Tourist information about the city of Prato near Florence in Tuscany, Italy

Prato Tuscany Italy
The city of Prato on the River Bisenzio, Tuscany

Prato sometimes seems neglected by visitors to Florence, but in fact the old town of Prato contains many artistic and architectural treasures, including works by Donatello, Filippo Lippi and Botticelli, and is absolutely worth a visit. It can be reached from Florence by train in 15 to 30 minutes.

Prato is located just 17 km from Florence on the plain formed by the River Bisenzio. Prato, for the most part, is only 60 or so m above sea level. It is the third largest city in central Italy, after Rome and Florence, and became capital of its own Province of Prato in 1992. The Bisenzio flood plain where Prato is situated has been inhabited since very early times, including by the Etruscans, but the current city itself dates back to the 10 C, when the villages of Borgo al Cornio and Castrum Prati merged. A huge trove of documents, especially about trade in mediaeval times, was left to the city by the merchant Francesco Datini, the subject of “The Merchant of Prato“, a wonderful book by Iris Origo. Prato’s economy has been based on the textile industry for at least a thousand years. Prato is also famous a producer of cantucci and biscotti. Since about 1990, large numbers of Chinese have migrated, legally and illegally, to Prato and now dominate the ready-to-wear clothing factories located in the ugly suburbs that surround the old town. Prato now has the largest clothing manufacturing zone in Europe. There is little or no social interaction between the Chinese and Italian inhabitants of Prato, but the large number of Chinese restaurants in Prato is an added bonus for tourists visiting the city.

However, the Province of Prato is not just the city of Prato and its hideous suburbs. The city itself has a number of beautiful churches, palazzi and museums, and out in the countryside there are some truly beautiful areas to visit.

History of Prato

Prehistory and ancient history of Prato

Archaeological finds indicate that the hilly area surrounding Prato has been inhabited since the Palaeolithic era. Near Galceti, close to the first hills to the north, there was a Mousterian “station” dating back to 35,000 years ago, where the was a large production and export of jasper tools, jasper being easy to find in the surrounding hills. Sporadic finds of Neolithic and Bronze Age tools have also been made in the current historic centre, while on the other hillside (Calvana mountains) some civil and funerary architectural structures are evident (including a burial ground that was destroyed during the 50’s) attributed to the Ligurians or to native populations of the Bronze Age. The Prato plain was subsequently inhabited by the Etruscans, as evidenced by an impressive Etruscan city dating back to the 6th C BC, which came to light in 1997, in the area of ​​Gonfienti, close to the municipality of Campi Bisenzio. Prior to this discovery, it was thought that before the Roman era no permanent settlement had existed on the Prato plain before the Mediaeval period. Excavations have shown that the Etruscan city was by no means small, and weaving and spinning were already practiced there at that time. Based on some toponyms in the area, this city might be the mythical Camars which later became Clusium in Roman times, home of King Porsenna. The city had well-planned road axes. A “domus” of about 1,440 m² (the largest in ancient Italy, before Imperial Rome) was discovered inside the city. The domus was build on lines similar to those of Pompeian villas (but from a few centuries earlier) with a network of canals with still partially functioning water pipes and an exceptional quantity of Greek red and black-figure pottery. One of the latter is a kilix attributed to one of the most important Greek artists of the 5th C BC,

The Prato plain was eventually inhabited by the Romans. The Via Cassia passed through it, in the stretch that connected Florence with Pistoia, on the road to Luni. Historians have placed the mansion “Ad Solaria” of the ancient Via Cassia and and reported in the famous Peutingeriana Table, near the ancient Etruscan city.

Mediaeval Prato

In the early Middle Ages the plain saw the deterioration of the water regimentation structures built with the Roman centuriation, and some parts of it, presumably in the southern area, became swampy. The Prato area was affected by the presence of the Byzantines and subsequently occupied by the Lombards, whose presence is documented above all in the hilly and foothills areas.

The free municipality

After the siege of 1107 by the troops of Matilde di Canossa, the Alberti counts withdrew to their castles in the Val di Bisenzio and the town began to establish itself as a free municipality. It is a rather rare example of an independent commune that arose in an urban center that did not constitute a diocese; for this reason Prato for centuries was never defined “civitas”, but only “land”. It was certainly one of the very first Italian municipalities to give itself a statute, drawn up already in the mid-thirteenth century. For two centuries Prato experienced a strong urban expansion (almost 15,000 inhabitants were reached), due to the flourishing wool industry and the strong devotion to a relic that has just arrived: the Sacra Cintola. In the twelfth century it was under the direct dependence of Emperor Frederick II of Swabia and under his son Corradino. Then under the direct dependence of the Anjou of Naples. The urbanization is evidenced by the need to build two new circles of walls, one around the middle of the 12th century and the other starting from 1300. An episode of 1312 saw the rivalry with nearby Pistoia intensify, when the Pistoian canon Giovanni di Ser Landetto, nicknamed ‘Musciattino’, made an attempt to steal the Sacra Cintola. In 1326, to escape the expansionist aims of Florence and its own internal struggles between the more landed families for administrative control, the city submitted to the Lordship of Robert of Anjou, king of Naples. On 23 February 1351 Giovanna d’Angiò sold the city to Florence for 17 500 gold florins, and the latter city remained tied to the present day.

Prato in the 16 C and 17 C

Despite the loss of freedom, Prato continued to develop in the following centuries, following the fate of Florence, first under the Medici dynasty, then with the Florentine Republic from 1494. Because of this, the army of the Holy League (created between Pope Julius II and the Spaniards) besieged under the command of Raimondo de Cardona, conquered and devastated Prato on 29 August 1512. This looting (known as Sacco di Prato and also mentioned by Machiavelli in the famous Il Principe) caused a very high tribute of lives, profoundly marking not only the life of the city, but also the beginning of the decline, which lasted for about two centuries.

In 1653 Prato finally obtained the much coveted status of city and diocese (the latter was limited only within the city walls and with the Bishop in communion with Pistoia). This title gave a new development to the local economy and urbanization: for the occasion the Fontana del Bacchino was built by Ferdinando Tacca.
The eighteenth century

In the eighteenth century, with the ascent of the Lorraine to the leadership of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the city was embellished and also experienced a notable cultural development, which was promoted by the Grand Dukes themselves.

The intellectual foresight of Prato and its land in this century finds its maximum expression in the words of Filippo Mazzei, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, which today are reported in the second paragraph of the Constitution of the United States of America: All men are created equal [ 15].

Present day Prato

In the nineteenth century Prato experienced a notable industrial renaissance especially thanks to Giovan Battista Mazzoni. To describe the textile industry of the city, the historian Emanuele Repetti called Prato “the Manchester of Tuscany”. After the unification of Italy, a very strong industrialization continued (especially in the textile sector) and a demographic growth began, by virtue of which the city came out of the circle of the fourteenth-century walls and, during the twentieth century, gradually incorporated the surrounding villages, with the city population increased from 50,000 inhabitants in 1901 to over 180,000 in 2001. The concentration of textile factories was so high that Prato became famous as the city of a hundred chimneys. After the Second World War, when technological progress made the old factories obsolete, the large brick chimneys disappeared, except for some that are still standing today as relics of industrial archeology, such as that of the Cimatoria Campolmi.

During the Second World War the city was affected by various events related in particular to the partisan war. Between September 1943 and March 1944 the city was subjected to violent bombings aimed at destroying the industrial apparatus and the railway junction. In the same period, partisan formations began to form on the Apennine reliefs near the city. On 4 March 1944 the textile workers were the protagonists of a general strike that lasted in the following days, blocking production and representing a relevant political act in a city occupied by the Germans. In the following weeks, a roundup of the fascists gave way to the deportation to Germany of 360 workers (chosen mainly from among the strikers); only 20 of them will return alive. In September 1944 partisans of the Buricchi Brigade are captured and hanged in Figline. As soon as the city was liberated, occupied by the partisans before the arrival of the allies, starting from 5 September 1944 there were episodes of violence and reprisals against people known as fascists by the partisans; in particular at least 10 people were killed in the massacre of the Emperor’s Castle.

The most impressive demographic and economic increase took place after World War II when, in the sixties and seventies, substantial immigration from all southern regions will double the resident population, supplying labor to the increasingly vital textile industry.

In 1949 the hamlets of Vaiano and Sofignano were detached and set up as an autonomous municipality, with the name Vaiano [17].In 1949 the hamlets of Vaiano and Sofignano were detached and set up as an autonomous municipality, with the name Vaiano.

Parallel to the economic and demographic development, the city experienced a new great urban growth along various lines. A particularly disordered growth that will give life and countless mixtures between small production activities and residential buildings according to a typical model of the city in which, even from an economic point of view, small and very small production companies prevailed with employment relationships based on the entrusting of individual processes to third parties of the production cycle. In this urban disorder, countless buildings were built illegally, even after the regulatory plan came into force. This illegal activity represented a new and relevant phenomenon for a city in the center-north and was not limited to small buildings but also involved large condominiums and even two entire neighborhoods, “il Cantiere” and “il Guado”, inhabited mainly by immigrants from Italy. southern.

Since the nineties, the city has been the destination of a new and very consistent migratory wave, this time from non-EU countries and in particular from China.

Until 1992 Prato, like all the other municipalities of its province, was part of the province of Florence. That year, eight new provinces in Italy were established, including that of Prato, in order to better administer a territory in continuous growth of inhabitants.

In addition to freeing itself from the political control of Florence, Prato was also already freed from the religious one of Pistoia with the conquest of an autonomous diocese a few decades earlier (1954). Such rivalries with these two cities still survive today.

Starting from the nineties, the city shows the first signs of an industrial decline which at the moment seems unstoppable.

Castello dell'Imperatore in Prato
Castello dell’Imperatore in Prato