How to Enjoy the Attractions of Pistoia
The attractions of Pistoia include fascinating historic buildings. A far-fetched theory. And a car-free town centre. In short, you have all the charms of Tuscany, apart from the maddening tourist crowds.
It was the far-fetched theory that made us stay in Pistoia for a few days. I had read that the town some 30 km north-west of Florence had given name to the pistol, which was manufactured by local gunsmiths and armouries in the 16th century, and wanted to check out whether the town was still up in arms.
A History of Violence
Before we proceed any further, it should be mentioned that the Pistoia-pistol theory has never been verified. In other words, it’s probably bogus, but it is true that 500 years ago Pistoia was an anarchic, violent place, when rivalling clans butchered each other in the streets. In fact, some people from other parts of Italy thought that Pistoians were a particularly barbaric breed with an inherent viciousness.
The painter Michelangelo (1475-1564) captured the sentiment (or the prejudice) in a letter, where he wrote
‘I have your letter, thank you, as received,
and I have read it many times, at least a score,
It’s clear you don’t need sharper teeth, any more
than one stuffed to the gills needs food. And since
I saw you last I’m assured, having more than hints,
you have Cain the killer himself for ancestor,
and that in your blood generic traits still fester:
if fortune befalls another, you feel aggrieved.
Jealous, conceited, enemies of heaven,
a neighbour’s kindness sets your teeth on edge,
you Pistoians, self-destructive, eye askance
on every virtue. The great Poet even
saw the truth.
Testimony like this, still gives Pistoia a certain thrill that nearby Lucca lacks, even though the last five centuries in this part of Tuscany have been marked by relative peace and tranquillity.
Exploring the Narrow Medieval Streets
After having parked the car in a garage outside the ZTL-zone and been installed in the cosily cluttered, family-run Canto alla Porta Vecchi a right in the centre of town, we went out to look for some action.
By Italian standards, it was a chilly evening out of season, and most of the locals had the good sense to stay at home. We had the narrow medieval alleys more or less to ourselves. We started out looking for a possible place of strife Via degli Orafi where the goldsmiths used to reign, but found only a golden example of Italian Liberty Style and a volatile Roman god.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele was fronted by a flying Mercury with his chick winged helmet and caduceus. In ancient Roman mythology, Mercury was the patron god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, poetry, messages, travelers, luck, trickery and thieves, which more or less covers us all.
He was also the guide of souls to the underworld, which wasn’t where we were heading, so we turned left through a street of lilies and ended up in Via dei Fabbri, which used to be the blacksmiths’ domain. I didn’t see any workshops forging knives or pistols behind the protection grills and roller shutters that lined the street, and there was no animosity lurking anywhere.
The historic tensions among Pistoians had clearly been abandoned centuries ago. Along with the practical medieval custom of naming streets by trade or occupation.
The Unspoiled Wonders of Piazza del Duomo
From the maze of restricted passageways, we reached the wonderful Piazza del Duomo, where pure family bliss took over with lots of children playing catch and chasing pigeons. There were no outdoor cafés or restaurants around, so we sat down on the steps of a Gothic palace and took in the magnificent square that must be one of the most unspoiled beauties in Tuscany.
To the right the spiritual side of Pistoia was massively present with a cathedral, baptistery and bishop’s palace, while houses exhibiting power and wealth lined the northern side of the square. In the middle, there’s a typical Ghibelline type bell tower with swallow-tailed crenellations.
According to the tourist office on the ground floor of the Bishop’s Palace, you are welcome to climb the 200 steps to the top of the 67 metres high campanile. From there you might try to convince yourself that you can see the outline of Florence in the distance.