What is the town of Prato, a short train ride away from Florence, known for?

Tuscany’s second-largest city is associated with the textile industry and with its high Chinese population – the third largest in Europe, counting 20% of Pratesi. As a tourist destination, Prato is somewhat underrated, yet it’s got a lot to offer for lovers of both Renaissance and Contemporary art.

In many ways, it is textiles that enabled this proliferation of culture: for centuries Prato’s residents have been industrious and forward-thinking, and in many moments also very wealthy. An important cathedral that attracted even Donatello and Filippo Lippi attests to Prato’s past, while Tuscany’s main contemporary art museum and a scattering of outdoor public art are just the tip of the iceberg of the city’s current creative milieu.

A few months before the pandemic profoundly changed our lives, I had the honour of starring in a video for the City of Prato about Prato’s outdoor art (see above). The video is part of a campaign called #DestinationPrato; a first season shows the many facets of this city in quick rhythmical clips while the second consists of a few deep dives into specific topics narrated by “foreigners” like me. The videos are actually by Flod, my agency, in collaboration with talented videomakers Alkemia, though my colleagues Giovanni and Marco were in charge of this project and decided I was the best foreigner on hand for this video about art! From the start it was my intention to expand upon the Prato outdoor art video in an article, which I’m finally doing, but I want to go beyond and talk about some of Prato’s museums too.


Museums in Prato

Prato has four museums, for which there is a combined ticket, the Prato Musei Card, that lasts three days and includes transportation on city buses as well as entry to all the museums. Let's take a closer look at each.

Centro Pecci

Tuscany’s main center for contemporary art, the new Centro Pecci opened in 2016 with a modern addition to the original core building, allowing for display of the permanent collection on a rotating basis (read my review of the inauguration of the building and its first exhibition). The Pecci opened in 1988 and at the time it didn’t have a permanent collection, but works were purchased connected to the exhibits held over the decades, forming a nucleus of about 1000 items by many Italian and some international artists. A thematic display of items from this collection generally takes up the majority of the new space, with a series of smaller and shorter-term shows dedicated to current contemporary artists in more contained areas. The Pecci is also great for its intense and innovative events and film programming, which of course is currently suspended.

See: centropecci.it

Palazzo Pretorio

Flod won a contest in 2015 with this video and it still makes me laugh every time I watch it.

The building that houses Palazzo Pretorio is the city’s 13th-century city’s government tower (their equivalent of Florence’s Palazzo della Signoria). I had the pleasure of seeing it during a massive restoration that began in 1998, and at the opening of the new museum in 2013. The building itself is very beautiful, and from the top there is a stunning view of the hills beyond the city of Prato. The rapport between museum and city is highlighted at every level as you climb through the museum that holds religious and secular art from some five centuries.

See www.palazzopretorio.prato.it and follow Palazzo Pretorio on Instagram

Diocesan Museum and Lippi frescoes in the Duomo

This small museum adjacent to the Cathedral of Prato packs a punch with its display of the original artworks connected to the city’s most important relic, the Sacra Cintola or sacred girdle (belt) of the Virgin Mary. The relic is shown to the public five times a year from a pulpit that juts out from the side of the Cathedral; this is decorated with a series of marble panels of playing putti sculpted by none other than Donatello. The originals have been moved inside to protect them from the acidic effects of pollution so you can admire them up close. Nearby is the absolutely precious box that held the relic in the fifteenth century (until 1633). It’s by Maso di Bartolomeo, who takes up Donatello’s motif in miniature. Other items in the collection are related to the Duomo and Marian celebration.

The ticket to the museum (€5) also gets you in to the Cathedral’s high chapel to see the frescoes by Filippi Lippi. These stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist were painted 1452-65 and Vasari considers them to be Lippi’s best work.

 

Museo del Tessuto and Campolmi area

This video in Italian (that Flod shot during the recent lockdown!) introduces the nucleus of the textile museum’s collection in its historic spaces.

See www.museodeltessuto.it and follow Museo del Tessuto on Instagram

Prato’s textile museum is a must-see for anyone interested in fashion and textile history and it really is a museum that could only be here, in Prato. I recommend going when there is one of the temporary exhibitions running in the upstairs space. On the ground floor there is a neat interactive wall that describes how textiles are made with different materials. Upstairs there’s a permanent display dedicated to the history of textiles in Prato from when Datini was alive to just about the present day. Additional upstairs space is used for temporary exhibitions and conferencing. In recent years they’ve received critical acclaim for a show of costumes from the film Marie Antoinette and another with costumes from a recent film adaptation of Pinocchio, as well as with more fashion-oriented shows like one about the white shirts designed by Ferré. A cool gift shop completes the museum with tons of specialized books and textile-themed items by local artisans.

Checking out the art in the Campolmi courtyard

The Museo del Tessuto is housed inside an ex-industrial space called the Campolmi, and is part of a cultural center that also includes the city’s main library. With a café and a large outdoor courtyard that includes a few contemporary works of public art, this is Prato’s vibrant student area.


Prato public art

In “my” video dedicated to Prato’s outdoor art, I explored installations in the city of Prato but also beyond, in its province, where beautiful landscapes are injected with a touch of creativity.

Outdoor art in Prato city

In Prato, one nucleus of public artworks can be found around the Centro Pecci, which counts numerous large sculptures in its permanent collection. In order to display them, there has long been a plan to have a sculpture garden of sorts around the museum as well as a diffused exhibit of these holdings around the city itself.

Prato has perhaps two major symbolic public sculptures. The first, outside the Pecci, is the shiny “Broken Column” (whose proper name is Exegi Monument Aere Perennius), typical of the work of French duo Anne and Patrick Poirer, who in the 1980s made numerous large metal columns, “broken” in different ways, to explore a concept of human fragility in contrast with our desire for strength and eternal life. The sculpture was originally installed in such a way as to reflect on one side the Pecci building and on the other side the green hillside, though with the rennovation the sculpture has been moved slightly, so the mirrored game is still present but with a slightly different effect.

Exploring the “Broken Column” by Anne and Patrick Poirer outside the Pecci in Prato

The other really important sculpture is Henry Moore’s “Square form with cut,” which I have always thought looks like a tooth and that the Pratesi call “i’buho” or, in proper Italian, “il buco”, i.e. the hole. It was donated to the city in 1974 and installed in piazza San Marco, something of a gateway between the suburbs and the historical center. I grew up in Toronto and often went to the Art Gallery of Ontario as a child, where there is a huge collection of Moore sculptures including a large sinuous bronze outside that we used to climb on and slide down. So I’m always happy to see the “tooth” in Prato, even if it’s in the middle of a roundabout that doesn’t really encourage you to get up close. Making this video was a rare excuse to challenge traffic and hang out by the sculpture.

Finally getting close up to Il Buco

In the central piazza del Comune, near the Palazzo Pretorio museum and the City Hall, it’s interesting to note the contrast between two works of art: the 19th-century Monument to Francesco Datini, known as the “merchant of Prato” (1335-1410), and a modern work by Jacques Lipchitz. “Prometheus Strangling the Vulture” expresses the struggle between good and evil, humanity and intolerance, which I thought was an apt message for a city’s government.

Observing the sculpture by Lipchitz from the stairs of Palazzo Pretorio (for a view of the work, see the video!)

Near the PIN, Prato’s University center and gateway to a more modern, commercial area just beyond that is in the process of gentrification (piazza Ciardi), there are a few contemporary works in two city squares. I’ve always gotten a kick out of the big “countdown” clock called the Orologio della Costituzione (commissioned by the Pecci) because for almost the whole time I’ve been going to Prato it’s been broken! It counts the days, hours and minutes since the signing of the Italian constitution at 5pm on December 27, 1947 and was installed in 2009, but stopped working after a year. Luckily it was fixed in 2018.

The clock that finally works (and is not really a clock after all)

Outdoor art in the province of Prato

I was a rare lucky visitor to some art parks that are further from the center of Prato. To be honest, not all of them are worth a specific voyage (if you’re in the area by all means stop by), but three deserve a mention.

Seano is a suburb of Prato and home to a public park dedicated to local artist Quinto Martini. For the video, I visited this park with a friend of ours, architect Alessandro Capellaro, who cracked me up with a joke about the artist’s name – quinto means “fifth” and was a common name in families with lots of children, but combined with the guy’s last name you have “fifth martini”. Despite many drinks (?!) the bronze sculptures are really very nice.

Alessandro and I in the Quinto Martini park
A sculpture by Quinto Martini

We went way up to a hamlet called Luicciana (comune di Cantagallo), where the local promotion association (pro loco) encourages the installation of various art forms on every street corner. Most of it isn’t exactly international level, one has to admit, but the town is charming. Take a little hike uphill and there’s a very nice view from a green space in front of the church of San Michele Archangelo, and a quite whimsical sound-land-art installation that is for sure the best thing in town.

Luicciana and some of its artistic installations

My video ends way up the mountain towards Vernio is the town of Montepiano, just a stone’s throw from the Emilia-Romagna border, where it was cold even in early September! Artist Bruno Saetti donated his home, the Casa del Mulino, on the edge of a wooded park; both are ideal spaces for contemplation and perhaps to cool off on a hot August day.

For more information about Prato see

Città di Prato official website (English)

Prato Tourism (English)

All backstage photos by Marco Badiani. All videos by Flod communication agency in Florence.

Sign up here to receive future blog posts in your inbox