The plains around Prato are packed with industry and warehouses that stretch all the way to Florence. Hidden away in the middle of all the modern bustle of business, the old center of Prato becomes a tranquil oasis of a more measured past.
The town has always been about making things, principally fine cloth for discerning designers and their customers. Right now it is booming with world wide fashion, with so much work that its one of the towns in Italy with a large immigrant community, here Chinese.
Walking into the town though one of the widened roads that once was closed in by fortified gates, you soon feel every step takes you further into the path. In one part of town the solid stone hexagon that was the stronghold of Frederick “Barbarossa” gives warning to all to keep to the will of the Emperor. At its flank is a church conceived of by Sangallo, but never really finished. A few paces on is a more traditional church with several frescoes and paintings by early Renaissance artists.
Turning right into one of those streets with highsided buildings made for eternity, protection and shade, past the bakery store selling cantucci (biscuits baked with flakes of almond and designed to be dunked into sweet muscat wine), you come into an L shaped square dominated by an oddly built tower. This is the Palazzo Pretorio, built and modified several times as the particolored building suggests. Right now the interior frescoes, such as remain, and the high timbered ceiling are being restored: it will be lovely when finished. The porticoed building to its right once belonged to a merchant whose statue decorates the square; Popes and Kings stayed here.
The cathedral dominates the main square, as you would expect. There is a very unique outdoor pulpit on one corner, designed by Donatello. Its broad circle of a canopy looks very Turkish, the type I’ve seen in some buildings in Istanbul, which is possible – the Renaissance was born of the influence of Constantinople after all. The interior of the cathedral has been restored; here you can see many of Paolo Uccello's and Filippo Lippi’s exquisitely beautiful frescoes. These alone merit a trip to Prato.
The square itself is bright and open, surrounded by the graceful townhouses of merchants and traders. A large fountain with gilded statue in the middle completes the picture of a contented, successful town. In the early morning the local people walk across to by their newspaper from the kiosk, drink their coffee in one of the bars, salute their neighbors as they cycle to work and generally begin their day in the best of spirits. You can see why Roberto Benigni has so much irrepressable humor – he comes from Prato too.Winter can be chilly and the summer humid, so the best times are spring and fall. In the summertime there’s always some public event going on – concerts, street theater and open air cinema. On the 8th of September Prato holds its Historical Procession, with performers is Renaissance costume, archery, a medieval trade fair, musicians, fireworks and many other side events. Also in September, after a break of almost thirty years old style Italian football is back, with four finalists battling for the “Palla Grossa” (the 'Big Ball').
Drop by, sit back in a chair in the sun, admire the art of those early artists as they painted almost impressionistic expression, and greet the beginning of your day in the best of spirits too.
A little bit of history
Like many places in central Italy, people have lived in and around places like Prato since before history was written. Likewise this was an Etruscan settlement, already known for its wool and cloth making. Unlike other places, the Romans didn’t do much with the region; nor did the Lombards during their short tenure.
Prato gets going a thousand years ago when the textile business picked up again, thanks to the manageable and constant flow of riverwater to wash cloth and power textile machines. The town was originally indepenent, but by the early Renaissance it fell under the power of Florence, suffering a brutal seige and massacre by Papal troops in consequence. With the union of the Italian states in 1861, what had been a cottage textile industry became a powerhouse in the production of high fashion cloth – Enrico Coveri comes from here.
Article, photograph and video © Carl Ottersen