Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day 2: Thursday, April 28: Prato

We were tired after the long travel day(s) and are able to sleep past 9:00, even with a significant amount of noise from the hotel and the street. But that means that we are hopefully over our jet lag. The hotel–the Residence Manassei–is located an old palazzo steps just off the Piazza del Duomo in the center of Prato. The rooms are large and quirkily furnished and there is a small kitchenette hidden away in a large cabinet.

The Residence–not a full service hotel and the staff only work six hours a day, five days a week–also doesn't serve breakfast, so we go down the street to a local bar for our coffee, tea and cornetti. Our first stop is the Duomo and the main attraction is the fresco cycle behind the altar portraying the lives of St. Stephen (the patron saint of the Cathedral) and St. John the Baptist done by Fillippo Lippi in the mid-15th century.

We actually have seen the frescoes before….in 2004 (while we were staying in Florence) we visited Prato to see the frescoes while they were "in restauro", a thrilling experience where we were able climb on scaffolding (wearing hard hats) and see the works "up close and personal"

Here is the link to my 2004 report describing the experience.

On this visit, we are initially a bit confused and have trouble figuring out exactly which chapel houses which work and the brochure distributed by the Duomo is not much help. But after a while, we rent one of the audioguides and the descriptions help us get oriented and appreciate the works.

Both walls of the main chapel behind the altar are covered with the scenes from the saints' lives…the main thing that catches your attention are the depictions of the people…they are lovingly drawn and full of life. The most spectacular panel deals with Salome's dance and subsequent beheading of St. John the Baptist and, of course, you can pick out the details of the lower panels much more easily than the top-most panels high above your head.

I am including a few of my pictures of the frescoes but you are advised to go to this link to pictures of the frescoes to get a better sense of their beauty.

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Lippi, though a cleric, had quite a tumultuous love life and ending up marrying one of the nuns who was his student. She became his model and later the mother of his child, the artist Fillippino Lippi, whose work we'll see tomorrow.

We take a quick look around the rest of the Duomo with a brief stop at the Chapel of the Sacred Cintola (translated as girdle but really a belt) but the relic is kept securely locked up and the chapel is enclosed with an imposing wrought iron fence that obscures all the art work contained within.

Briefly, the "cintola" was believed to have belonged to Mary and was given to St. Thomas on her death. It ended up in Jerusalem and was later brought back to Prato where it is now the city's version of the "Shroud of Turin"–with much less fanfare.

The other distinctive feature of the Duomo is the pulpit on the exterior which was crafted by Donatello. This is a copy…the original is in the Duomo museum.

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Diana was quite taken with the intricate designs on the underside….

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We next visit the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo….the museum next door where many of the original works from the cathedral are housed along with treasures from other churches in the region. As with many smaller Italian museums, it is a treat to have the place to yourself with the chance to see a few masterpieces and lots of lesser works–some of which have considerable charm.

We were glad to see the chest that formerly held the "cintola"


crafted by Maso di Bartolomeo in 1456 and this Pala by Fillippo Lippi


When we leave the museum, we stroll around the city for a while until we are ready for lunch at 2 pm. Since the sun is out, we walk to a bar with outside tables. At first, we (and all the other patrons) are ignored by the waiters and we are ready to leave. But finally our order is taken and the lunch is actually very good…a caprese salad for Diana and carpaccio for me as well as a delicious dish of spinach baked with cheese.

After lunch, we take the car out and head for the mountains just to the north of Prato in the direction of Bologna. The first part of the drive is not so pleasant–we pass through seemingly endless suburbs and then drive through a number of industrial towns. Finally we start to climb and drive up to the pass at Montepiano (about 2,500 feet). There are thick pine forests

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and beautiful panoramic vistas

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as we begin our descent and drive back to Prato. We get caught in some fierce rush hour traffic and it is almost 7 pm by the time we get back to town. We next have the challenge of finding a parking space. We have to circle our neighborhood twice before we find an empty space on a permitted street….I am almost ready to give in and park in a lot. :)

We hang out in the room before making the short walk back to Ristorante Baghino for dinner. The restaurant is much less full tonight and we get the same table as the night before. Dinner is again terrific….Diana has "pinzimonio" (raw vegetable that you dip in olive oil) to start, followed by a delicious filet. I have a "spedino" of bread and mozzarella dressed with anchovies and capers, served on wooden skewers (very unique and very delicious) and an order of "trippa fiorentina", which is just about the best tripe dish I have ever had. We drink a fantastic rosso di Montalcino and Diana has a great torta di ricotta for dessert.

While we are finishing, we watch as the waiter prepares an elaborate tableside preparation of steak tartare for another party…we may have to come back again to try it.

We take a quick turn around the Piazza Duomo before going back to hotel and bed. Tomorrow, a few more Prato museums are on the schedule.

Jim and Diana

PS A couple of notes from Day 1…

I neglected to mention that when I set out to find a parking space after we arrived, I turned too close to an obstruction extending out from the building at ground level and scratched the left side of our new rental car…..thank goodness for zero deductible insurance. Then, while stopping at a crosswalk to let pedestrians walk by, the car behind us bumped into us. No harm done to either car, but we've certainly given the car its proper welcome.

Also I forgot that we both had our first gelati of the trip….stracciatella and fior di latte for me, pistacchio and crema for Diana–the first of many I am sure.


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