What a great way to explore a rather lesser known beauty, Pistoia, only half an hour or so from Florence and even better when the exploration is with a group of friends of which two are Art Historian guides. It’s a journey through time, from Romanesque to Renaissance, Baroque to Neoclassic to Contemporary Art.
We are bowled over first by the dual tone stripes of the 12th Century Romanesque Church – San Giovanni Fuoricivitas. It’s splendid facade and geometric pattern clearly Pisan style with a touch of Iberian Arabic since the town is on the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The portal is heavily decorated and a wealth of stories – a Last Supper adorns the architrave with Judas on the outer and John resting on Jesus’ shoulder, and lions protecting humans and fighting off monsters above.
It’s already time for a coffee before we see the splendours inside and how could we go past the fabulous Caffe’ Valiani next door, in an ancient chapel transformed into a Caffe’ in the 19th Century. Tempting cakes and pastries line the window and the aroma of coffee fills the air. It has been tastefully decorated, with a mix of contemporary artworks that do not detract from the frescoed walls and vaulted ceilings.
Back inside San Giovanni Fuoricivitas the sight of Luca della Robbia‘s ‘Visitation‘ a milky white glazed terracotta has us in awe, seeing the delicate gaze of Mary to Elizabeth, and the touch of her hand to Elizabeth’s shoulder. An early Renaissance masterpiece, considered one of the greatest of its time and the earliest large freestanding statue group. And there is more – the Gothic style pulpit carved by Fra Gugliemo da Pisa, and the Holy water font probably made by Giovanni Pisano ( who carved the pulpit in the Cathedral of Pisa).
The black and white stripes continue in the impressive main square which houses the beautiful Cathedral and Baptistery, Town Hall and ancient Bishop’s Palace now the Court House. And while centuries separate the construction of each there is a stunning harmony between them.
The black and white stripes are misleading as the black is really the ‘green‘ serpentine marble from Prato and the white from Carrara. Locals flock to the Piazza for the weekly market as well as attracting tourists to its famous Palio race – Joust of the Bear ( with no bears allowed!) and Pistoia Blues Festival which has seen B B King, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Blues Brothers and many more perform over the years. The last but not least important of the black and white Pistoia is the pretty church of Sant’ Andrea, found along the pilgrims route to Rome and serving as a church for baptisms. Inside it has an important pulpit, considered a masterpiece of 1301 by Giovanni Pisano and restoration work was just being completed on it.
But Pistoia is not just about historical monuments, it has a very cute medieval market square with lively fruit and veggie stands and intimate bars and restaurants surrounding it. The Medici coat of arms and lion, adorn the Leoncino Well, symbols of Florentine dominion over the city so locals do not forget. Fortunately today it contains clean water whereas in the mid 1400’s when slaughter of animals took place outdoors most of the scraps were thrown into the well. And in the nearby street one of the most typical, and delicious restaurants for lunch – Locanda del Capitano del Popolo. A menu full of local specialities and delicacies – ‘prisoner’s’ soup, polenta with truffles, black cabbage, Florentine beef steak and tripe, and loads more in an eclectic atmosphere with a very humorous owner – Checco Bugiani
And to top off the day after lunch we round the corner to a big surprise – the medieval Ospedale del Ceppo with its elegant Renaissance loggia with a magnificent frieze by Giovanni della Robbia and Santi Buglioni in polychrome glazed terracotta. Each section depicting an Act of Mercy – attending the sick, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, feeding the poor….
And Vasari‘s majestic dome on the Basilica of the Madonna dell’ Umilità the 3rd largest dome in Italy after Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence and St Peter’s in Rome.
Pistoia is an absolute gem, and there were so many stories and legends attached to each place we visited. So much so that I am saving them for day tours which I am proposing as an Airbnb Florence experience and a new website to start soon GimmeGuides.net. So spread the word to anyone who may be thinking of coming over……after the virus has left us!