Florence liked to look at itself as the daughter of Rome, and in its fractious heyday explained its quarrelsome nature by the fact that its population from the beginning was of mixed race, of Romans and ‘that ungrateful and malignant people who of old came down from Fiesole’, according to Dante (of course, Dante’s family claimed to be descended from a Roman soldier).
First settled in the 2nd millennium BC, Fiesole grew to become the most important Etruscan city in the region. Yet from the start Etruscan Faesulae’s relationship with Rome was rocky, especially after sheltering Catiline and his conspirators in 65 BC. Because of its lofty position, Fiesole was too difficult to capture, so the Romans built a camp below on the Arno to cut off its supplies. Eventually Fiesole was taken, and it dwindled as the Roman camp below grew into Florentia, growth the Romans encouraged to spite the feisty old Etruscans on their hill.
This easily defended summit, however, ensured Fiesole’s survival in the Dark Ages. When times became safer, families began to move back down to the Arno to rebuild Florence. They returned to smash up most of Fiesole after defeating it in 1125; since then the little town has remained aloof, an independent comune, letting Florence dominate and choke in its own juices far, far below.
But ever since the days of the Decameron, whose storytellers retreated to its garden villas to escape the plague, Fiesole has played the role of Florence’s aristocratic suburb; its cool breezes, beautiful landscapes and belvedere views make it the perfect refuge from the torrid Florentine summers. There’s no escaping the tourists, however; we foreigners have been tramping up and down Fiesole’s hill since the days of Shelley.
The bus will leave you on the long sloping stage of Piazza Mino, the ancient forum and still Fiesole’s centre, with its cafés, restaurants, and the Palazzo Pretorio (14th–15th century) at the far end, its loggia and façade encrusted with coats of arms of the podestàs who governed here. A market is held in front of the Palazzo Pretorio on Saturday mornings.
The square is named after a favourite son, the quattrocento sculptor Mino da Fiesole, whom Ruskin preferred to all others.
The Duomo, on the north side of the piazza was built in 1028 and was the only building spared by the vindictive Florentines in 1125. It was subsequently enlarged and given a scouring 19th-century restoration, leaving the tall, crenellated campanile as its sole distinguishing feature.
Still, the interior has an austere charm, with a raised choir over the crypt similar to San Miniato. Up the steps to the right are two beautiful works by Mino da Fiesole: the Tomb of Bishop Leonardo Salutati and an altar front.
The main altarpiece in the choir, of the Madonna and saints, is a late work by Lorenzo di Bicci, from 1440. Note the two saints frescoed on the columns; it was a north Italian custom to paint holy people as if they were members of the congregation. The crypt, holding the remains of Fiesole’s patron and first bishop, St Romulus, is supported by ancient columns bearing doves, spirals and other early Christian symbols.
Another saint buried here is St Donatus, an Irish monk, the friend of Emperors Louis the Pious and Lothair, who was walking back to Ireland after a stay in Rome and walked in the cathedral in 826, just as the people were praying for a good bishop. He was very popular in Tuscany (Donatello was named after him), founded the abbey of San Martino di Mensola and is buried in the cathedral, where his self-penned epitaph can be seen.
Also in Piazza Mino is the little oratory of Santa Maria Pimerana, built over a Roman temple and housing reliefs by Francesco da Sangallo, including a self portait of 1542.
By the Duomo, take rather steep Via S. Francesco up to the hill that served as the Etruscan and Roman acropolis. Halfway up is a little garden with extraordinary views of Florence and the Arno sprawl, with a monument to the three gallant carabinieri who gave themselves up to be shot by the Nazis in 1944 to prevent them from taking civilian reprisals.
Above this is another panoramic terrace and, opposite, the Basilica di Sant’Alessandro was constructed over an Etruscan/Roman temple in the 6th century, reusing its lovely cipollino marble columns and Ionic capitals, one still inscribed with an invocation to Venus.
At the top of the hill, square on the ancient acropolis, stands the Convento San Francesco (founded in 1399), which preserves the cell of its most famous friar, San Bernadine of Siena. The church containing an early cinquecento Annunciation by Raffaellino del Garbo, an Immaculate Conception by Piero di Cosimo and a triptych by Bicci di Lorenzo.
A grab-bag of odds and ends collected from the four corners of the world, especially from Egypt and China, is displayed in the quaint Franciscan Missionary Museum in the cloister (open Tues–Sun 9.30am–noon and 2.30-6pm, donations; +39 055 59175.
Return to Piazza Mino, walk past the cathedral and turn left into Via Dupré, site of the Museo Bandini and diagonally across the road, the entrance to the what remains of ancient Faesulae in the Area Archeologica along with the Museo Archeologico (see box for hours).
Because Fiesole stayed out of trouble in the Dark Ages, its Roman monuments have survived in much better shape than those of Florence; although hardly spectacular, the ruins are charmingly set amid olive groves and cypresses. The small Roman Theatre has survived well enough to host plays and concerts in the summer; Fiesole would like to gently remind you that in ancient times it had the theatre and plays while Florence had the amphitheatre and wild beast and gladiator shows (although no long quite true, as excavations under the Palazzo Vecchio have shown).
Within the Roman complex are the rather confusing remains of two superimposed temples, the baths, and a stretch of Etruscan walls (best seen from Via delle Mure Etrusche, below) that proved their worth against Hannibal’s siege.
The Archaeology Museum is housed in a small 20th-century Ionic temple, displaying some very early small bronze figurines with flapper wing arms, Etruscan funerary urns and stelae, including the ‘stele Fiesolana’ with a banquet scene. It also contains the Costantini Collection of pottery from Greece, Magna Grecia and Etruria.
Fiesole also has more recent art: see the Fondazione Primo Conti, once home to Florence's best known Futurist.
There are several lovely options for more walking if you have the time and energy. One is a walk from Piazza Mino into Borgunto, the east end of town, starting by the Palazzo Pretorio. Take Via S. Maria, eventually becoming panoramic Via Belvedere, which leads to another enchanting view over Florence. Continue left on Via Adriano Mari, along a long stretch of Etruscan walls.
In a couple of kilometres you’ll come to the bucolic Parco di Monte Ceceri, a wooded park where Leonardo da Vinci convinced his pupil, Zoroastro da Peretola, to perform the first human flight experiments (Zoroastro was badly hurt but survived) while working on the Battle of Anghiari fresco in the and where the Florentine architects found their beloved dark pietra serena (or pietra fiesolana) in quarries which are now abandoned but open for exploration.
The other two walks will take you down towards Florence. For scenery, the most enchanting (but quite lengthy) route is to take Via G. Matteotti, Via Francesco Ferrucci and Via di Vincigliata and pass by Fiesole’s castles, the Castel di Poggio and the Castel di Vincigliata (both popular wedding venues), built on the site of a ruin dating back to 1031, while further down is famous American critic Bernard Berenson’s Villa I Tatti. From here the road descends towards Ponte a Mensola and Settignano, with buses back to Florence.
The second road down, the steep and narrow Via Vecchia Fiesolana, passes, on the left, the Tavernacolo del Proposto, with a fresco attributed to Perugino. When you reach Viuzzo degli Angeli, look right to the remains of an Etruscan gate, and look left to see the Villa Medici (or Belcanto). The terrace just below was Queen Victoria’s favourite spot in Florence.
At the bottom on the lane, in Piazzale San Domenico, the convent of San Domenico di Fiesole, where Fra Angelico took his vows.
It’s a five-minute walk down the Via Badia to the Badia Fiesolana, built in the 9th century by St Donatus and, until 1026, the cathedral of Fiesole, with a fine view over the rolling countryside and Florence in the background. Although later enlarged, perhaps by Brunelleschi, it has preserved, like a patch on the otherwise incomplete front, the Tuscan Romanesque façade of the older church, a charming example of the geometric green and white marble inlay decoration. The interior (open Mon-Fri 9am-5.30pm, Sat 9am-12.30pm) is highlighted with pietra serena in the style of Brunelleschi. The convent buildings next door are now the home of the European University Institute.
You can take a No.7 bus back to Florence from Piazza San Domenico or continue down Via San Domenica, Via della Piazzuola and Via delle Forbici, passing by Villa Il Reppiedi, where the words on the wall read: A Matre et filia aeque disto (I am halfway between the Mother, Fiesole, and the Daughter, Florence). Further down on the right is the Villa Bondi, also known as Il Garofano, which once belonged to the Alighieri family, before passing onto the Portinari in 1322. On the left, is the grand Villa Ventaglio, with its magnificent park.
Further down, the road runs into Viale Volta (where buses 3 and 7 will take you back to the centre).
Start: Piazza Mino, Fiesole is a 20min trip up on ATAF bus No. 7 from Piazza San Marco.
Hours Area Archeologica and Museo Archeologico: Nov-Feb Wed-Mon 10am-3pm; Mar & Oct daily 10am-6pm; Apr-Sept daily 9am-7pm Adm €10, ages 7-18 €6
Tourist information: Fiesole tourist office, Via Portigiani 3 (near the entrance to the Teatro Romano), +39 055 596 1323.
Images by: Sailko, GNU Creative Commons License, Paul Albertella, Alessandro Vecchi, Creative Commons License, Mongolo1984, Creative Commons License