If you're beginning to feel overwhelmed by Florence's churches and museums, or simply want to get away from the crowds for a while, take a break and visit Fiesole, the town perched on the hill just north of Florence. Getting there is easy, a short ride on the number 7 bus, and it can easily be explored in a morning. It also has fine restaurants, and several spots with shaded benches and beautiful views, should you decide you wish to spend the afternoon enjoying the breezes that never seem to make it down into Florence during the summer.
The bus will leave you off in Piazza Mino, once the Roman Forum and now the main square, with the town hall and the cathedral. Though the former, which has a picturesque balcony and the coats of arms of the nobles who held the post of Podestá (the Chief Magistrate), is pretty from the outside, it has been heavily remodeled and the interior is not that interesting. The cathedral is another matter. Fiesole was once the capital of the Roman province of Etruria, and even after that honor had passed to Florence, it was still important enough to warrant its own Bishop, the first of whom arrived in 492. The early bishops proved to be shrewd administrators, extending the bishopric as far as San Leonino, a pretty Medieval village just a short distance from Siena, and the post soon became highly sought after.
It did, however, have a drawback: the first cathedral, which is now the Badia Fiesolana, is about half way down the hill towards Florence. To correct the situation, Bishop Jacopo il Bavaro laid the cornerstone for a new Cathedral, San Romolo, in 1024. The building is a typical basilica, with a central nave and two aisles separated by colonnades, and though it has been modified or restored several times over the centuries, it remains one of the best preserved Romanesque churches in the Florentine area. It is also one of the few that still has a crypt.
As frequently occurs in medieval buildings, the builders recycled decorative elements from earlier structures, and took the capitals of the fourth columns (left and right) from the ruins of a Roman building. The presbytery, where the Bishop says Mass, is above the crypt. The main altarpiece, by Bicci di Lorenzo (1460), shows the Virgin enthroned, with Saints Alessandro, Pietro, Romolo, and Donato. To the right there is the Coronation of the Virgin, by the School of Cosimo Rosselli, and to the left there is another Coronation, by Giovanni di Biondo (1372). The chapel under the twin arches to the right of the presbytery is the Cappella Salutati, with frescoes of the Evangelists (on the ceiling) and Saints Leonard and John the Baptist, by Cosimo Rosselli; the tomb holds the bones of Bishop Leonardo Salutati. The tombs under the Gothic arch to the left of the presbytery, which supports the bell tower, are of Bishops Roberto and Guglielmo Folchi. The door next to the arch leads to a pretty chapel with statues of Saints Romolo and Matteo, and frescoes of their lives.
Upon leaving the cathedral, turn right, up Via San Francesco. Turn right again, onto a stairway that leads to a green overlooking the town. Bear left, following the path, and you will reach the Abbey of San Francesco, begun in 1330 by a group of hermits, and taken over by the Franciscans, who expanded it, in 1407. The column in the middle of the green may look old, but only dates to 1912. The church, which is gothic, has several fine paintings, many of which have been recently restored, including an Annunciation by Raffaello del Garbo (at the main altar), and a Madonna with Saints Sebastian and Michael, by the School of Perugino. Go through a door to the left, and turn left again to see the sacristy, which has a stunning 16th century carved cabinet, and frescoes depicting the duties of the Misericordia (a lay religious organization founded to help plague victims): to provide shelter, food, comfort, and clothing, companionship to the sick, burial to the dead, and prayer. Follow the signs for the Museo Etnografico, which is off a pretty brick cloister. The convent of San Francesco is active in missionary work, and the museum contains a fascinating collection of objects brought back by the fathers, some pretty to look at, and some rather grim. Father Luigi Polgi's two servants used the ax two shelves above the crocodile in the Egyptian room to murder him, on June 24, 1915. The museum also contains many Etruscan and Roman objects found in and around Fiesole. Return to the church and upon leaving it turn left, to another cloister. The monks' cells, upstairs, are open to visit; the one with a stylized sun over the door was occupied by San Bernardino da Siena, who was Abbot of the monastery for four years.
Upon leaving the monastery, go down the long ramp of stairs that faces Florence. The white church to the left, which will most likely be closed (the sacristan of the Cathedral has the keys), is the Basilica of Saint Alexander, built over the ruins of a Roman temple to Baccus, which was in turn built over an Etruscan temple. The building is perhaps 7th century in origin, but was rebuilt in the 11th century and radically restored several times thereafter. Some of the columns inside, which are either from the Roman temple of Baccus or the Roman Forum, have Paleochristian crosses on them, and one has an inscription to Venus.
The little park at the base of the ramp offers an enchanting view of Florence on a clear day, and people come to sun on the benches in the spring. The sculpture commemorates three Carabinieri (the state Police) who exchanged their lives for those of a group of hostages taken by the Nazis, in 1944. Continue down the hill to Piazza Mino, past Oreste Calzolari's equestrian statue, the Meeting of Garibaldi and King Vittorio Emanuele II at Teano (cast in 1906), and take Via Verdi. The street offers several magnificent views of Florence, and the homes that look down on the city are worth millions (of dollars). Bear left onto Via di Montecerri and Via Marri, at which point you will see the massive stone walls of the Etruscan and Roman settlement. Continue left onto Via De'Medici, and bear left after the steps. You will come out across the street from the Casa del Popolo, whose terrace offers a nice view of the Mugnone Valley, to the north of Fiesole. The building half hidden by evergreens on the skyline is Monte Senario, a monastery founded by seven noble Florentines who withdrew to caves on the site in 1231. The present structure, built in 1594 by Grand Duke Ferdinand I, is undoubtedly better suited to the snows that blanket the hill in winter and the winds that gust year round. Though it looks like (and most likely could have doubled as) a fortress, the monastery is an astonishingly peaceful, spiritual place. It is also renowned for Gemma d'Abete (Pine Tears), the liqueur brewed by the monks.
Follow the road back into town; the arcade you will see under San Francesco is the monastic cemetery. Turn right on Via Cecilia, a little before the post office, and left on Via Partigiani. Fiesole's long complex history emerges from the objects found during the excavation of the foundations of the Museo Civico (# 9). Though some of the Etruscan temples on the hill top date to the 6th-7th century BC, the earliest historical mention of the town dates to 225 BC, when it was overrun by the Gauls who were later crushed by the Romans at Talamone. In 90 BC Fiesole was punished by Porcio Catone for having sided against Rome in the social wars, and a decade later Silla established a military colony in the town to punish it for having sided with Mario. Misfortune doesn't always lead to disaster: the Romans built a forum, baths, an amphitheater, and made the town the capital of the region (Florence was founded by Caesar in 50 BC and only eclipsed Fiesole several centuries later). The town was wealthy, as can be seen from the Greek ceramics on display. Its luck held until 405 AD, when it was overrun by the Goths; a century later it was starved into submission by the Byzantines. The town remained important throughout the middle ages, but was gradually eclipsed by Florence, and submitted to her in 1125.
Returning to our itinerary, upon leaving the Museo Civico, continue down Via Partigiani to the Roman amphitheater (the ticket you bought at the Museo Civico will get you in here too). The amphitheater was built at the beginning of the imperial period and subsequently retouched by Claudio and Septemio Severo. During the summer it hosts the Estate Fiesolana; should something on the program listing strike your fancy, go, because the acoustics are excellent and the setting is unique.
During the day, on the other hand, the amphitheater is a very fine archaeological park. The museum, with objects found in the area, is to the right of the gate. Once you have visited it, descend into the park. As you look out across the valley, the building to your left is an Etruscan temple, built in the 3rd Century BC, and subsequently modified by the Romans. The troughs to your right are among the earliest Roman baths, built by Augustus and expanded by Hadrian. Beyond the troughs are the frigidarium, the tepidarium, and the caldarium, the cold, warm, and hot baths. The columns visible under the floors of the latter two are the hypocaust, which served to raise the floor so a fire could be built under it. Once you have finished exploring the temple and the baths, don't forget to walk out onto the catwalk and look down at the Etruscan wall.
Across the street from the entrance to the amphitheater is the Museo Bandini, the cathedral museum. The Renaissance staircase you climb to get to the two rooms of the museum is worth a journey to Fiesole by itself. Upstairs you will find a nice collection of 13th-15th century religious art, including an Annunciation by Taddeo Gaddi, as well as a few Byzantine miniatures (10th-11th centuries), and a distinctly odd set of panels, perhaps from a wedding chest, depicting the triumphs of love, chastity, time, and faith.
At this point you have seen Fiesole. There are two ways to leave town: on foot or by bus. While the bus is quicker, you will see some wonderful landscapes if you walk down to San Domenico, the hamlet half way between Florence and Fiesole. Start down the hill towards Florence and bear right, onto the Vecchia Via Fiesolana, the old road. You will find, on the left, a tabernacle with a Madonna and Saints, falsely attributed to Perugino, and then, on the right, the church of Saint Jerome, which offers a nice view. You will next come to the Villa Medici, built by Michelozzo in 1458 for Cosimo the Elder, and used by Lorenzo the Magnificent to host his literary friends. Though not much of the villa has survived, the gardens are beautiful.
A little later you will reach a terrace that was one of Queen Victoria's favorite spots; the bench was placed there at her request. Bear right at the first intersection, and left at the next. Villa Nievwenkamp, # 62, is called the Bishop's resting spot because it's where the Bishop of Fiesole, who was forced to live in Florence, would rest on his way to his Cathedral (the odd, medieval-looking structures of the gate actually date to 1890).
When you reach San Domenico, turn right; after a three hundred yard walk you will come to the Badia Fiesolana, Fiesole's original cathedral. Though the facade is from the 12th century building, the church was heavily rebuilt in the 15th century, supposedly following Brunelleschi's plans, and is now one of the prettiest in the Florentine area. Should you find it closed, ring the gatekeeper. The convent, to the right, is quite interesting (again, ring the gatekeeper to get in), and was the original home of the Accademia dei Georgofili, the first agricultural institute of Europe.
Return to San Domenico; the church, built between 1406 and 1438, and expanded considerably in the 17th century, is elegant but not spectacular. Fra Govanni da Fiesole, otherwise known as Beato Angelico, took his vows in the monastery.
From here, you will almost certainly want to take the bus back to
Florence . Before you do, try the yogurt ice cream in the shop across the
street from the bus stop; it's quite good.
© 1996 Kyle Phillips