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Empoli

Forgotten frescoes, the birthplace of a Renaissance genius and a notorious Medici villa

By: Donald Strachan Writer & Journalist | Specialist in Italy & European travel

Empoli travel guide

Understated and certainly under-visited, Empoli offers a proper glimpse into small-town Tuscany. The centre’s prosperous streets are flat and narrow; everyone who’s anyone strolls out for the evening passeggiata, or just sits in Piazza della Vittoria slurping an ice cream.

This town 17 miles west of Florence was first made famous by its glassworks. Empoli’s were the first to produce the iconic straw-bottomed green bottle, the Chianti fiasco (flask).

Painters Leonardo da Vinci and Pontormo were both born nearby, and Empoli was also the home city of Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), pianist and composer of the opera “Doktor Faust”.

In the Beginning…

The fertile plains close to the meeting point of the Arno and Elsa rivers has been farmland for a long, long time. The Romans were here, as archaeological finds confirm. It’s unlikely they were the first.

Centuries later, during the medieval area, the Arno Valley was regularly a battlefield. In 1260, Empoli hosted a famous parliament in which the Sienese Ghibellines, fresh from victory at the Battle of Montaperti, debated whether to destroy the city of Florence. The plan was rejected.

More recently, the Fucecchio Marshes west of Empoli witnessed a notorious World War II massacre. Over a couple of days in August 1944, 184 civilians were rounded up and shot at various places around the marshes, where they had been sheltering from air raids. Three former Wehrmacht soldiers were found guilty in absentia in 2011. Empoli’s glassworks were the first to produce the iconic straw-bottomed green bottle, the Chianti fiasco.

Empoli’s glassworks were the first to produce the iconic straw-bottomed green bottle, the Chianti fiasco

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Empoli’s main square, Piazza Farinata degli Uberti is named after the man who championed Florence’s cause at the 1260 parliament. Its shaded arcades and 19th-century monumental fountain with four lions at its centre give it a grand look.

The piazza’s Collegiata di Sant’Andrea has roots in the 700s. The current structure has the green-and-white geometric marble façade typical of Florentine–Romanesque church architecture, and dates mostly to the 11th and 12th centuries.

Next door, inside the former baptistery, the Museo della Collegiata houses a small but precious collection of religious art. It includes stonemasonry by Mino da Fiesole and detached frescoes by Masolino, who painted the Brancacci Chapel in Florence immediately after his commissions in Empoli.

In 1424, Masolino also executed frescoes for the nearby church of Santo Stefano degli Agostiniani. Little survives, alas, because they were whitewashed over in the 1790s, when Masolino was judged to be of little importance in the history of art

The Museo del Vetro (MUVE) inhabits a renovated salt warehouse, also in the centre. The collection covers Empoli’s glassmaking heritage. It was the main source of wealth and work here in the 18th and 19th centuries. Even in the 1960s, there were still over 20 glassworks in the city, though now few locals work in Empoli’s historic trade.

Just east of the centre, in the hamlet-turned-suburb of Pontorme is the birthplace of Jacopo Carrucci, better known as leading Florentine Mannerist painter Pontormo. Now open as the Casa di Pontormo, it exhibits a few objects related to his life, including his diary and sketchbook.

The tiny, brick-fronted Church of San Michele Arcangelo in a small square nearby has 2 paintings by Pontormo, showing saints John the Evangelist and Michael Archangel.

Eat This

Beyond the norm of grapes and olives, this is also rich agricultural area whose well-known produce includes Empoli artichokes (carciofi), in season March to June; bread baked in Montaione; and the prized white truffles of San Miniato which appear in autumn. About a quarter of Italy’s white truffles are dug up around here.

The sweet-ish red onion from Certaldo features in Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, and even appears on the town’s coat of arms.

Empoli is also stocked with top-notch gelato parlours. (La Medicea, on Piazza della Vittoria, is a personal favourite.)

The Great Outdoors

The Fucecchio Marshes, 10 miles west of Empoli, are Italy’s largest inland wetlands. Birdwatchers have counted over 200 species at different times of year, including several types of heron and the white stork.

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The hills that rise gently all around Empoli form part of the (very large) Chianti DOC, notably the growing sub-zones of Colli Fiorentini, Montalbano and Montespertoli. Montalbano is also famous for its DOP extra-virgin olive oil.

Emerald-green glassware has been made in Empoli for centuries. Montelupo Fiorentino is famed for its painted ceramics. Fucecchio has been a leather manufacturing centre for over 200 years.

Out of Town: Cerreto Guidi & its Medici Heritage

The Medici Villa of Cerreto Guidi was built for Grand Duke Cosimo I in 1556 as a private hunting lodge. The elevated site formerly had a Guidi castle — you can see for miles — and is strategically located between the abundant Fucecchio Marshes and the forests of Montalbano. The museum inside focuses on the area’s hunting history.

Cerreti Guidi was also a place of sadness for Cosimo’s family. It was here in 1576 Paolo Giordano Orsini murdered his wife, Cosimo’s daughter, Isabella — probably with the complicity (if not outright aid) of her brother, Grand Duke Francesco I.

Festivals

Isabella de’ Medici’s arrival at Cerreto Guidi is celebrated each July on Isabella’s Night, with re-enactments and pageantry in full Renaissance garb.

Each September Nottissima takes over the city centre for one Saturday night. There’s live music, open-air theatre and craft markets all over Empoli.

Three Excursions from Empoli

Florence: it’s close, easily accessible by a regular train service (40 min.), and has enough art and culture to keep you busy for years

Vinci: framed by the woods and silver-green olive groves of Monte Albano is the birthplace of Leonardo, where the Museo Leonardiano inhabits a former castle of the Guidi counts and is dedicated to his machines and other inventions; Leo’s first home is in nearby Anchiano

Pistoia: one of Tuscany’s prettiest drives — winding through the vineyards and olive groves of the Montalbano, on the S9 north from Vinci — ends at this small city stuffed with art and architectural treasures


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