The museum of the Duomo of Prato is housed in the rooms below and adjacent to the cathedral. The entrance is located in Guidetto’s splendid bell-tower from about 1220, and from there one enters a corridor that leads to the so-called Volte. The name refers to the vaults of the rooms below the five chapels of the transept. These rooms were built around 1320 and served as places of burial between 1326 and the end of the eighteenth century. Another corridor leads to a cloister from about 1170, that in its turn gives access to a number of rooms in the episcopal palace. This palace used to be called the Palazzo dei Proposti, as strictly speaking Prato only got its own bishop as late as 1954. Between 1653 and 1954 there was a bishop of the diocese of Pistoia and Prato, in which Pistoia took precedence. The name of the Palazzo dei Proposti refers to the provosts (prevosti or proposti) of Santo Stefano.
In the Volte we find a couple of frescoes, most of which are pretty low quality. The Cappella di Santo Stefano, dedicated to Saint Stephen the Protomartyr, has work by Pietro and Antonio di Miniato from about 1420. The two painters were related and may have been a father and son. The fresco in the centre of the chapel represents a painted triptych featuring the Madonna and Child on a throne. They are flanked by Saints Stephen and Lawrence. Stephen still has the stones that were used to kill him on his head. His death by stoning has been depicted to the left of the triptych. What is remarkable is that the painters mostly used grey paint. In the top right corner we see Christ dropping three martyr’s crowns for Stephen. One might have expected a similar scene depicting Saint Lawrence’s martyrdom to the right of the triptych, but it is not there and I do not know whether it was ever painted. The Volte also has some work by Bonaccorso di Cino, a painter whom I had previously encountered in Pistoia.
From the rooms below the transept we walk to the twelfth-century cloister next to the cathedral. Unfortunately only one side of the cloister has been preserved. What we see is nevertheless splendid, a superb combination of columns, arches and other elements made of green marble from Prato (marmo verde di Prato or serpentino) and pietra alberese. Pietra alberese is a type of stone that is usually white, but may turn brown after a while due to a natural process. We certainly noticed a few brown spots here in the cloister, and on the exterior of the cathedral as well. At the beginning of the thirteenth century a floor was added to the cloister, but it collapsed at the end of the fourteenth or beginning of the fifteenth century. The extra floor we see today was built in 1428.
We now leave the open air and enter the episcopal palace. The palace has an exhibition that has been set up in chronological order, although it should be noted that that order has been reversed. We start in the Sala del Seicento with art from the seventeenth century and beyond, and end our tour of the museum in the Sala del Due-Trecento, where we may admire the oldest objects in the collection, from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Sala del Cinquecento not only has paintings from the sixteenth century, but also the restrooms. When I had entered the room, I suddenly and completely unintentionally ended up in an argument with an Italian man. The man came walking in and appeared to be looking for something. I pointed towards the door of the restrooms and said ‘I bagni?’ (‘the toilets?’). Now you should know that this all took place in August of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. We all had to wear face masks and sanitize our hands. The masks made communication slightly more difficult and apparently the man had not heard ‘I bagni’, but ‘I mani’ (the hands). He thought I had ordered him to sanitize his hands and became quite angry, as he told me he had already done that upon entering the museum. I tried to explain that he had misunderstood me, but he was not interested in my explanation and angrily continued his tour of the museum.
I continued my tour as well and came to the Sala del Pulpito, which is dedicated to the beautiful external pulpit of the cathedral designed by Michelozzo (1396-1472) and decorated with sculpted reliefs by Donatello (1386-1466). His reliefs date from 1434-1438. Outside we now find replicas, as the originals have been moved to this room some fifty years ago. We see cherubs dancing and playing musical instruments such as horns and tambourines.
The next room is all about works from the Renaissance era. It has two genuine highlights on display. The first is a crucifix attributed to the great Florentine painter Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). The crucifix is notable for its realistic depiction of the nails that have been hammered through the hands and feet of Christ. The second highlight is a painting of Saint Jerome’s funeral. It was made around 1453 by Fra Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469). The large altarpiece also features the man who commissioned the work, Geminiano Inghirami (1370-1460). He was the provost of Santo Stefano and the man who had encouraged Lippi – and Michelozzo and Donatello – to come to Prato. Inghirami was almost 90 years old when he died. He was granted a beautiful funerary monument in the church of San Francesco in Prato and was succeeded by Carlo de’ Medici, an illegitimate son of Cosimo the Elder, Lord of Florence.
The Sala della Sacra Cintola is entirely dedicated to the Sacred Belt of the Virgin Mary, an extremely important relic that is kept in the cathedral. I have already told the story of the Belt on a previous occasion, but since it is relevant here as well, I will do a bit of copying and pasting and commit a little self-plagiarism. 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 most important works in the Sala della Sacra Cintola were made by the sculptor Niccolò del Mercia in 1359-1360. Two sculpted reliefs that have been put on display here were once part of an external pulpit of the Duomo that was decades older than the pulpit made by Michelozzo and Donatello. Unlike the present pulpit, the older version was not attached to the front of the building, but to the right flank. The splendid reliefs tell the story of how the Virgin gave her Belt to Saint Thomas and how Thomas placed the Belt in a box which he gave to the priest. Niccolò del Mercia also sculpted a Dormition of the Virgin (Dormitio Virginis) and a Coronation of the Virgin, although the latter work was never completed. Nowadays very few people remember Niccolò del Mercia, but it cannot be denied that he was a talented artist.
The final room to visit is the Sala del Due-Trecento. Here I especially liked a relief from 1262 made by Giroldo da Como. The relief features a Madonna and Child between Saint Michael the archangel and Saints Peter and Paul. It used to be in the Abbey of Montepiano, north of Prato. The abbot Benvenuto has also been depicted on the relief, but it takes some effort to spot him: he is the tiny figure kneeling at the Virgin’s right foot. Quite the opposite of tiny is the painted wooden head of Christ from ca. 1220-1230 (see above). It must have once been part of a very large crucifix. As regards paintings I would like to draw my readers’ attention to a fine panel by the Maestro di San Lucchese from about 1360 (again, see above). The Madonna and her slightly oversized Child are surrounded by twelve male and female saints. The panel previously stood or hung in the church of San Paolo in the village of Carteano.
This post is chiefly based on the information panels in the museum, which are in both Italian and English.