Prato - A Medici Villa & The Cathedral

Lyn & I did the second Prato tour last Sunday (provided by the Prato city authorities free of charge to try and raise awareness of the area).
The topic of this tour was "Art & Food In The Renaissance", but this was a little "vague" as the tour included a visit to one of the best preserved Medici villas and then a visit to the Prato Cathedral to see some magnificent frescoes (not too much emphasis on food except for the subjects in the still life art gallery which is in the villa - fruit, animals, birds, etc.)

The first half of the tour involved travelling to the town of Poggio a Caiano where the magnificent Villa del Poggio stands in it's own grounds on the edge of town.
The villa and surrounding land was bought by the Medici's (Lorenzo The Magnificent) as a ruined fortified house in 1473 and renovated to suit their needs - it became one of their 17 holiday houses. Work stopped for quite while when Lorenzo died, but the villa was then completed when his 2nd son become pope (Leo X).
The villa was then used by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and subsequent Italian royalty before being gifted to the state in 1919. It became a national museum in 1984 and since then has been totally renovated and opened to the public.

The day was very hot (up around 32 degrees), but in the loggia at ground level under the main staircases where the tour started, it was quite cool. These two spiralling staircases are unique in medici architecture and were a departure from the original design.
The entire ceiling area of this loggia has been painted in frescoes and you can imagine the Medici's sitting here during the summer heat.

The entry hall behind the loggia is a stunningly painted ceiling that gives the perception of a sculpted texture, but in reality it is simple vaulted concrete, but very cleverly painted. to simulate depth and perspective.

The centre-piece of this room is a huge chandelier made of brass and copper than originally came from the Palazzo Pitti. It is quite an imposing piece of sculpture, but strangely enough, the shape really suits the room.

The next room in was remodelled by one of the Medici wives into a theatre because she originally came from France and missed the culture!
She still didn't like living at Prato, so left him and went back to France and became a nun.....!

 Behind this theatre room again, with windows to the rear of the villa is a massive billiards room (yes, I did say billiards!) where the Medici men would play billiards, talk and discuss their hunting trips.

The ceiling has a fresco depicting the sky viewed through a pergola-type structure with grape-vines growing on it, complete with very life-like clouds and cherubs everywhere.
One part of the fresco shows three cherubs pulling an canvas awning over part of the pergola to protect the people below from the sun! It is very realistic and almost disconcerting to stand under this "sky" within a building.

To one side of this room were the private quarters of Bianca Cappello (one of the wives of Franceso Medici). This room is complete with an internal exposed staircase - one would wonder why!

The villa consists of three levels and this is the view looking up the central stairwell to the frescoed ceiling on the top floor.

On the first level, there is a set of rooms that was used to entertaining, including a huge reception room with a sculpted & frescoed ceiling that has to be seen to be believed. It is huge!

From this room, there is a view looking out over the countryside to the east, where the Medici's had an area of land being worked as an agricultural farm growing crops.

The adjacent room is a huge dining room that was used to entertain guests.

The view from this room looks over the gardens attached to the villa.

To each side of this room are private rooms, one side for the master of the house and the other side for woman of the house.
This villa was one of the first residences in Italy to have running hot water - the water was heated below and pumped up to the top of the house into storage tanks.  There are baths in each set of living quarters complete with taps!
The bath below is in the ladies side of the house. You don't often see a statue above the taps in a bathroom these days!

Outside, the gardens are very impressive and well looked after. There is a big selection of flowering plants and trees and a huge pond with a fountain as well.

This villa has one of the largest "limonaia" I have seen (a separate building to house lemon trees in tubs during the cold months). This building would have been approx. 100 metres long by about 15 metres wide!

There were a lot of Bougainvillea in full full flower which looked really good

At the bottom of the garden, there is a small river that provides water for the garden as well as being a quiet (and cool) area to sit on a hot summer's day.

On the top floor of the villa is a collection of still life paintings that the Medici's collected.
The collection is called "Il Museo della Natura Morta" which means "museum of still life" (not "dead nature" as Lyn & I translated literally!).
It is quite a collection and has some interesting works.
The painting below is one of the stranger ones, depicting what goes on in the kitchen while Jesus and a couple of his disciples sit in a small room to the rear left of the painting - like I said, strange!

Probably the most interesting paintings are in the final room of the collection where many different varieties of fruit (lemons, grapes, oranges, apples, etc.) have been meticulously painted and numbered in huge paintings dedicated to different types of fruit as a type of catalogue.

We then had lunch in a local trattoria before heading back to Prato to the cathedral. This is the same building that we visited last time, but instead of going into the museum part, we went into the actual church.
Here, there is a separate (and highly secure) area where the girdle (belt) that Mary gave to Thomas is stored.
The relic is in a transparent display case that is locked in the alter shown below. Three keys are required to open the bronze door in the alter (the front section shown in the photo below).
The alter is made of guided bronze & silver and the front door to the alter used to be silver before it was stolen several centuries ago!

You can see the high fence (ornate wrought-iron work) securing the area in the photo below.
There is also set of stairs that runs from this secure area to the external pulpit on the corner of the building (described in the earlier blog), so that the relic never leaves the security of the church.
The steps actually run between the inner and outer walls of the church so you can't even see them!

This was a very interesting pulpit that sits near the alter in the church!

At the rear of the church (behind the alter) are some pretty impressive frescoes that completely cover the walls and ceilings.

The most famous fresco in the church is the one depicting the life of St John the Baptist (below), painted by Fillipo Lippi (the master to Michelangelo).
It shows a girl dancing (Salome, who asked for John the baptist's head on a platter) and is, supposedly, one of the first paintings to actually depict a person moving.
Having seen this fresco and comparing the way Salome is posing to the painting of Venus by Michelangelo, you could almost superimpose the two women. It is interesting to see how Fillipo Lippi influenced his pupil - and all of this over 650 years ago!

At the end of the tour, we were all pretty hot, so we had a gelato and retired to the shade of a local bar with a few of the others from the tour while we waited for the bus to come and pick us up.

I decided that I needed a beer, so asked for a "birra locale".
The waiter asked if I wanted "una biro forte o leggere" (a strong beer or a lighter one).
I went for a strong one and got this - 0.5l of 8.8% beer, nicely wrapped in a frozen sheath to keep it cool.
It was good, but it would want to be at EU15! I almost choked when I got the bill.

We got back home about 7pm and were both pretty tired, but it was a really good tour that we would recommend to anyone.


  1. Wow, you guys a really seeing some great stuff.

  2. This sounds like a lovely excursion. Beautiful photos including the beer bottle. Gotta get the most out of your 15 euro - LOL!