscany’s Second Largest City

About 15 miles from the center of Florence—a 20-minute train ride—is Tuscany’s second largest city, Prato, home to some 190,000 people. A day in Prato reveals the many ways the city’s important historic and cultural past intersects with its industrial present.

Like Florence, Prato got rich during the early Renaissance on banking and trading. Prato’s textile industry attracted the world’s wealthiest individuals and brought many riches to the Tuscan town. In the Renaissance, wool and silk from Prato was known around Europe as the best one could buy. Textiles are still a major part of Prato’s economy, as Istituto Buzzi, an elite high school, turns out graduates who, at age 18, have already specialized in various aspects of textile production and trade.

In the fourteenth century, Francesco Datini (1335–1410) was the wealthiest man in town, having built a trading empire with agents in most of Europe’s major cities. Datini was a financial master, and is credited with inventing the bill of exchange, both for the purposes of lending money and for the transfer of funds in different currencies. His palazzo in the center of Prato is now home to an impressive archive and international center for the study of historical economics.

The Duomo of Prato is, as in most Italian cities, worth a stop on any tourist itinerary. Due to Prato’s vast wealth in the early modern period and to the proximity to Florence, Prato’s Duomo boasts some important works of art. The Romanesque style church has a marble exterior that shows evidence of the various phases of its construction.

An unusual feature is the circular pulpit on an external corner: this is the place from where the city’s most important relic, the Sacra Cintola, or sacred belt, of the Virgin Mary is displayed to the public on five feast days per year. The reliefs on the outside of the pulpit were designed by Donatello and the originals are conserved in the adjacent museum; they are considered a precursor to the Cantoria by Donatello, now in Florence’s Opera del Duomo museum.

Inside the church is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her relic, decorated with 14th century frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi. The frescoes in the high chapel are the recently restored cycle by famed Prato native, Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi. The paintings tell the stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist with masterful use of figures and color.

For nearly 600 years, Prato’s economy has been based on the textile industry, so any visit to Prato must include a stop at the Textile Museum. Opened in 1975, its sole mission is to teach the importance of local textile production, which began in the 12th century. Visitors can discover how textiles have transformed through the ages, and Prato’s role in that transformation. On permanent display are textiles from as early as the third century.

Located just minutes outside the old city is The Pecci Center, built in 1988 and designed by Italian architect Italo Ciamverini. The Center, the first museum in Tuscany to be dedicated exclusively to contemporary art, recently underwent a major expansion that will make it the largest contemporary art center in Tuscany and central Italy.

Recently re-opened after a 20year restoration, one of Prato’s most important buildings, Palazzo Pretorio, the old town hall, is now the Palazzo Pretorio Museum. Built between the 13th and 14th centuries, the palazzo and museum promise to become one of the city’s most important artistic and cultural hubs. 

This Renaissance church by Antonio Sangallo, located in the piazza named after it, is more important for its architecture than for the artwork found inside it. This is one of several churches in the region developed on a centrally oriented cross plan in the second half of the 15th century that explore theories of the relationship of man to architecture explored by Sangallo as well as Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci and Francesco di Giorgio. Other similar churches exist in Cortona in southern Tuscany and in Todi in Umbria. The architects believed that the space of this shape, based on combinations of circles and squares, was intuitively understandable to humans.

There are approximately 35 miles of scenic cycling routes through the Prato area, from Poggio a Caiano to Vaiano and Galceti Park to Campi Bisenzio. Enjoy the nature reserve of Cascine di Tavola, which was once part of the Medici estate, and the villa of Poggio a Caiano, built by Lorenzo de’ Medici, or take a walk along the paths lining the Bisenzio river, keeping an eye out for local wildlife.

Although it may not be as popular a game in Italy as it is in the United States, golf lovers looking for spectacular greens have a lot to choose from in Tuscany. Not only is the region home to some of central Italy’s most prestigious courses, but Prato itself hosts one of its best: a world-class 18-hole course designed by legendary American golfer Arnold Palmer. Located just outside Poggio a Caiano and only 20 minutes from Florence, this elegant golf and country club also features a restaurant with a magnificent view overlooking the greens.

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