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Fiesole

Ancient Etruscan history, Roman ruins and panoramic walks with sublime views of Florence

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

Fiesole travel guide

At first glance, this big village / small town among the cypresses north of Florence looks like an elegant, leafy suburb of its more famous neighbour. But the real timeline runs in the opposite direction: by the time Florence was founded, Fiesole had already been going 5 or 6 centuries.

As “Viesul”, it was an important settlement in the Etruscan League (ca. 5th century BC) up until Rome’s legions rolled in. If anything, Florence (pop. 360,000 or so) is a suburb of Fiesole (pop. under 15,000).

In the Beginning…

Train your eye and you can spot Fiesole’s Etruscan roots for yourself. The Etruscans often built on hills, for the obvious safety advantages. Orvieto, Volterra, Chiusi and most other major Etruscan towns have a high perch, just like Fiesole. Roman settlements were usually situated more strategically, in a valley, by a river or important trade route. Under Rome’s dominant rule, marauding bandits were less of a worry.

By the Middle Ages, the huge and ancient stone blocks of its Etruscan walls were taken as proof that Fiesole was built by giants. Another local tradition suggested Fiesole was the first city founded by Noah after the Great Flood.

Relations between old (and shrinking) Fiesole and its booming neighbour in the valley were often awkward. The rulers of Florence put an end to any uncertainty in 1125, when they took over completely, subjugated local nobles and then burned the place to the ground, for good measure.

Later, during the Renaissance era, rumours spread that Fiesole’s well was a magnet for witchcraft. Before he wrote his Decameron, Boccaccio set a poem about fairies in Fiesole.

Fiesole and satellite villages including Maiano also became famous for their stonemasons and (later) sculptors. The 15th century alone produced Benedetto and Giulio da Maiano, Desiderio da Settignano and Mino da Fiesole, all from this small clutch of villages. Much of the ghostly-grey pietra serena stone that decorates Florence’s Renaissance palaces was quarried around Fiesole, on the slopes of Monte Ceceri.

The same peak is mentioned by Leonardo da Vinci in his “Codex on the Flight of Birds”. He even chose Monte Ceceri to test a prototype flying machine — disastrously.

This has been a neighbourhood for the rich and fashionable since the Renaissance

Visit This

Fiesole’s altitude and a regular gentle breeze offer a great escape from Florence’s furnace-like midsummer heat. That’s the main reason this has been a neighbourhood for the rich and fashionable since the Renaissance. Humanist scholars Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano — part of an in-crowd around Florence’s greatest Renaissance leader, Lorenzo the Magnificent — both lived in Fiesole. Writers Charles Dickens and D. H. Lawrence stopped by; Henry James set a novel here; and architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived in Fiesole for a while.

But there’s much, much more to Fiesole than just a respite from the Florentine weather. Fiesole is celebrated for its extraordinary views. From a little balcony built into Via San Francesco — the Roman decumanus (main east­–west road) — Florence is laid out 300 metres below, like a hyper-realist Lego miniature, complete with crenelated towers and Brunelleschi’s famous ochre dome. The viewing point stands at the spot where Fiesole’s most important fortifications once were.

The panorama also conveys a firm sense of Florence’s geography, squeezed into a narrow strip between Fiesole to the north and the hills of Bellosguardo, Pian dei Giullari and beyond, the Chianti hills to the south.

Fiesole’s main square, Piazza Mino is a pleasant place to while away an hour over coffee at a pavement café. The Cathedral is here too, at site where the town’s Roman Forum stood.

Telltale signs of Fiesole’s ancient history are scattered all over the Archaeological Area, where there’s a Roman Theatre and Baths (1st century BC/AD), an intact stretch of Etruscan wall, bits of ruined temple from both eras, and even some Lombard tombs (7th century). Thomas Hardy was so inspired on a visit to these ruins, he wrote a sonnet on the spot.

Museums cater for a range of interests. The small Museo Bandini houses sacred art, including medieval triptychs (3-panel paintings), paintings by Jacopo del Sallaio and bright Della Robbia friezes in painted terracotta.

The Museo Primo Conti displays works by a 20th-century Tuscan painter inside his former home. Conti was involved in Tuscany’s Cubist and Futurist movements. The monastery-church of San Francesco has an eclectic ethnographic collection of objects brought back by Franciscans from missionary work all over the world.

Out of Town: San Domenico di Fiesole

Another highlight is the nearby hamlet of San Domenico, beside the main road downhill to Florence. Boccaccio lived and wrote his “Decameron” here. Both Alexandre Dumas (of “Three Musketeers” fame) and Britain’s Queen Victoria stayed in his former home, now the (private) Villa Palmieri.

It was in the village church — also called San Domenico — that Fra’ Angelico’s art career started. He joined the Dominican order and began painting almost immediately, and has left his little church a clutch of works including a “Crucifixion”.

The Great Outdoors

Both the quarry park by Maiano, and the ancient Etruscan wall and Fontesotterra (an ancient water source) at Borgunto, make for a gentle and worthwhile walk from Piazza Mino.

In the lush hillside immediately below Fiesole, Villa Medici was built as a suburban residence for the family of Cosimo de’ Medici (“il Vecchio”) by a major Renaissance architect — perhaps Michelozzo, or maybe L. B. Alberti. As a young man, Cosimo’s grandson Lorenzo (later, “the Magnificent”) socialised with a wealthy, humanist set at the villa, including his neighbours Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano.

Villa Medici was originally chosen for the anti-Medici Pazzi Conspiracy, which ended with a botched assassination attempt in Florence’s cathedral. It killed Lorenzo’s brother Giuliano, but left Lorenzo alive, and was followed by a mass slaughter of the conspirators and anyone tied to them, however tenuously. A fictional retelling is woven into the plot of the “Assassin’s Creed II” video game.

The villa itself is still private — as are many other former Medici Villas — but you can visit its renowned formal gardens, terraced into the hill with sublime views. You need to reserve: email annamarchimazzini@gmail.com a few weeks before arrival and they’ll arrange a slot that doesn’t clash with a large group.

A number of other fine villas and gardens are dotted around Fiesole — many open at various times to visitors. There’s a detailed guide at www.fiesoleforyou.it/en/surroundingcountryside.

Festivals

Estate Fiesolana is Italy’s oldest open-air arts festival, and held every June and July. The programme is eclectic; the locations are what make it special, especially opera at the Roman Theatre.

Three Excursions from Fiesole

  • Florence: it’s close, easily accessible by bus and has enough art and culture to keep you busy for a year; the most atmospheric way to get there is to walk all or part of the way down the Via Vecchia Fiesolana, the cypress-lined main trail used between the 11th century and 1840
  • The Chianti: for classic Tuscan food and wine, plus endless panoramas over hills and vines
  • Pistoia: for an off-the-beaten-track Tuscan town with Renaissance art and sculpture, tunnels to explore under the town’s Renaissance-era hospital, and few crowds




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