THE CITY OF Prato grew up round the priory of Santo Stefano of Borgo al Cornio, now the Duomo. Originally held by the Alberti, in 1187 this was a commune, which sought to maintain its independence from local powers, not least Florence.
In 1326 Prato sought the protection of Naples, but in 1351 Queen Giovanna I sold it to Florence. From the twelfth century Prato had specialised in the wool trade and the textile industry grew steadily in importance.
The well-documented career of the merchant Francesco di Marco Datini (1339–1410) demonstrates the European range of his business and the prosperity that Prato’s subservience to Florence assured.
The Duomo was comprehensively rebuilt from 1211 onwards The façade was remodelled in phases, most notably in 1434–8 when the extraordinary external pulpit of the Holy Girdle (that of the Virgin which was the church’s great treasure), on which Donatello and Michelozzo collaborated, was added at the right corner: this has now been replaced by a replica. The girdle is enshrined in the splendid gothic chapel on the left of the nave which was frescoed by Agnolo Gaddi with characteristic efficiency.
The cycle with scenes from the lives of Saint Stephen and the Baptist of 1454–66 in the Cappella Maggiore or choir is the most impressive achievement in fresco of Fra Filippo Lippi, who also designed the stained glass window The adjacent Cappella dell’Assunta is equally remarkable.
With the exception of two compartments, the Stoning and the Burial of Saint Stephen and the Marriage of the Virgin by the modest if charming Andrea di Giusto, the frescoes are by Paolo Uccello His authorship was disputed in the past but is now generally accepted. Uccello’s artistic preoccupations are powerfully expressed, not least in the Presentation of the Virgin, with its insistent perspective and almost obsessive pursuit of architectural plausibility.
The Museo del Opera del Duomo, tickets to which allow admission to the choir, houses a number of fine pictures, including an altarpiece by Lippi, a crucifix by Botticelli and Dolci’s extraordinary Custodian Angel of 1675.
The eroded reliefs of putti by Donatello from the pulpit are well exhibited, as is the extraordinary bronze capital by Michelozzo on which this was set.
Two blocks south of the Piazza del Duomo is the Piazza del Comune, with the much-restored Palazzo Pretorio.
This has been intelligently adapted as Prato’s museum The large room with early altarpieces is unforgettable: these range in date from the major polyptych with two predellas by the most consistently refined master to work in mid-trecento Florence, Giovanni da Milano, to a number of pictures by Lippi, who had a long connection with the town. Higher up the building is a gallery with later altarpieces, including three fine relatively recent gifts, two by Allori and Santi di Tito’s Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes. On the top floor there is a substantial group of plaster models by Bartolini including that of the dog of Horace Hall, a marble model for his Demidov monument and portraits of Murat, Byron’s Guiccioli, the writer Lady Morgan and others, which contrast rather sharply with a series of busts and other sculptures by Lipchitz.
From the piazza, take Via Ricasoli to the Piazza San Francesco: Datini’s tombstone by Lamberti is in the eponymous church.
The Palazzo Datini nearby, responsibly restored, would be of interest as a merchant house of the early Renaissance even if we did not know so much about its owner. Many other relatively modest early buildings survive in the narrow streets in the areaBehind San Francesco is the Piazza Santa Maria delle Carceri, which takes its name from the basilica designed by Giuliano da Sangallo and built in 1484–95. Of Greek cross plan with a central cupola, this expresses the architect’s study of the antique and, in particular, of the Pantheon. But Sangallo was also a man of his age and arranged for Andrea della Robbia to supply the great terracotta roundels of the Evangelists in white on his customary blue ground that are integral to the architecture.
Industry laps outside the walls of Prato, but the place has nonetheless been largely spared inappropriate development.