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Empoli is a town in Tuscany, in the plain of the River Arno Valley, north of Arno and west from the river Elsa. While often overlooked by tourists, there is an interesting medieval central square and old town to explore here.
Empoli is centred around the Piazza Farinata degli Uberti, a typical medieval square with wide porches, galleries and monuments such as the façade of the Romanesque Collegiate Church and the so-called "Fountain of the Lions", dating from the 19th century. This is the ideal place to start your tour of the town.
Collegiate Church of St. Andrew
To the east of the Piazza it is the Collegiate Church, the ancient church dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle, that stands out. The Collegiate Church dates from 1093, as we can see in the inscription on the façade, though it is probably actually has much older origins (studies conducted on the inscription on the façade show that it was removed from another building and then placed in the church of St. Andrew.)
The façade is made of green and white marble in the typical Romanesque-Florentine style. Its interior was renovated in the 18th century and again after severe damage suffered during the Second World War. Inside the Collegiate Church of St. Andrew is the triptych of the "Crucifixion" by Lorenzo di Bicci* (1350-1420), dating from 1399 and depicting the "Madonna Enthroned with Saints Martino, Andrea, Agata and John the Baptist."
The side chapels hold other important works of art, including the "Holy Cross" a wooden artifact of the 14th century once revered for its miracles and still preserved in the first chapel on the right, and a fresco depicting "The Martyrdom of Saint Lucia", attributed to a minor painter called Francesco (known as 'Fiorentino'), dating from the early 15th century. The church also contains a number of sacred objects such as chalices, crosses, reliquaries and sacred objects dating from the 16th and 19th centuries, as well as illuminated manuscripts of the 13th and 16th centuries.
Museum of the Collegiate Church
The Museum of the Collegiate Church is also an important part of your visit to Empoli. There are works such as the "Pietà" by Masolino da Panicale (1383-1440), a pupil of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) and an “excellent master” [ G.Vasari, “Lives”, 1850, p. 382] and painted pottery by the school of the Della Robbia family (15th -16th centuries), two triptychs by Lorenzo Monaco [that is 'Laurence the Monk', who executed remarkable altarpieces] (1370-1424) and the "Majesty" by Filippo Lippi (1406-1469).
The third room contains older works, like the altarpiece of an anonymous artist of the Pistoia area of the early 14th century, called "Master of 1336"*. In another room you can see the Tabernacle of St. Sebastian, by Francesco Botticini (1446-1498).
Other highlights in Empoli
Close to the Collegiate Church you can see one of the most important civic buildings in Empoli: the Palazzo del Podesta (Praetorian Palace). This palace was the ancient seat of the Municipality of Empoli. It was enlarged with some rooms, like the Audience Hall, the prisons, the archive, and the Chapel of Saint Thomas. Of particular note is the massive 15th century wooden door and the clock tower.
We should also mention the Palazzo Ghibellino, which once belonged to the Guidi Counts and is now home to the Civic Museum of Paleontology of Empoli.
Walking along “Via dei Neri” you can see the Church of Santo Stefano of the Augustinian Friars, which preserves some sinopias (drawings in earth pigments) by Masolino da Panicale and the "Annunciation" by Bernardo Rossellino (1409-1464), who worked with Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) on the Palazzo Rucellai.
Next is the 14th century Monastery of Santo Stefano, with a 16th century cloister. Adjacent to the Augustinian convent is the Municipal Library.
Empoli also has a considerable number of small ancient churches like the Church of San Martino and the Church of Santa Maria in Ripa, which contain art works of the 14th and 16th centuries.
The medieval aspect of Empoli continues in its narrow winding streets and alleys, for example the "Alley of the Gendarmerie" - so called because the imperial gendarmerie was based here during the Napoleonic period (1808-1814). The path ends to the west of the center in Piazza Garibaldi and near the remains of "Porta Pisana", dating from the 15th century. Opposite to here stands the small church of St. Anthony Abbot, erected in 1583 and then renewed in 1610.
The expansion of Empoli beyond the ancient walled city followed a circular plan: the extension to the north is centred around Piazza Gramsci, while the 'new' construction to the north-west was based around the rectangular Piazza Matteotti, with a very large green area and the river Arno, to which it is connected by an avenue of trees.
Also worth a visit is the castle of Pontorme, once home to Iacopo Carrucci*. In the ancient church of San Michele Arcangelo, following restoration, you can see "Saints John the Evangelist and Archangel Michael", which, according to G. Vasari, dates back to 1519.
A visit to Pontorme also gives you the opportunity to appreciate the landscapes around Empoli, rich in vineyards and olive groves according to the typical Tuscan tradition.
Michel de Montaigne explores Empoli
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) was impressed by the beauty of the country landscape of Empoli during his journey into Italy, and his lengthy prose is a pleasure to read:
“Sunday 2d of July I left Florence after dinner and passing the Arno left that river on the right though we still went in the direction of its course. We proceeded along a lovely and richly fertile plain which produces among other things the finest melons that are grown in Tuscany. The best sort of melons are not ripe till about the middle of July. The place where the very choicest are produced is Legnaia three miles from Florence.
Our route continued through a splendid open country with castles gentlemen's seats detached houses and villages on one side or the other almost the whole way along Among the rest we passed through a pretty place called 'Empoli', a name which to my ear smacked of the old time; but I saw no vestiges of antiquity there except close by the high road a ruined bridge which had look of something about it.
I was struck in these parts with three things: first seeing all the people of the district working on Sundays getting in the harvest, secondly with seeing the peasantry after their day's labour sitting with lutes in their hands their fair ones beside them reciting from memory the stanzas of L. Ariosto [1474-1519] (but this is also to be seen in every part of Italy) and thirdly with finding that they left corn out in the fields ten or fifteen days or more without any apprehension of its being stolen” ( See M. de Montaigne, “Diary of a Journey through Swizerland and Germany into Italy”, edited by O. W. Wight, 1859, pp. 412-413).
The landscape around Empoli is closely linked to the ancient tradition of local cuisine, represented by products among which we mention the famous "Empolese Artichoke", with which dishes such as the "Artichokes all' ‘empolese’" are produced. Local handicraft production is related to the artistic manufacturing of glass, and it offers a wide selection of objects made of colored glass for interior decoration.
Close to Empoli and the most visited village in the region is Vinci, birthplace and childhood village of Leonardo da Vinci.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.