The Manchester of Tuscany
Called "the Manchester of Tuscany by the historian Emanuele Repetti back in the nineteenth century and made famous as "the city of a hundred chimneys" due to the large concentration of textile factories, in 2012 Prato resumes its role as the second largest city in Tuscany and the third largest in Central Italy, after Rome and Florence, in terms of its number of inhabitants.
When one talks about Prato it's inevitable to point out how fundamental the textile sector has been for the city's growth since the Middle Ages, bringing it prestige and customers from all over the world and still making it one of the European textile capitals today.
Its history is not just all about materials; it dates back to the Paleolithic age, as some finds in the hilly area have proven, before developing into a bona fide city in the Etruscan era.
From the Etruscans to the Alberti counts, passing first of all into the hands of the Romans, Longobards and Byzantines, successfully forming a "free commune" following the bloody siege of Matilda of Canossa's troops, it is a constantly evolving and changing city, which underwent considerable urban expansion between the twelfth and thirteenth century due to the flourishing wool industry and real devotion to a sacred relic that arrived here at that time: the Holy Belt of the Virgin Mary.
Sold to the Medici family of Florence by the Anjou family of Naples, to whom it surrendered suddenly so as to escape the former, Prato continued to develop economically and culturally as well as offering wonderful architectural and monumental moments that we can still admire today, especially at the time when the Lorraine family was heading up the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
The considerable industrialization, which occurred after the Unification of Italy, led to a remarkable population increase, which forced Prato to incorporate the surrounding villages.
Technological progress, which took place after the two World Wars, led to the innovation of the industry and the city became a destination for immigration from Southern Italy in the Sixties and Seventies and, as from the Nineties, from overseas, China in particular.
Prato relates its story through its monuments and buildings too: St. Stephen's Cathedral, with the nave and two aisles, built in white and green marble, dates back to the twelfth century and is one of the most important buildings in the region.
It houses frescoes by Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello and Agnolo Gaddi, while the church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, a Renaissance basilica with a Latin cross plan, contains ceramic decorations by Andrea della Robbia and windows made according to the designs by Ghirlandaio: artists who have gone down in the Italian art history books.
Art also assumes major importance thanks to the one of the leading centres of national and European contemporary art: Centro per l'arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci, built by architect Italo Gamberini.
Piazza del Comune is the nerve centre where the city's most important civil buildings are located: Palazzo Pretorio, headquarters of the Podestà and now home to the city museum, and Palazzo Comunale, the town hall, set up as the headquarters of the priors.
The province of Prato is also worth (re)discovering, marked by a wide variety of lovely and, at times, unknown landscapes, which we haven't perhaps stopped and looked at enough: the valley of the Bisenzio river and the Acquerino-Cantagallo nature reserve, riches that have been overlooked for too long, where wonderful scenery merges with art, culture and history.