Prato: city of commerce and textiles and civic pride

Prato: city of commerce and textiles and civic pridePrato is a busy town near Florence that could be described as having two faces. It is a densely populated industrial centre, capital of the province of Prato, and imbued with the spirit of modernity and hard work. But it also conserves its ancient orgins which are evidenced in its architecture and strutture. Gothic churches, 14th Century chapels and Renaissance palaces all bear witness to the phases of prosperity that Prato has seen down through the centuries.

Prato developed on the banks of the river Bisenzio, and its 14th century city walls encircle the cathedral, the market and the old part of the city. The cathedral of Santa Stefano, San Francesco church and the Basilica of San Domenico all have Romanesque origins, but often Prato’s buildings show a mixture of styles, evidence of restoration and embellishment at various times when funds permitted. The key characteristic of Prato’s historical architecture is a strong two colour motif. Façades and interiors of churchs are decorated with horizontal bands of local marble that alternate between light and dark colours.

The city itself has an ancient and long-lasting vocation to commerce, and the city most famous sons have made important contributions to the economic history of Italy. The most well known is the wealthy merchant Francesco Datini (1335 – 1410), who climbed the the heights of economic power from the beginning of the 14th century. The 14th century Palazzo Datini is one of the most beautiful civil buildings in Prato and today houses an archive of documents and letters written by Datini. The documents show Datini’s development of double entry book-keeping. The eponymous Instituto Datini for the study of the history of economics is also found in Prato.

The main commercial activity in Prato, already well developed in the 13th century, was that of the textile industry – specifically production of woollen wovens, from spinning, twisting, warping, weaving, dyeing to finishing. If you are interested in textiles and craft the The Museo del Tessuto is a wonderful place to while away an afternoon. The museum is located in the beautiful Campolmi palazzo inside the city walls and has collections of textiles from ancient Egyptian and Central American fabrics to modern collections of textiles.

Prato is also home to many important reliquiries, the most important of which is the the Cignolo Sacro the sacred girdle was reputedly worn by the Virgin Mary, and was acquired in Jerusalem by a merchant called Michele. As legend has it the girdle was a gift from the parents of Michele’s beautiful bride who came from Jerusalem. Today the girdle is housed in a purpose built chapel that artists such as Donatello and Michelozzo worked on. The girdle is shown to the public to the public five times a year: at Christmas, Easter, the 1st May, 15th August and the 8th September when Prato hosts a colourful parade.

The Basilica of Santa Maria delle Carceri, a large Renaissance church that is the work of Giuliano da Sangallo, holds a picture of the Virgin Mary that was famous for miracle making. The church is found in the one of the most evocative piazzas of Prato, which also holds the massive Castello dell’Imperatore (Castle of the Emperor).

The Collegio Cicognini is another of Prato’s beautiful buildings. It dates from the 17th century that was originally a monastery but in 1676 it was sold to the Jesuits to be converted into a college. The college has had students from the most emminent families of Italy including Gabriele d’Annunzio.

Prato is the capital of the smallest province of Tuscany. Formerly part of the province of Florence, it was recently given autonomy. Centuries of subordination of Prato to Florence is but one stimulus for Prato is to remain independent as a city and as a culture. The writer Curzio Malaparte (another illustrious student of Cicognini college) wrote of the civic pride of the Pratese:

“Being born in Prato is a great benefit, more a merit than a fortune, and you can see from the tenacity with which the citizens of Prato defend their provenance when quite easily they could pass as Florentines.”

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