Prato & The Etruscans

Recently, Lyn found a interesting sounding set of tours being run jointly by the Region Of Tuscany and the Prato Chamber of Commerce and we decided to do one of them.
Prato is the next city to the east of Florence (between Pistoia and Florence) and tends to be overlooked by tourists, so the council is trying to encourage people to visit the area.
The tourism office decided to run free tours covering several topics and the only cost is any entry to museums and, of course, food & drink.
The topic of our tour was "The Etruscan Past" and dealt with the people who inhabited northern Italy before the Romans - from about 700BC until they disappeared about 100BC. There are many theories about why they disappeared - some say that they were slowly assimilated into the Roman race, but no one really knows for sure.
Prato is situated in a very low-lying part of the Arno River delta and was settlement was avoided in early Roman times due to problems with flooding. The Etruscans, however, did settle here so there are many signs of their civilisation in the area.
It was only when Pistoia and Florence grew, that the area was gradually opened up and settled.

The tour started in Prato city at the castle where the group of us (about 25 people) were dropped off so that we could walk through the old town to the cathedral where there is a museum.
If you want to visit this old part of Prato, get off the train at Prato Porta al Serraglio Station, not Prato Centrale.
This part of the tour was more about the city and it's heritage rather than Etruscan history, but the cathedral is built over ancient Etruscan ruins, so there is a linkage.

As we walked into town, we saw a lot of really nice walled gardens (totally private and probably very quiet). 

The city square was huge with a big fountain in the centre. being a Sunday, it was quiet (unlike Florence) and very peaceful. Prato is so much less busy than Florence and it was very relaxing to walk around without all the hustle and bustle.

Typical of most Italian towns, the cathedral is situated on the city square, but this church has a very unique feature. There is an external pulpit on the corner of the building where the priests could address the public through 270 degrees of vision. In true church style, nothing was spared and there is an ornate roof over this pulpit to protect the priests from the sun and rain!
The pulpit was put there so the priests could show off what is purported to be the Virgin Mary's girdle (not one she held stockings up with, but a belt to go around her gown - sort of like a dressing gown cord). The girdle somehow ended up belonging to a nobleman of Prato and he gave it to the church. They used to bring it out frequently in the medieval years, but now it is only brought out for special occasions.
There is a marble relief in the museum depicting the Virgin Mary giving the girdle to Doubting Thomas.
Doubting Thomas (Left) Receiving The Girdle From Mary
The girdle was originally held in a small ornate icon box (in the cathedral museum), as shown in the photo below.
The girdle had to be had folded and refolded to fit into the box, so as it got older and more brittle, it was being damaged.
It was then decided several hundred years ago to rehouse it into a new glass enclosure so that it could be laid out over it's entire length without being damaged and be easy to see when it was being displayed to the public.
Displaying The Girdle In It's New Enclosure from The Pulpit
Unfortunately, the pulpit is currently being restored, so we could not see the whole structure due to the scaffolding and coverings, but we could see the roof of it.

The original pulpit has been moved indoors to protect it from the elements and the external one is a copy, so we could clearly see the workmanship that went into the making of the structure - all carved marble with gilded stone on some sections.

In the catacombs of the cathedral, there are many frescoes and tombs for the rich and famous of early Prato.

There are also many paintings in this museum that are just as impressive as those in Florence

Wooden Cross Made & Painted By Botticelli

The next stop was at an Etruscan tomb in the town of Comeana in the area of Montefortini.
This is a very pretty part of the countryside well into the hills to the south of Prato.
A doctor who owned the land was curious as to why there was a small hill covered with trees in the middle of surrounding flat land and started to excavate it in the mid-1900's on a hunch.
About 12 metres down, they found a collapsed Etruscan tomb full of artefacts and urns of human ashes (Etruscans believed in the afterlife and cremated their dead).
Over they years, the site has been completely excavated and now it is fully covered and protected from the elements. The rest of the site is still covered with trees and flowers - it is a very peaceful setting.

You enter the excavation from the side of the hill, but can not enter the tomb itself as it is still sealed. 

In the photo above, you can see the steel stairway running parallel with the original entrance, with the still sealed tomb doors in the background.
The excavation was done down through the collapsed roof, so a steel walkway and "ring platform" has been installed so that you can walk right over and around the top of the tomb.
The central pillar is what held the tomb roof up. The Etruscans built "dome" roofs by layering limestone slabs on top of each other, slowly building them to an apex and then (on the bigger tombs) installing a central pillar.

In the above photo, the entry point is in the lower left and you can see a shelf right around the wall where the urns of ashes of dead people were placed.
This tomb collapsed during an earthquake. The experts can confirm this as the central column has a definite twist in it that is consistent with earthquake damage.
A second tomb was then built right next to the collapsed one, but is much smaller.
This one is in good condition that clearly demonstrates the layered roof design, but it does not have a central column due to it's small size.

The door on this one was opened sometime in the past (the slab on the left in the photo below) and the archeologists believe that it was done by the Romans because they knew that the Etruscans filled their tombs with artefacts and jewellery.
In looting the tomb, the lintel over the door was broken in the middle as they forced the door open.
Interesting stuff - and all done back over 2000 years ago!

From here, we travelled to the very pretty town of Atimino which was a complete Etruscan town on top of a ridgeline overlooking the valley. 
It is a tiny town with 62 registered residences, but has a great museum full of Etruscan artefacts and items found during excavation work over the years.

An Local Restaurant With A Great View
The Arno River In The Valley
At the other end of the ridgeline is a large mansion, built by the Medicis from Florence so that they could come to the country for holidays and breaks from their "busy lives" in the city. From here, they would hunt wild boar, fish and generally relax.
One is one of 17 country houses that the Medici families had! They certainly did it tough.
This villa is now a private hotel and it also has a lot of rental accommodation in the town - apparently Artimino is totally full of tourists during the European summer holidays. I bet the locals love that!

A View To The East - Towards The Coast
We had lunch here in a local Enoteca with a couple we knew in Florence (Karen & Ben).
The guy who was serving was so busy that we had to wait for over an hour to have some simple food - but it was good.

The last place that we visited on the way back to Prato was the parish church of Carmignano, situated in the foothills near Prato and about 20kms west of Florence.
The church is a very nondescript (but big) church in the town and you probably wouldn't give a second glance if you drove past it.
In this church, there is a famous painting by Jacopo Pontormo, painted around 1525 and depicting a meeting between a pregnant Mary and Elizabeth (the mother of John The Baptist).
This painting is famous for it's style (use of perspective & colour) and the unusual subject.

From here were returned to Prato and dropped off the people who had joined the tour there - except for one man who forgot to get off!
We were just about to enter the autostrada to go back to Florence when he came to the front of the bus and asked the tour guide to let him off - apparently, he had fallen asleep!
The driver instead veered off the last exit before the autostrada and took him all the way back to the meeting point. I don't think that would happen at home!
As he left the bus, I could see a woman standing in the carpark about 50m away with crossed arms and a very stern look - I think that he might have been in trouble!

We got back to Florence about 5:45pm after a really good day out.
The tour was extremely interesting and a real credit to the Prato personnel who organised and ran it.
There is a another three of these tours ("Art & Food", "Contemporary Art" and "Villas & Castles") and Lyn & I want to try to do them all.

Lyn's printmaking
The Day sister's, Annie Day and her sister Robyn Ezra have been at Il Bisonte all last week and have one more week to go. They are teaching waterless lithography, aluminium etching and photo etching to a group of seven people (6 Australians and one Pom)
The waterless lithography looks fantastic, When I get home I am going to do one of their courses (see Annie's website for more information).
I had a look at everyone's work and it looks like something I would enjoy doing.
Annie and Robyn looked at my work and said that I should put my bulino print of the bee into this years Animalia exchange.
I said I didn't have time, so they took over. My plate was a bit big, so they somehow managed to shrink it and put it on one of their aluminium plates. All I had to do was to go over the print on the plate with an omnicrom pencil.
I gave it back to them and they did something to it (that's why I need to do the course - I need to find out!) and then they showed me how to print it.
On the Tuesday afternoon after they had left, I printed 15 copies of the bee and then painted parts of the bee with watercolour paint. Here is a picture of the plate and the finished product.
Finished Print
The aluminium plate
Nino's version of my bee, which he insists is a mosca!!! (fly)
The bee in it's place above the etching sinks
Vincenzo and Manuel have also been teaching us how to do viscosity printing.
To do the process you need to have a very deeply etched plate. I don't have any deeply etched plates, so I am in the process of making one. The plate needs to be etched for a few hours and needs to have different levels of etching. So I will see how it goes!