Important archaeological findings discovered in the province of Prato demonstrate that the area was occupied by Ligurian peoples up to the 5th century BC and subsequently by the Etruscans and the Romans. In ancient times Prato already had an important commercial and political role, due to the passage through its territory of important communications routes, such as the Via Cassia and previous Etruscan roads. After the fall of the Roman empire the area was occupied by the Byzantines and Lombards, whereas in the 11th century government of the city and surrounding area passed to the aristocratic Alberti family. Under this dynasty the city experienced a period of intense development, up to 1107, when it was destroyed by the army of Matilde di Canossa; following the conflict between Guelphs and Ghibellinesi, Prato requested aid from the King of Naples, but this protection was fatal, because it was sold to the nearby Republic of Florence. Thus the destiny of Prato was linked first to the Florentine Republic and then to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the city losing its political importance, but not its commercial, artistic and cultural significance. Up to the beginning of the 1990s Prato and the surrounding area belonged to the province of Florence; in 1992 it was instead established as an independent province containing seven municipalities, reacquiring its autonomy after many centuries.
The city and its monuments
The historic centre is characterised by two large squares: Piazza del Duomo, with a building of Romanesque origin at its centre, and Piazza del Comune, which includes the church of San Domenico and the attached museum. Prato is also home to the Luigi Pecci Museum of Contemporary Art and the Cathedral Museum, situated in Palazzo Vescovile. This is of 16th century origin and conserves one of the most important works by Donatello, the Dance of the Putti. In Piazza del Comune, adorned with a copy of the fountain with the figure of the child Bacchus, there is the Textiles Museum, inside which strips of precious textiles and samples of archaeological and ethnic fabrics are conserved. One of the most important churches in the city is the renaissance Santa Maria delle Carceri, whereas among the other buildings we recall Palazzo Datini, a rare example of a pre-renaissance building, the Alberti Gallery, the church of San Domenico, of gothic origin and the Wall Paintings Museum, which has become the main exhibition centre in the city.
The geographical area
Poggio a Caiano and Vernio can be counted among the main towns in the province of Prato. The first is a mainly industrial town with development in the wine-making, textiles, footwear and leather tanning sectors. Here we find the Medici villa, constructed by Lorenzo de Medici and his heirs as the summer residence for the family: a compulsory place of passage for all the new brides of the Grand Duchy. The complex of buildings making up the villa includes a chapel, kitchens and the neoclassical hall for plants. The surrounding gardens are of particular interest, a part following the model of the English garden, with shady avenues and characteristic angles, whereas on the right-hand side the appearance of an Italian garden has been maintained, with central basin and numerous pots with lemon trees. In Vernio one can visit the Land Museum and Laboratory on the theme From mill to factory, through the peasant culture: the museum analyses the traditional working activities in the Bisenzio valley, basing the displays on a choice of significant objects accompanied by easy to understand graphic charts. It includes an education laboratory and the opportunity for further study using computer and audiovisual aids. In the vicinity of Vernio we find San Quirico with its fortress, which became the residence of the Bardi counts in the 17th century.