Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Walking around Fiesole

 by Tatiana Yugay (from the blog "Medieval Walks")


I fell in love with  Fiesole even before visiting it. I first knew about this charming town from Ugo Bardi's photo blog. Ugo published there his photos with brief or sometimes long comments. I liked very much his pictures of nature and its creatures, sunrises and sunsets, historic sights, old postcards and local folks. He also wrote about historic and modern political, scientific and cultural events in Fiesole. I write in the past time because, unfortunately, Ugo didn't update his blog since December 2015. Though he wrote in Italian, I highly recommend you to visit the blog because his photos speak by themselves. It was a kind of chronicle of Fiesole's everyday life which was made with such a love and mild humor that I became dreaming to see Fiesole with my own eyes.

As the matter of facts, the Fiesolans have two strong reasons to consider themselves superior than the Florentines. Firstly,  Fiesole is much more ancient than Florence and, secondly, the town literally overlooks the Arno valley where Florence is situated.

Fiesole is a hilltown located on a scenic height of 8 kilometres right above Florence.  It spreads over two hills, San Francesco and Sant’ Apollinare, and the modern town is situated in the saddle between them. Fiesole (Etruscan - Viesul, Viśl, Vipsul) was a flourishing Etruscan city which was probably founded in the 9th century BC.  It was surrounded by an imposing ring of city walls stretching for over two and a half kilometres which were erected to defend Fiesole from the Gauls' invasion. Even three millennia later, we can observe impressive Etruscan remnants in the town.

The Romans conquered Faesulae, as Fiesole was then known, in 283 BC. Under Roman rule, it became the seat of a famous school of augurs, and every year twelve young men were sent here from Rome to study the art of divination.
Fiesole had seen the  great victory of Roman general Stilicho over Germanic hordes of the Vandals and Suebi under Radagaisus in 406. Ugo Bardi wrote in his blog “Cassandra legacy” that he had visited the battle place in order to commemorate a anniversary of this victory.  During the Gothic War (536-53), Fiesole was besieged several times and in 539 Justinus, the Byzantine general, captured it and razed its fortifications.

In the early Middle Ages, Fiesole was more powerful than Florence in the valley below, and many wars arose between them. In 1010 and 1025 Fiesole was sacked by the Florentines, and was finally conquered in 1125.

Nowadays,  Fiesole is a charming and tranquil city and only landmarks of various epochs remind us about its glorious and turbulent history.
My first meeting with Fiesole took place last August when I visited the Bardi in their beautiful house near Fiesole. It was great to walk around the city with such a connoisseur of the place as Ugo. When driving  to  Fiesole, Ugo asked me, what would I like to see most of all. Of course, I wished to see the memorial place of  Stilicho's victory at the King's Mountain. It took us some minutes to get there. I'd better cite Ugo's post about this place.
“Of those remote times, little more than a few lines in history books remain. But, in the Mugnone Valley, you can still find a hill that takes the name of Montereggi, from the Latin "Mons Regis", the King's Mountain. It is the place where, it is said, King Radagaisus was beheaded. We can still walk there and find a small Christian church surrounded by cypress trees. There is also a pile of stones with a sign that says "Ave crux, spes nostra" (Hail, cross, our hope). We have no reason to believe that it was the exact point where the king was beheaded, but surely it is a suggestive place”.
The place looked exactly as Ugo depicted it. The little white church surrounded by secular cypresses and young olive trees looked very peaceful. Only an ancient cross kept the memory of those faraway days. The impression of serenity was emphasized by a naive statue of the Madonna under gazebo.
Surprisingly enough, we started our visit to Fiesole with so called Casa del popolo (People's House) built by local communists in the middle of 20th century. We had a nice talk with old communists who enjoyed their siesta playing chess and sipping coffee.
When Ugo parked the car near a wall made of huge wild stones, he told me that this was the best preserved fragment of ancient Etruscan walls. I was amused because they were in excellent condition and looked no older than mediaeval ones. I've seen Etruscan constructions before, namely, in Perugia and Viterbo.
Nonetheless, every time the same questions buzz in my head. How did the Etruscans manage to built such giant structures without any cement? How did these constructions survive till our days? While I was thinking about that, Ugo showed me another ancient piece of history.
He led me to the to the edge of the cliff and said that it was the best place to see the Roman amphitheater which was far bellow. And that wasn't all! Just near the parking, he showed me a fragment of an ancient Roman road. Black basalt stones were smoothly polished by centuries and half covered with grass. I'm passionate about ancient ruins and was happy to see and even touch Etruscan and Roman antiquities.

After a short walk along the Etruscan walls, we found ourselves in the mediaeval Convent of San Francesco. It seemed to me that during few minutes we were brought by the time machine from the Etruscan civilization to Ancient Rome and then to the Middle Ages.
The square in front of the church was very unusual. When we entered a lateral gate, we found ourselves in front of a sober little church and on our left there was a small loggia. The pavement was overgrown with grass and that gave the whole scene a bucolic country look. A pathway paved with big irregular stones was beginning right near the steps of the main entrance and led to the left. When we came nearer, I looked to the left and saw that there was a smooth descent to the belvedere with a breathtaking panorama. Of course, I rushed there to make photos. Florence was in full view, veiled in a haze of late afternoon light. Right below I saw the Brunelleschi cupola of the Duomo and all the city. The blue Apennine mountains could be hardly seen in the background.

The church and convent of San Francesco were founded in 1399 on the site of an Etruscan, and then Roman, acropolis. In former times, there was the church of St Mary of the Flowers which served for a small order of Florentine women called the Recluses of St Alexander.   In 1352, the ladies moved out to Pietrafitta on the Mugnone river.
The facade of a rather modest and austere Gothic church is built of blocks of light stone. The main portal is decorated by a fresco of San Francesco.  Right above the portal, there is a rose window with a clearly cut geometric flower.
I was very glad that church's interior was also designed in my favorite Gothic style. In fact, you can very seldom find a  church in Italy designed in the unique style. This happened because Italians were always fond of modernizing their churches and that sometimes resulted in a rather eclectic appearances of churches. I think that the San Francesco church has been a happy exception because it belonged from the very beginning till now to the Franciscan order.
The church has a single nave but it is divided by painted pilasters into four bays. It appeared that a small gothic-arched space is featured by four lateral altars situated in the 1st and 3rd bays.
They host beautiful paintings of late Middle Ages - the Immaculate Conception  by Piero di Cosimo, the Annunciation by Raffaellino del Garbo, the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine by Cenni di Francesco, and the Adoration of the Magi by the school of Cosimo Rosselli.
In the second bay, there are a neo-Gothic marble pulpit and the magnificent triptych of the Enthroned Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints by Bicci di Lorenzo. The fourth bay is entirely occupied by the presbytery, surrounded by a marble balustrade. Behind the main altar, there is the Crucifixion by Neri di Bicci and the Renaissance apse covered with a barrel vault.
The convent is situated to the right of the church. The building of the convent is organized around three cloisters which are simply named - the grand, the intermediate and the small cloisters. The most beautiful of them is  the 15th  century grand cloister. A portico surrounded by three covered galleries is decorated by a fresco of San Francesco talking to the birds, while at the center of the cloister is a picturesque stone well.

We passed the cloisters which were so peaceful and serene. I'd like to stay there much longer but Ugo wanted to show me other remarkable things.  One of them was the Franciscan Missionary Museum, which contains Egyptian and Chinese collections gathered by numerous missionary fathers to those lands. It was rather unusual to meet all these oriental artefacts in a mediaeval Tuscan monastery.
After that, Ugo assumed a mysterious air and led me up a narrow staircase. He put a finger to his lips and we silently entered a long corridor. There were monastic cells on both sides of the corridor which were preserved intact from the 15th century. They were ascetically furnished with worn wooden desks and chairs. Instead of beds, there were simple benches. In some of them, we saw an open book, a small crucifix, an inkpot and even spectacles. We observed a very modest cell of San Bernardino da Siena who was the Guardian of the Convent in 1418.

After the Convent, we made a short walk about the historic center of Fiesole. Unfortunately, there was a mass in the Duomo, so we couldn't enter it. I'm going to write about the  Duomo and  the historic center in my following posts.

Related posts
The King's Mountain 
The National Etruscan Museum in the Medieaval Stronghold
Dont Miss This Small but Very Rich Museum in Viterbo!

Useful links
Foto di Fiesole
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