The large town of Prato in Tuscany is best known for its textile and leather industries, but also has a substantial historic centre with several places of interest and museums and makes an interesting trip when you are visiting nearby Florence, just half an hour journey by train or a 25 kilometre drive.
The proximity to Florence and the industrial surroundings mean that Prato receives less visitors than it might otherwise have, and we were told that if we passed an afternoon here we would fall under the town's authentic charm...
Italy This Way comment: perhaps the extensive industrial development along the Arno valley around the town and the cloudy day put us in a bad mood, but I have to admit that, despite the many buildings of interest in the town, we were never really enthusiastic..
There was a bit of a run-down feel to parts of the old town and in truth we wished we had spent an extra half-day in Florence instead of visiting. Sorry if we didn't catch you at your best Prato - as visitors can see in all the photos below we did see most of your many highlights!
The historic centre of Prato is still almost entirely surrounded by the original medieval defences, which form a hexagon shape around the old town and the most important monuments and highlights.
The 13th century Prato Duomo is built in the style typical of the region with alternating bands of light and dark marble incorporated in the roman style facade (a style also seen in Siena and Lucca among others) and an attractive square tower to the right.
The principal highlight inside the cathedral are the fresco cycle and a painting of the Life of Saint John the Baptist by Fra Filippo Lippi (15th century). The frescoes in particular are very highly rated by enthusiasts of renaissance art. The duomo also incorporates the Pulpit of the Holy Belt, designed in the first half of the 15th century by Donatello and Michelozzo and unusual in that it is on the outside of the cathedral (to the right of the main entrance)*.
* The Holy Belt was given to the Apostle Thomas just before the Assumption of the Virgin and brought here by a soldier after the second crusade to be presented at the cathedral each year. The original panels by Donatello and Michelozzo are now in the cathedral museum.
Another notable religious monument in Prato is the Church of Santa Maria delle Carceri, built in the 15th century on the Piazza of the same name. Note in particular the terracotta frieze by Andrea della Robbia and the reliefs of the evangelists.
Other notable buildings in the centre of the town include the Palazzo Pretorio*, a very attractive gothic style building from the 13th century and one of the most charming buildings in Prato as well as now being home to the Civic Museum. Nearby, the unassuming 14th century Palazzo Datini was once an important building that played host to Pope Alexander V and Louis of Anjou in 1409.
* The Palazzo Pretorio is also interesting because in the facade you can clearly see the separate stages of development of the building, with the original 13th century part being in red brick to the right and the 14th century addition with arched windows to the left.
The sturdy Castello dell'Imperatore is a fortress that was built for the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in the early 13th century and dominates the east of the historic centre of Prato. Inside, the castle buildings have disappeared but you can see small displays in two of the towers and also go up to the top of the walls for a view across the town.
Close to the castle you can stroll along a covered medieval passage called the Cassero.
Of course, as you would expect in a city of this size, there is a wide range of shops and restaurants to choose from. Prato is also home to one of the largest Chinese communities in Italy and you will find many Chinese shops and restaurants here in the streets around via Pistoiese.
And while you are shopping, be sure to also buy some of the biscotti di Prato, the delicious local speciality biscuit made here in the town and perfect with your morning coffee!
Museums and galleries in Prato
The Museo di Pitturo Murale is an important museum which includes works by such renowned renaissance artists as Fra Filippo Lippi
The Museo del Tessuto celebrates the textile industry and heritage in Prato as well as containing several interesting ancient examples of textiles from around the world.
The Centre per l'Arte Contemporanea Pecci includes a sculpture garden, a collection of modern art and various temporary exhibitions. The most important contemporary art museum in Tuscany, it provides a great contrast to all the renaissance and medieval art you see all around you!