Vestire il Paesaggio



When you are driving along the motorway towards the sea, leaving Florence behind you, after you pass the last road off to Prato, you immediately realise that the province of Pistoia is special. In the sense that it has landscape features that are unusual in Italy and even in the Tuscany of today. Pistoia is to your right, among green surroundings: the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility, the bell tower of San Zeno, the tower known as Catiline's Tower, the old colours of the walled town and, in the background, the grand mountains of the Apennines. Up till now we have driven through a vague countryside, urbanised and degraded, dotted with houses and commercial and industrial structures. When we get to Pistoia we notice that the panorama is changing.
The town appears to us like those little models that patron saints hold in their hand in Medieval polyptychs, closed in its recognisable urban identity, surrounded by greenery. As we know, this is because the people of Pistoia have preferred to fill their fields with roses, cypresses and magnolias, rather than with warehouses, supermarkets and blocks of flats. The greenhouses have saved Pistoia. Just once in a while a flourishing economic activity has enhanced the features that identify a town and its territory instead of destroying or dimming them.
Before leaving the motorway and entering Pistoia, the attentive traveller will have understood the essential truth. He will have understood that this is a part of Italy where art and nature balance and reflect each other. The buildings that he already glimpsed from a distance (the dome of the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility, the bell tower of San Zeno) enjoy a harmonious relationship with the green belt that surrounds the town, with the hills and the mountains that mark the horizon.
This is the guiding idea that must accompany the intelligent tourist as he travels through the part of Tuscany that has Pistoia as its provincial capital. The permeation and continuous recurrence of art masterpieces and the beauty of nature are to be found everywhere: in Piazza del Duomo, looking from the windows of the Palazzo di Giano, he can see the passes of the Alps, black with woods; in Piazza Mazzini at Pescia, looking up towards the Palagio and towards Colleviti, in Valdinievole which tourist brochures call "Tuscan Switzerland" on account of its abundant waters, luxuriant vegetation, the emerald green of the meadows and the pleasant florid character of its small towns (Buggiano, Cozzile, Vellano, Pietrabuona, Castelvecchio). He can find Art and Nature together again in the rural hamlets and villages of Montalbano (at Larciano, Lamporecchio and San Baronto), passing through the most beautiful vineyards and olive groves in Tuscany, praising in his heart and mind the towns dear to Leonardo da Vinci. And he will find Art and Nature admirably side by side, in the shade of the venerable mountain churches (at Cutigliano, San Marcello, Popiglio, Sambuca) when the perfume of the pines and of the flowering chestnut trees arrives as far as the Romanesque sculptures, the paintings by Sebastiano Vini, the silver and wood made precious by centuries.
If the distinctive character of Tuscany and the main reason for its fascination is its diversity, in no other province in the Region can it be noted as much as in the province of Pistoia. There is an extraordinary variety of landscapes, natural environments and climates. These range from the pass of Abetone, with high-altitude meadows and long-lasting snow, to the countryside of Monsummano and Montecatini, with spas, plant nurseries and greenhouses, cool summers. In the province of Pistoia there are black forests of oak, beech and fir that have preserved intact the charm of the old Italian woodland peopled with miracles and legends, filled with memories of brigands and hermits. Then there are low hills set out like gardens, glimpses of landscape that seem to come straight out of a painting by Lorenzo di Credi, and villas (Villa Felceti, Villa Montebuono, la Magia, la Farnia, the villas of the Borghese family at Montevettolini, of the Feroni family at Bellavista, the villa of the Garzoni family at Collodi, Villa Rospigliosi, designed by Bernini, at Lamporecchio) which offer perfect examples of a harmonious equilibrium between man-made beauty and the beauty of the cultivated landscape.
This winning combination of art and nature is clearly a constant element in the memory and destiny of the territory of Pistoia. Go to the villa at Celle, visit the vast romantic park laid out in the nineteenth century to a design by Giovanni Gambini and you will realise this. Here, in the garden of the villa, Giuliano Gori has created an open-air museum of contemporary art which we are certainly not exaggerating in defining as one of the most important of its kind in the world. The installations by the leading exponents of modern art blend organically into the natural environment, becoming an integral part of the context, dialoguing with the water, the trees, the clouds, the lights of the day and the colours of the seasons. It is difficult to imagine a more wonderful experience than a visit to Giuliano Gori's museum.
If I were to recommend an itinerary in the town and territory of Pistoia, I would advise starting "from the head of the Apostle", that is from the relic of Saint James which is kept in the Cathedral, honoured by the huge silver reliquary which is one of the finest masterpieces of Gothic goldsmithery. In the Middle Ages, this was the Italian starting point of the "path of Saint James", which took pilgrims all the way to Compostela. This will be our point of departure for a journey through Pistoia's art treasures.
Stop in Piazza del Duomo, take a look around and you will soon realise that you are in one of the most beautiful places in Italy. In front of you stands the Romanesque cathedral with its faade clad in white and green marble and the huge bell tower of San Zeno, Tuscany's sundial; behind you is the octagonal Baptistery designed by Andrea Pisano. The wings of the square are closed by the Palazzo degli Anziani or Town Hall, built when Giano della Bella was Podestˆ (1297), the Palazzo di Giustizia and the Bishops' Palace. Religious and lay power stand face to face, in Piazza del Duomo, each jealously guarding its own prerogatives, yet they are united by the pride of representing a town which in the Middle Ages was rich, powerful and feared, able to compete on a par with Lucca, Florence and Pisa.
Go into the cathedral and stand in front of the Cross painted in 1274 by Coppo di Marcovaldo, the silver altar of Saint James, the sculptures by Verrocchio and the painting by Lorenzo di Credi, or look at the reliquary, a masterpiece by Lorenzo Ghiberti, in the Museo Capitolare, or the many masterpieces in the town museum, housed in the Palazzo di Giano. Then you will also realise how Pistoia has suffered, in the public awareness, from being overshadowed by Florence.
Still today a great many cultured tourists are unaware that just a few miles from the Uffizi and the Bargello there is a town with even more significant traces of our great artistic civilisation.
The most austere and sacred aspects of the Middle Ages are to be found at San Bartolomeo in Pantano, in the reliefs carved in 1250 by Guido da Cuneo, while the more passionate and fiery is in Sant'Andrea, in the famous pulpit sculpted by Giovanni Pisano between 1298 and 1301. It would be hard to find a more striking architectural sight than that of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in its colour scheme of white and green marble that calls to mind Pisa, but also the Mediterranean Romanesque of Provence and Sardinia, with that unforgettable Last Summer sculpted by Gruamonte in 1166.
The fourteenth-century frescoes in the church of Sant'Antonio Abate, or of the "Tau", will speak to you of an age of solidarity and charity, when the monks who wore a habit adorned with a blue cross in the form of a crutch (the "Tau") used to tend the sick, help the poor, and provide lodgings for the pilgrims who came down towards Pistoia, ragged and hungry, from the Apennine passes.
In Pistoia's history there is a great tradition of active, industrious and pragmatic religiosity. The most striking example is to be seen in the glazed terracotta frieze which Benedetto Buglioni (1505 1521), his partners and collaborators commissioned from the Della Robbia workshop to adorn the front of the old hospital in the town, known as the Spedale del Ceppo. Just like in a film, a scene unfolds before our eyes with the Works of Mercy imagined and represented in "modern" settings and costumes. The charitable and hospital activities of an Italian town of the early sixteenth century are represented here with authentic participation and affectionate objectivity.
The Renaissance in Pistoia can be recognised in many fine works: palaces, loggias, churches such as the one of Santa Maria delle Grazie, or of the Bed, and superb examples of craftsmanship in wood carving, such as the carved stalls of the Mati in the Town Hall. However, no visitor must leave Pistoia without having paused before two really unforgettable masterpieces. One is the Visitation in white glazed terracotta which Luca della Robbia made in San Giovanni Fuorcivitas in 1445. It is a work of such intact and melodious beauty that was not to be matched until many years later, with the paintings of Raphael.
The other building that remains in the eyes and heart of anyone who leaves Pistoia is the Basilica of Our Lady of Humility, a Marian sanctuary that has become a symbol that immediately identifies the town, because its dome, designed by the architect Ventura Vitoni (1442 1522) as the image and likeness of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, can be seen from all over the town. It is synonymous with Pistoia, as is the bell tower of San Zeno, or the Palazzo di Giano.
Though little known, there was also an extraordinary baroque season in this town of one thousand surprises. When Giulio Rospigliosi from Pistoia became Pope with the name Clement IX (1667 1669), the grand taste for the baroque found its way into many fine buildings and churches. In the church of the Holy Spirit, the high altar clad with precious marble is to a design by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and the large painting there is by Pietro di Cortona. Palazzo Rospigliosi (with the fascinating chapel decorated by Giovanni da San Giovanni with stories of the life of Saint Catherine, painted with fresh, inventive inspiration) is more similar to the residences of the Roman princes (the Doria, Colonna, or Pallavicini) than to those of Florentine or Pisan aristocrats.
Going from the territory of Pistoia to that of Pescia and the Valdinievole (this is the wonderful variety of our province) is like entering a green universe peopled with little towns and castles. Everywhere you can hear the sound of cool, swift-flowing waters. These are the waters that powered the oldest paper mills in Italy and that feed the flourishing plant nurseries for which Pescia, the flower capital, is famous all over the world.
The river gave its name to the town which is divided into two parts: the old quarter, between Porta Fiorentina, the Cathedral and the church of SanFrancesco (which contains a fine board painting of 1235 by Bonaventura Berlinghieri depicting stories of the life of Saint Francis, certainly the oldest and the most faithful of the known representations of the Saint), and the part on the other side of the river Pescia. The heart of the town is concentrated around Piazza Mazzini, the old Market Hall which is between the fifteenth-century church of Pi di Piazza and the thirteenth-century Town Hall. It is a fine harmonious square, rather like a shell. You can just make out the nearby hamlets and small towns in green surroundings (Monte a Pescia with the Romanesque church of San Bartolomeo, Uzzano with its picturesque Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, the convent of Colleviti, and farther away Pietrabuona, San Quirico, Castelvecchio, Pontito), while you are surrounded by buildings with sober architecture. In the square at Pescia you can perceive, with joy in your eyes and consolation in your heart, all the nobility, order and moderation of provincial Tuscany.
Your journey in the lands of Pistoia and Pescia can continue to the spas of Monsummano (the sanctuary of Fontenuova, the house where Giuseppe Giusti was born, the castle on top of a rock from which you can see the whole of Tuscany from the Apennines to the sea) and Montecatini with its fanciful and sumptuous Art Nouveau dŽcor. But the final stage on your journey just has to be Collodi, and not only because that is where you will find Villa Garzoni with its splendid garden, as well as the theme park dedicated to Pinocchio; it is a splendid masterpiece of modern art, produced by some of the most ingenious creative spirits of the twentieth century: Giovanni Michelucci, Emilio Greco, Venturino Venturi, Pietro Porcinai. That is not the only reason.
You have to go to Collodi because Pinocchio is more than just a puppet. He represents the spirit of our people, he has all the defects and all the qualities of the Italians. He is na•ve and a liar, a softie and an opportunist, he believes gold coins grow in the garden and he trusts guys like the Cat and the Fox. But he is likeable and unforgettable for everyone, from America to Japan. So for this reason too, because at Collodi we can see our own reflection, our own Italian identity, a visit to the province of Pistoia is highly recommended.

Antonio Paolucci

Presentazione dal libro "Pistoia Armonie di Arte e Natura" edito da Italia Turistica