Prato, first Italian textile centre for exports, lies at the foot of Mount della Retaia, at the outlet of River Bisenzio, roughly half-way between Florence and Pistoia. The city is rich in monuments, churches and building of notable historic and cultural value, bulwarks of its glorious past as free commune (from 1107 to 1351). In that flourishing period the population had increased out of all proportion. One of the main attractions that fed the continuous migrations to Prato was the great development of the textile industry, growing thanks to the massive reclamation works and the modern water system built during the XI century.
A huge number of pilgrims was moved also by the deep devotion to the "Sacra Cintola" or "Sacro Cingolo", the Virgin's belt preserved into the town Dome since the XII century. The belt is still at the centre of the most important holy feast in Prato.
Visiting Prato the 8th of September, during the celebration of the Virgin's Birthday, you will live a really involving experience. The feast starts with a parade in costume – Corteggio Storico – walking to Piazza del Duomo to attend the exposition of the holy belt. The parade is followed by flag-wavers, bow-shot competitions, the medieval market which recalls ancient trades and traditions, while music and fireworks close the day.
The charming Parish Church of St Stefano, originally a modest sixth-century building, was renovated and turned into one of the grandest example of holy Romanesque-Gothic buildings in Tuscany (XII century). The gorgeous Dome exhibits a typical feature of the buildings in Florence and Prato, the alternated white and green marbles. Inside you can admire precious sculptures and important cycles of frescoes, like the ones in the Cappella Maggiore, representing the Stories of the saints Stefano and Giovanni Battista, made by Filippo Lippi. Do not miss the Storie della Vergine e della Sacra Cintola by Agnolo Gaddi depicted for the Cappella della Sacra Cintola, as well as the Storie della Vergine e di Santo Stefano preserved into the Cappella dell’Assunta, attributed to Paolo Uccello. In Piazza del Duomo, beside the basilica is the very interesting holy art collection kept into the Museum of Opera del Duomo.
The Castello dell'Imperatore is the second grandiose edifice in Prato. It was born as imperial residence for Friedrich II of Swabia, at the centre of the city. Art and architecture in Prato have been strongly influenced by the Florentine culture. This political and cultural subordination has lasted until 1992, when Prato became independent.
The Basilica of St Maria delle Carceri, Renaissance masterpiece, represents a perfect example of what we have just mentioned. The basilica was built in the place of a miracle, a stone'sthrow from the Castello dell'Imperatore. The Greek cross church (with four arms having the same length) was erected by skilled workers and reliable architects of the Florentine lord Lorenzo de Medici, according to a project conceived by Giuliano da Sangallo, following the example of the Cappella dei Pazzi di Brunelleschi, in Florence. The external facing – with the typical white-green colour print – as well as the serena stone used to cover the interiors, mark the solemn classicism of the architectural plant.
Great artistic treasures embellish the walls, depicted by Andrea Della Robbia, Buontalenti, Pietro Miniati, while the stained glass windows were designed by Domenico Ghirlandaio.
The impressive development of the textile industry - which won Prato the appellation of "city of the hundred chimneys" in the early XX century - characterized the city’s contemporary history. Many historic factories, with the typical brick chimneys, were demolished during the second post-war period; some others still mark the panorama of the city as industrial archaeological finds, like the famous Cimatoria Campolmi.
In Prato you will have the opportunity to visit the most important museum of contemporary art in Tuscany: the Contemporary Art Centre Luigi Pecci di Prato, that preserves great collections of Italian and European artists known worldwide. If you come over in summer, you will probably attend the events of Prato Estate: a series of concerts, theatrical shows, open air cinema in the main piazzas downtown and internal courtyard of Castello dell’Imperatore, from June to September.
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