Top 10 things to do in Prato

Exploring Florence’s neighbour

Editorial Staff
April 25, 2013

About 24 kilometers from the center of Florence—a 20-minute train trip—is Tuscany’s second largest city, Prato, home to some 190,000 people, including Italy’s second-largest Chinese community. A day (or more!) in Prato reveals the many ways the city’s important historic and cultural past intersects with its industrial present. And of course, there is the cookie. If we had to give you just one reason to visit Prato, it might be for what most Americans call biscotti. The twice-baked cookie that is great dipped in sweet wine or coffee is called ‘the’ Biscotto di Prato. You can only get the real thing here. Prato’s other ‘must-sees’ and ‘must-dos’ are less portable yet equally rooted in history. Interest piqued? On these pages, you’ll find TF’s top 10 list of things to do in Prato, Florence’s often-overlooked neighbour.

 

Like Florence, Prato got rich during the early Renaissance on banking and trading. What were they trading? Textiles brought the world’s riches there. 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. An excellent high school, Istituto Buzzi, turns out graduates who, at age 18, have already specialized in various aspects of textile production and trade. And it should come as no surprise that the city has one of the few dedicated textile museums in Italy, the Museo del Tessuto.

 

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. Have you changed money at a currency exchange and realized that money is made in the way the exchange rate is set, even if there is ostensibly no commission? You can blame (or thank) Datini. He 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 (for details, see www.museocasadatini.it).

 

01 DUOMO DI PRATO

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 straiated 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 (sacred belt) of the Virgin Mary is displayed to the public on five feast days per year (see TF 154). 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, to the left of the entrance against the counterfaçade is another unusual feature: the most important chapel is located here rather than in the apse, and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her relic. It is decorated with fourteenth-century frescoes by Agnolo Gaddi. The frescoes in the high chapel, however, are the recently restored cycle by Filippo Lippi (1465), which tells the stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist with masterful use of figures and color (see TF 75).

 

02 BISCOTTI DI PRATO

A visit to Prato means hunting down those infamous cobalt-blue bags tied with delicate string and stuffed to the brim with the iconic Italian biscuit, or biscotti, sprinkled with almonds. Biscotti di Prato, also called cantucci, are still being made by the Pandolfini family after three generations in the original shop where Antonio Mattei first cooked up these irresistible treats in 1858 on via Ricasoli, in the heart of the old city. Hermann Hesse praised them after a visit to Prato in 1901: ‘Prato is a fantastic ancient and solid town, and its biscotti are so famed.’ They may be known around the world and sold in shops across Tuscany, but there is nothing like stepping foot into the shop, called Mattei after the family but nicknamed the ‘Mattonella,’ where they were first created, and learning more about the family and secret recipe, one bite at a time. Dip the crisp cookie, cooked twice in a wood-burning oven, into a glass of Vin Santo to soften it up or savor it with a fig. See www.antoniomattei.it for more information.

 

 

 

03 MUSEO DEL TESSUTO

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 in via Puccetti 3. Opened in 1975, its sole mission is that of teaching visitors the importance of local textile production, which began in the twelfth century. See 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, from Italy, Europe, India, China and the Americas. The current exhibit, Vintage Fashion: The Irresistible Charm of the Past, runs until May 30 (see review in TF 174) and gives a visual journey into the world and history of a modern fashion trend, the art of re-using garments of the past to create a fashion phenomenon in the modern world. For details, call 0574/611503 or click www.museodeltessuto.it.

04 MORTADELLA DI PRATO

That exotic scent of savory spices that wafts daily through the cobblestone streets of Prato is the famous Mortadella di Prato, a locally made salumi. This one-of-a-kind Tuscan version of the famous cured meat from Bologna is made with cinnamon, coriander, nutmeg, cloves, salt and pepper, with a splash of Alchermes liqueur (a Florentine liqueur that is usually used in sweets and cakes) giving it a taste that takes you centuries back to the Middle Ages, when it was first masterfully crafted. Mortadella di Prato was designated a Slow Food Presidium in 2000 for its unique taste and ancient production techniques. Try a few slices from the fourth generation of butchers and producers at Macelleria & Salumificio Mannori (www.macelleriamannori.it), whose Mortadella di Prato is made with a version of the ancient recipe refined in the 1800s. Slap it on bread and bite into a scrumptious piece of Prato’s history.

 

05 CENTRE OF CONTEMPORARY ART LUIGI PECCI

Designed by architect Italo Ciamverini and built in 1988, the Pecci Center is the first museum in Tuscany dedicated exclusively to contemporary art. Located minutes outside the old city, it is currently undergoing a major expansion that will make it the largest contemporary art center in Tuscany and central Italy. In the meantime, the Pecci Center continues to offer temporary exhibits. Expect several new exhibitions and performances this season, starring international artists such as Sol LeWitt, Jan Fabre and Julien Opie. Currently running are shows focused on artist Paolo Scheggi and architect Ettore Sottsass as well as a collective exhibit on figurative painting with works from the 1960s, entitled La Figurazione Inevitabile. Located on viale della Repubblica 277, it is the first attraction you’ll find as you travel by bus or car from Florence. For details, see www.centropecci.it.

 

06 OUTDOOR FUN

There are approximately 53km of scenic cycling routes through the Prato area, from Poggio a Caiano to Vaiano and Galceti Park to Campi Bisenzio. Enjoy the 299-hectare protected 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. Take a walk along the paths lining the Bisenzio river, keeping an eye out for local wildlife. You may even spot the most elusive: the nutria! There are designated paths along the river and on some of the roads around the historic centre. A bicycle rental company, Pedala, is located by the river, on viale Galilei, just behind the Prato Porta al Serraglio train station. If you’d rather watch than do, enjoy a few hours of excitement at the Stadio Enrico Chersoni, located in the town of Iolo (municipality of Prato) to watch a game of rugby. Among Italy’s best rugby teams, Prato’s I Cavalieri (www.icavalieri.it) is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.

 

07 SEEK GREEN

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. Other services include tennis and soccer courts, putting and pitching greens for practice, an outdoor swimming pool, as well as a solarium and spa offering massages and other treatments. See www.golfclublepavoniere.com for details.

Photo by Elisa Virgili

08 PALAZZO PRETORIO AND MUSEUM

Recently re-opened after a 20-year restoration, one of Prato’s most important buildings, Palazzo Pretorio, the old town hall, is now the Palazzo Pretorio Museum. Built between the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the palazzo and museum promise to become one of the city’s most important artistic and cultural hubs. A retrospective exhibit on sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, entitled L’arte di gesso, will run from March 22 to May 26, 2013, followed by a major exhibit focused on Renaissance great Filippo Lippi, entitled From Donatello to Filippo Lippi: Officina Pratese (September 14, 2013, to January 12, 2014). For details, see www.palazzopretorio.prato.it.

 

09 VISIT CHINATOWN

In 1988 there were just over 30 Chinese residents in Prato; today, according to official statistics, there are more than 15,000. Over the last couple of decades, the face of the city has changed dramatically, and evidence of this is Prato’s distinct and very Asian Chinatown, once defined by the Washington Post as ‘one of a kind in the world.’ To find central Italy’s largest Chinatown go to via Pistoiese, a bustling street lined with Chinese stores for any necessity: restaurants and shops selling imported goods and foods from China, from homewares to technology and more. You may be hard pressed to find an Italian speaker and Italian signage, but it is a must-visit for anyone interested in experiencing one of Tuscany’s most fascinating multicultural realities.

 

10 SANTA MARIA DELLE CARCERI

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, Greek cross plan in the second half of the fifteenth century (this one dates to 1485) 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. See how you feel in relation to this space and if you find it more welcoming than the traditional basilica-shaped churches.

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