Unlike many other Italian cities, Prato does not really have any roots in Antiquity. It was preceded by the medieval village of Borgo al Cornio, which had a small church (pieve) dedicated to Saint Stephan the Protomartyr (Santo Stefano) since at least the tenth century. The church was probably a couple of centuries older and its history may go back to the sixth century. Over the course of several centuries the pieve of Santo Stefano was converted into the current cathedral of the city. The most important events in this process took place between the twelfth and fifteenth century, and the process was in large part inspired by a very special relic. I am referring to the Sacra Cintola or Sacred Belt of the Virgin Mary, a relic supposedly collected in the twelfth century by a pilgrim to the Holy Land and subsequently taken to Prato.
Before I start discussing the Duomo, there is one fact about Prato I should mention. Although the city expanded and grew ever larger, and in spite of the huge religious importance of the relic, Prato got its own bishop as late as 1954. Between 1653 and 1954 there was a bishop of the diocese of Pistoia and Prato, but he had his seat in the former city. In the period preceding 1653 Prato only had a provost (prevosto or proposto) of Santo Stefano. As consequence, the Duomo of Prato has strictly speaking only been a cathedral since 1954.
According to tradition, the Virgin Mary had upon her Assumption handed her belt to the ever doubtful Saint Thomas the Apostle. Saint Thomas then gave the belt to a priest in the Holy Land. Several centuries later a merchant from Prato named Michele Dagomari visited Jerusalem as a pilgrim. There he married a descendant of the aforementioned priest and was given the Sacred Belt as a dowry. That is how, in 1140 or 1141, the Belt purportedly ended up in Prato. Michele guarded the precious relic like a hawk and even slept on it. When he slept, angels were said to have watched over him and the Belt. When in about 1171-1173 the merchant was on his deathbed, he decided to hand over the Belt to the priest of the pieve of Santo Stefano. We know for certain that the Belt has been in the Duomo since at least the first half of the thirteenth century. Since the 1270s the relic has been shown to the public each year on 8 September, which is the Virgin’s birthday. The Belt is also exhibited on Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, 1 May and 15 August (Feast of the Assumption).
The transformation of the small village church into a Romanesque cathedral started in the twelfth century, presumably towards the end of it. Aisles were added, the building was provided with a façade and around 1170 the adjacent monastery was built. We do not know who was the architect that led the project, but often a certain Guidetto is mentioned. The beautiful campanile of the cathedral is also attributed to him, and with a lot more certainty. Construction of the tower started around 1211 and in about 1220 it was completed. At the time it consisted of a base and four levels above it. The topmost level was added in the fourteenth century. When the transept was built, the decision was also taken to raise the campanile by several metres. In 1356 the top part of the tower was completed. People in Prato like to believe that Guidetto’s tower was a source of inspiration for Giotto’s freestanding campanile next to the Duomo of Florence. I sincerely doubt that this claim has any factual basis.
In the fourteenth century the Duomo underwent significant changes. The popularity of the Sacred Belt surged and this had consequences for the building where it was kept under the high altar. In 1312 one Musciattino from Pistoia was said to have tried to steal the precious relic. Moreover, there was a conflict about access to the Belt between the provost on the one side and the city council and the people of Prato on the other. Between 1317 and 1368 the transept of the cathedral was constructed. It is traditionally attributed to Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1315), but since he had presumably already passed away before construction started, this attribution is likely incorrect. It is, however, possible that the architect was a student or follower of Giovanni’s father Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1284). The transept was provided with high vaults and five chapels. Several decades later beautiful frescoes were painted in some of these chapels. The original plan was to keep the Sacred Belt here in the transept, but in 1346 the people pressured the provost into moving the relic to the entrance of the building.
In short, the conflict was all about the visibility of, access to and control of Prato’s most prized and beloved possession. In 1348 the parties involved agreed to a compromise: the Belt became two-thirds the property of the commune and one-third of the church. Apparently there are three keys to open the case below the altar in the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo, where the Belt is now kept. This chapel was built in 1386-1390 off the left aisle of the church. If you stand in the square in front of the cathedral, you will notice an addition to the building on the left with a star-shaped window (which has been blocked). That is the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo. At about the same time construction of a new Late Gothic façade started. The new façade was placed in front of the old one. One of the architects involved was Niccolò di Piero Lamberti (ca. 1370-1451). The new façade was only completed in 1457.
A conspicuous element of the Duomo is the external pulpit which allows the bishop to show the Sacred Belt to the people. An older pulpit was previously attached to the side of the Duomo. It was decorated with sculpted reliefs by Niccolò del Mercia from 1359-1360, which can nowadays be found in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the museum of the cathedral. In 1428-1438 the older pulpit was replaced with a new one, which was designed by Michelozzo (1396-1472) and decorated with reliefs by Donatello (1386-1466). The pulpit was commissioned by the provost of Santo Stefano, Geminiano Inghirami (1370-1460). More changes were made to the cathedral after the pulpit was completed. Examples include the addition of vaults to the nave and aisles by Ferdinando Tacca (1619-1686) and replacement of the clock on the façade in 1795. In spite of these later alterations, the cathedral of Prato has retained its Romanesque-Gothic appearance.
Three colours dominate the Late Gothic façade of the Duomo: green, white and brown. If I understand correctly, only two types of stone were used, i.e. green marble from Prato (marmo verde di Prato or serpentino) and pietra alberese. Pietra alberese is naturally white, but as a result of a natural process it can eventually become brown! And so the exterior of the cathedral has become speckled with random brown spots. This has also happened at other churches in Prato, for instance at the church of San Francesco and – to a lesser degree – at the churches of San Domenico and Santa Maria delle Carceri. I would certainly not call the brown spots ugly. On the contrary, the combination of brown, green and white creates an intriguing play of colours.
Four statues have been set up high on the façade. They represent, from left to right, Saint Anne with the young Virgin Mary, her father Joachim, Mary as an adult and Saint Stephen with a rocky head. The statues all date from the nineteenth century and the statue of Saint Stephen is a copy of statue that was sculpted in the fourteenth century. A photo of the original can be found here. The façade furthermore has a Gothic portal with a beautifully sculpted relief by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525) in the lunette. The glazed terracotta relief was made in 1489. We see the Madonna and Child, flanked by Saints Stephen and Lawrence, the deacon who was martyred in the year 258 in Rome after he had refused to tell the authorities where the riches of the Church had been hidden. The saints are surrounded by eleven cherubs.
The external pulpit by Michelozzo and Donatello is splendid, but unfortunately the pulpit we see is not the original. Donatello’s reliefs with the dancing cherubs have been kept in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo since 1970. The reliefs have been replaced with excellent replicas. A bronze canopy ensures that the bishop and his acolytes are not affected by rain when showing the Sacra Cintola to the people. The canopy is probably a copy as well, as it would be most unwise to leave such a precious artefact out in the open nowadays.
Once inside, visitors will immediately notice the elegant columns made of green serpentino. The arches above the columns have been made of alternating pieces of green marble and pietra alberese (which has not turned brown inside the Duomo). Apart from the splendid floor, visitors will also note the modest size of the building, which is a clear reminder that this cathedral was once a humble village church. As regards works of art, I would first of all like to refer to the fresco of the Assumption, painted by David and Ridolfo del Ghirlandaio on the counter-façade. They were both relatives of the famous painter Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494), his brother and son respectively. The interior of the cathedral has also been embellished with a superb pulpit, to which various artists made contributions. The object has the shape of a chalice and was designed by Maso di Bartolomeo and Pasquino da Montepulciano. The reliefs were made by Antonio Rossellino and Mino da Fiesole. Ferdinando Tacca was responsible for the high altar of the cathedral.
Directly on the left we find the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo. The chapel is fairly large and two bays deep. This is the holiest place in all of Prato, which unfortunately means that the gates are kept shut and visitors are not allowed to enter. They can peep through the bars of the gates to see the interior of the chapel, but I would advise turning on the lights first, for which one has to pay. Rather surprisingly, the gates of the chapel are well worth a closer inspection. Maso di Bartolomeo and Pasquino da Montepulciano were responsible for this wonderful work of metallurgy. A good photo can be seen here. The altar in the chapel is topped by an elegant statuette of the Madonna and Child by Giovanni Pisano. It dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century. The walls of the chapel have been decorated with beautiful frescoes, painted between 1392 and 1395 by Agnolo Gaddi (ca. 1350-1396). He was the son of Taddeo Gaddi, who himself was a student of the great Florentine painter Giotto. Judging by Agnolo Gaddi’s year of death, the frescoes in the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo must be counted among his last works.
Gaddi’s cycle starts on the two vaults, which feature the four Doctors of the Church and the four Evangelists. These are followed by stories from the life of the Virgin. Unfortunately the first fresco can only be admired from within the chapel, so most visitors will not be able to see it. The fresco was painted on the reverse side of the arch that serves as the main entrance to the chapel. We see how Joachim is chased from the temple because he has failed to father any offspring. He subsequently joins the shepherds, where an angel tells him that his wife Anne will conceive after all. The story then continues on the left wall of the chapel, where in the two lunettes the meeting of Anne and Joachim at the Golden Gate and the Birth of the Virgin have been depicted. Below these scenes we see the Presentation of the Virgin in the temple and her marriage (middle register), as well as the Annunciation and the Birth of Christ (lower register). The frescoes on the left wall of the first bay can be viewed quite well if one peeps through the bars of the gates of the side entrance to the chapel. Unfortunately this is not the case with the other frescoes in the Cappella del Sacro Cingolo.
The back wall of the chapel features the Dormition of the Virgin (Dormitio Virginis), followed by her Assumption and the transfer of the Holy Belt to Saint Thomas (middle register), and the Coronation of the Virgin in heaven (top register). Although the view of these frescoes is obstructed by the altar in the chapel, we at least get a decent impression of what has been painted. The frescoes on the right wall are an entirely different story: the view of this part of the chapel is quite poor, which is a pity, because the frescoes here tell the story of how the Holy Belt ended up in Prato thanks to Michele Dagomari. I refer people interested in the frescoes to this superb collection of photos on Wikimedia Commons. The pictures make clear how many marvellous little details Agnolo Gaddi added to his works. Examples include a dog scratching itself with its hind leg in the fresco of Joachim and a shepherd playing the bagpipes in the Nativity fresco. The details of the frescoes about the Sacred Belt are impressive as well. The fresco that shows Michele Dagomari’s return to Prato for instance features the Duomo and campanile as they must have looked at the end of the fourteenth century.
Chapels in the transept
I already mentioned that the transept has five chapels. These chapels can only be visited with a ticket, which also gives access to the museum of the cathedral. My advice would be to buy the ticket. It is well worth the money. The most famous decorations can be found in the central chapel, the Cappella Maggiore. Between 1452 and 1465, Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469) and his assistants painted scenes from the lives of Saints John the Baptist and Stephen there. The Duomo is dedicated to the latter saint, while the former is the patron saint of Florence, the powerful city that had dominated Prato since 1351. The fresco cycle was commissioned by the provost Geminiano Inghirami. Lippi also painted an altarpiece for him which features Saint Jerome’s funeral. This painting is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Part of the funeral scene is an image of Inghirami himself.
Fra Filippo Lippi was a Carmelite friar who was more interested in painting than in praying and studying. He was an exceptionally colourful figure who fell in love with Lucrezia Buti, a nun from Florence who modelled for him. Lippi decided to abduct Lucrezia, and in 1457 their son Filippino – ‘little Filippo’ – was born. At the time the painter was already working in the Duomo in Prato. The cycle took him a long time to complete – about 13 years – which is a clear indication that he worked on the frescoes intermittently. Lippi was a painter who liked hiding self-portraits in his works. This is evident in the fresco of Saint Stephen’s funeral on the left wall. On the far right of the fresco we see four famous figures. They are, from left to right, Pope Pius II (1458-1464), cardinal Carlo de’ Medici, Lippi’s principal assistant Fra Diamante and finally Lippi himself. Carlo de’ Medici was Geminiano Inghirami’s successor as provost. He was an illegitimate son of Cosimo the Elder, who was immortalised by Benozzo Gozzoli in his celebrated fresco cycle in the Cappella dei Magi in Florence. You can find Carlo’s funerary monument in the left transept.
The best fresco on the right wall is that of the banquet of King Herod Antipas. It features the well-known dance of Salome, the king’s stepdaughter. At her request (and that of her mother Herodias) Herod had Saint John the Baptist decapitated by a guard. The decapitation scene has been painted on the far left. The dance of Salome is the central scene and on the right the head is taken to Herodias on a platter.
The frescoes in the Cappella dell’Assunta are also very good. These were painted in 1435-1436 by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and Andrea di Giusto (ca. 1400-1450). The frescoes on the left wall are about the life of Saint Stephen, while the theme of those on the right wall is the life of the Virgin. It is usually assumed that Uccello painted the frescoes in the lunettes, as well as the Presentation in the Temple and part of the Stoning of Saint Stephen. Andrea di Giusto then completed the stoning scene and finished the cycles by painting the Marriage of the Virgin and the finding of the body of Saint Stephen.
The other three chapels are less interesting. The Cappella Manassei was frescoed at the beginning of the fifteenth century by an unknown Florentine painter. We see stories from the lives of Saint Margaret and the apostle Saint James the Great. In the Capella Vinaccesi Alessandro Franchi (1838-1914) from Prato painted stories from the Old Testament. The last chapel in the transept is the Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento, which cannot boast of any great art.
Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Florence and Tuscany, Italian Wikipedia, Citta di Prato website and Po-Net. The Web Gallery of Art has useful information about the works of Paolo Uccello and Filippo Lippi in Prato.