Prato is a city readily neglected by those who are keen on spending their time in Florence. Although we’re entering our ninth year of residence in Italy we’ve neglected it too. An industrious community, historically famous through that insightful book into mediaeval commerce “The merchant of Prato” by Iris Origo, it continues, despite recession and far eastern competition, to excel in textiles and related activities. Indeed, that Far East has also given it a fair share of its inhabitants and Prato concentrates one of the largest Chinese communities in Italy – a community which unfortunately made recent news headlines when several illegal workers were burnt alive in a clothing sweat-shop.
We parked our Cinquina in a square crowned by a sculpture by Henry Moore no less. The great Yorkshire sculptor gifted it to the city in 1974 and it bears the title “square form with cut”.
From the square we made our way through picturesque streets lined by Sunday markets and found ourselves in a large square where the modestly-sized but artistically hugely important city’s cathedral is situated. The circular exterior pulpit on the right side of the building is where Prato’s most sacred relic, the Virgin Mary’s girdle, is displayed five times a year, most solemnly on Her day , September 8th.
The interior contains frescoes by Filippo Lippi (1457-1504) which give a colourful insight into renaissance fashion and are in a much better condition than many such frescoes one sees in Florence.
Our main reason for stopping at Prato on our way back from Florence was to see the exhibition of renaissance paintings “Da Donatello a Lippi” in the recently reopened palazzo Pretorio which dates back to the fourteenth century. The city’s town hall had been closed since 1998 for restoration! Actually we didn’t see the exhibition as the queue was too long as it was the last day and we’d got there too late. This was the first of two mis-timers we did on that day…
To make up for missing the exhibition in the same palazzo Pretorio there was a display of three large paintings by Santi di Tito and Alessandro Allori donated to the city in 2012 by a Florentine noblewoman. These carefully restored and beautiful works from the Tuscan sixteenth century displayed three miracles: the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes by Santi di Tito (1536-1603), The Miracle of Wheat and The Miracle of Water by Alessandro Allori (1535-1607). They were originally commissioned by the Florentine merchant Geri Spini for the chapel of the villa Motrone at Peretola where Florence’s airport is situated.
Wandering around the characterful streets of old Prato we spotted a lovely little display, presented by the local modelling club, of great sailing ships from the past and present. These included HMS Victory, Greenwich’s Cutty Sark and the still sailing Amerigo Vespucci. The details of the models were quite splendid and an old “tar” explained us everything we wanted to know (we have been keen yachtsmen) including the mythical J-class yachts.
Another exhibition we visited in Prato was titled “Money and Devotion” and is due to make a world tour. It gathers together beautiful objects between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with a particular focus on Prato. The exhibition was enriched by a beautiful painting with a gold background, a reliquary in gilded metal and other many important objects related to the theme of pilgrimage.
We returned via Prato’s floodlit castle passing on its side one of the most perfect of Tuscan renaissance churches, the Greek-cross of Santa Maria dei Carceri designed by Sangallo who scaled down his rejected plan for a Greek-cross Saint Peter’s basilica in Rome to build this serenely lovely masterpiece.
By the way what was our second mis-timer? It was getting to Montecarlo that evening at the wrong time to see the Barber of Seville performed by Opera Lucca. It actually started in the afternoon. Ah well – old age does have a habit of creeping up on one unawares…..