History of Empoli, Italy

See Empoli guide for highlights and historic monuments

Early history of Empoli

The town of Empoli was originally known as Emporium (see etymology further down).

The foundation of the town was due to the Counts Guidi, who for almost a century (1150 ca.-1230 ca.) were one of the major Tuscan noble Families. They wielded many powers such as the justice, control of the fortifications and the imposition of military service to the entire population. Their nickname was "Guerra-Werra" (meaning 'talking').

"The first known case of a new foundation of a town by the Counts Guidi is Empoli in 1119" [4].

Thanks to their ability to mobilize whole populations “without expense”, Count "Werra" and his wife ordered that the local inhabitants moved to live around the church of St. Andrea to build a new castle, and they gave them a "Casilinum", that is a plot of land, to build their homes:

“Countess Emilia, wife of Count Guido Guerra invested Roland as Officer of the Parish Church of St. Andrew of Empoli, with the authority to compel the men of the castle with residents of other castles and villages to live for ever in the area around the church of San Andrea, giving each of them a plot of land because they built their homes] [5].

Among other things, according to an anonymous source of the 16th century, the church of San Andrea was even older than the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, and it dates back to 461 AD, but, apart from this dubious source, we have no other documents in this sense [6].

In 1182, after the end of the Guidi family domain, the small town entered the sphere of influence of Florence. Empoli at that time was already a large village, with a vast market, collecting grain for the close by areas.

Guidi palace renamed as the Ghibellini Palace

In 1260, in the palace of the Counts Guidi, a famous Ghibelline parliament was held, where thanks to the words of Farinata degli Uberti (died 1264), Florence was saved from destruction. For this reason, the Guidi palace was renamed “Palazzo Ghibellini”, to commemorate the historic event.

Empoli in the late Middle Ages

The town gradually developed a thriving economy, and therefore it was subject to numerous plunders such as that perpetrated in 1530 by Spanish imperial troops.

Between the 16th and 17th century, the town assumed a progressive economic importance for Florence. In fact it was considered as a real “granary city” for Florence":

"In the sixteenth century Empoli (...) could be classified among the large villages, where important markets and many economic activities flourished (...) with a fairly large population, which numbered about 323 “fuochi” [=families] in the mid-14th century, that is at least 1300 inhabitants.”

Its importance is also evidenced by the fact that in 1424 the jurisdiction functions of Pontorme and Monterappoli were removed and their territorial jurisdiction passed to Empoli. However it was also at this time that great waves of plague and typhus and other natural disasters, such as earthquakes, involved Tuscany and put the city in crisis.

For these reasons, Empoli  lost its dominant role as city market and also as a manufacturing center. However, despite the many crises, in the mid-18th century, Empoli was still a sizeable town, numbering about 2600 inhabitants [7].

Empoli is today an important industrial and commercial town, famous for its glassworks and clothing activities. From the artistic point of view, we recall that the famous painter called “Il Pontormo” (so called precisely because he was a native of “Pontorme”,  the etymology of which is "Pons Ormus", that is "Bridge over the river Orme") was born near Empoli in 1494.

Origins of the orignal name, Emporium

The problem of the name of the city of Empoli and also of the town's its antiquity has long been disputed by scholars, although today we have come to some reliable conclusions. In the meantime, wa can say that Empoli over the centuries has been called by various names, including "Impole", "Emp-o-lum", "Emp-u-lum" and "Emporium".

Faced with this situation, the first scholar who untangled the problem was V. Costanzi, who sought "the most ancient name of Empoli":

"Cluverius attested that the city quoted in the 'Itinerarium Antonini' was called 'In Portu', that is, the modern town of Empoli. He added ‘'which certainly was called ‘Emporium’, and then in the vernacular ‘Empoli’"] [2].This hypothesis of Cluverius was almost passively accepted also by contemporary critics ... But even if the correctness of this hypothesis seems clear to me, I wanted to get hold of accurate information on the time that ‘Emporium’ first appeared...

... From a gentle and scholarly archivist, I have known that, after careful research, 'it was found that the constant use of the name of the city in the oldest period was ‘Emp-o-lum’ and rarely 'Emp-u-lum', and also that 'Emporium' is cited for the first time in an act of the monastery of St. Stefano at Empoli, September 25, 1485" [1].

In essence, the conclusions of V. Costanzi are almost exact.

Origins of the current name, Empoli

The first document in which Empoli is mentioned dates back to 780 AD. The document attested that:

"In 780, at the time of Charlemagne [three brothers] endowed Abbot Gumberto of San Savino with many churches: we know from this document that, during the reign of Charles the Great, the above-said Gumberto, Adalberto and Gumbardo, for the love of God forsook the world and devoutly, with shaved heads, entered monastic life (...) Then, the above mentioned donors listed houses, courts and churches of the holy place, that they gave as a dowry and these are the following: the church of St. Mary and St. Peter's (...) and the church of San Michele in 'Impore’ (= Empoli)] [3]

The Church of Sancti Michaelis in Impore stood in the place which was called “Empoli Vecchio” [=Old Empoli], to distinguish it from the new town founded by Counts Guidi, a few miles east in 1119, on which the modern Empoli arose.

Meanwhile, an impossible etymology that derived the name from "Emporium" [= market] was rejected by all scholars because this name only dated from 1485n as we saw above. In this sense, G. Lastraioli writes:

"The Latinization of 'Emporium' (=market) is very late, dating back to the Humanistic Age. The great linguist Silvio Pieri placed Empoli among the names of obscure origin, also citing Bruckner [8], who considered a Germanic name, that is 'Impo', of which Empoli could keep the diminutive form" [9].

According to the hypothesis presented by G. Lastraioli and then developed by M. G. Arcamone, Empolum derives from a German name [Lombard], that is "Impo". On the other hand, the presence of the Lombards in the area of Empoli is widely attested: in fact:

"some small churches of Lombard origin arose in old 'vici' [villages] (...) were largely dedicated to the patron saint of the Lombards, that is St. Michael the Archangel (...) In the early eighth century we find the Lombard settlement of Vico Wallari (...) The first document mentioning Empoli dates back to this age. In the document of 780 (…) three noble brothers from Pisa of Lombard origin granted the Abbey of San Savino with the Church of San Michele in Empoli" [10].

G. Alessio proposed instead the approach to the Latin "limpidus" ("clear"), to compare with 'aqua de Lempole' [water of Lempole] in Campania and the term 'lémpore-lémporo' in the sense of "transparent" [11].

The most accepted etymology is that the name derives from the name of German origin 'Empo' [=Empo + 'ulus']. In fact, according to G. Arcamone, who has partly taken into account the assumptions of S. Pieri [12], Empoli derives from a hypochoristic  name, that is 'Empo-' (a 'hypochoristic name' indicates the shortening of a proper name)" [13].

With regard to the antiquity of Empoli, there do not seem to exist relations between the city and Roman times, but in this sense, we can say that today we are in possession of new important historical data. Already V. Costanzi, in this regard, remarked:

"the city of Empoli appears only in the Middle Ages, and we have no trace of it in antiquity. The lack of data regarding this place in  (...) could indicate a gap in our tradition rather than the lack of it (…) 'Empulum' may have been a 'forum' [a city's marketplace], which is well adapted to its position, or a 'vicus' [village], maybe a simple farm (...) The name 'Empulum' can be of Ligurian or  Italic origin; it can also be of Etruscan origin, and the expansion of the Etruscans in Latium also makes probable this hypothesis. " [14].

The words of V. Costanzi were prophetic, because recently M. Pittau suggested precisely the Etruscan origin of the name of Empoli:

"My conclusion is that Empoli is probably a name of Etruscan origin, meaning 'vineyard', and this is a name entirely congruent with the great importance that in Tuscany, since ancient times, has always been the cultivation of the vine and the production of wine" [15].

In reality, in the absence of historical and archaeological evidences, the hypothesis that Empoli is a town of ancient origin has always been rejected. However, recent archaeological excavations have brought to light some remains of Roman buildings in the downtown area, for which M. Ristori notes that:

"the idea of a Roman city (...) often rejected, derives from the existence of an old settlement, perhaps of Etruscan origin, which may be identified with the place called 'In Portu', which the literary tradition placed near Empoli Vecchio" [16].

Is Empoli the same as ancient In Portu?

The same Ristori then identified in the Roman town called "in Portu" a "Roman centuriation" [17]. G. Pucci has tried to find out the possible name of Empoli in Roman times. Having rejected the hypothesis that it was called "Emporium", a name which, as we have seen, is only attested in the 15th century, he notes that:

"in fact the name 'Empulum' is attested by Livy [59 BC-17 AD] ... Analyzing the 'Tabula Peuntingeriana' (...) which, according to some scholars, dates back to the mid-fourth century (...) about the road that connected Florence and Pisa, it indicated some names such as 'Arnum', 'In Portu' and 'Valvata'. 'In portu' could be the ancient name of Empoli, as Cluverius conjectured" [18].

See the travel guide if visiting Empoli.


1. See V. Costanzi, “Il più antico nome di Empoli”, in “Rivista di Filologia e istruzione classica”, 1922,  Fascicle II, p. 145 ff.

2. Italy Antiqua p. 511

3. See“Annales Camaldulenses Ordinis Santi Benedicti”, Venetiis, MDCCLV [1755], Tomus Primus,   p. 107

4. See, S. Collavini, “Le basi economiche e materiali della signoria guidinga (1075 c.-1230 c.)”, Firenze, Olschki, 2009, pp. 315-348

5. See G. Lami, , “Charitonis et Hippophili Hodoeporici pars prima”, 1741,  p. XXIII

6. See L. Lazzeri, “Storia di Empoli”, Empoli, 1873, p. 13, Lazzeri derived  this information from D. Manni, “Osservazioni istoriche sopra i sigilli antichi dei secoli bassi”, Firenze, 1751, Tomo X, p. 93

7. On economic problems about Empoli between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, See A.M. Pult Quaglia, “Mercato e manifatture in una comunità del contado fiorentino: Empoli tra XVI e XVII secolo”, in “Istituzioni e società in Toscana in età moderna”, 1994, Vol. I, pp. 196-214

8. 'Die Sprache der Longobarden', Strassburg, 1895, p. 270

9. See G. Lastraioli, “Empoli Longobarda”, in “Il segno di Empoli”, 1991, n. 13, p. 3

10. G. Lastraioli, p. 3

11. See G . Alessio, “Lexicon etymologicon. Supplemento ai dizionari etimologici latini e romanzi”, Napoli, 1976, p. 142

12. “Toponomastica della valle dell'Arno”, Roma, Tipografia della Regia Accademia dei Lincei, 1919, p. 374

13. See M. G.  Arcamone, “Antroponimia germanica nella toponomastica italiana”, in “La Toponomastica come fonte di conoscenza storica e linguistica”, Giardini editori e stampatori, 1981, p. 43

14. V. Costanzi

15. See M. Pittau, “Studi sulla lingua etrusca”," Empoli "

16. See M. Ristori, “Empoli quadrata”, in “Il segno di Empoli”, 1991, n. 13, p.2

17. See M. Ristori, “Le divisioni agrarie romane nel medio Valdarno: la centuriazione di Empoli”, in “L'Universo”,  1993, p. 499

18. See G. Pucci, “Empoli in età Romana”, in “Mostra archeologica del territorio di Empoli”, Empoli, 1984, pp. 15-21