No wonder Pistoia is Tuscany’s least visited city. One guidebook describes it as “gloomy.” The phrase “murderous reputation” also appears with alarming frequency. Obviously I had to go take a look. It sounded like my kind of place.
It might be yours, too. The reality is that Pistoia, Italy is an attractive and livable city with a wealth of medieval curiosities. My guess is that it gets neglected because of its proximity to Florence—only a 40-minute drive away. Florence has so many treasures of its own, it seems perverse to travel even a short distance for what sounds a very unpromising day out.
Pistoia’s residents probably welcome the dearth of foreign visitors. For one thing, prices in bars and restaurants aren’t pitched at rook-the-tourist level. Try getting a cup of coffee for a euro on the terrace of a cafe-bar in central Florence! You can here. And wouldn’t you want shops that sold useful things like groceries and electrical appliances, not kitschy souvenirs?
As in most Italian cities, there’s more than a centro storico. Many of Pistoia’s 90,000 inhabitants live in modern suburbs. Beyond lie acres of plant and tree nurseries—this is Italy’s horticultural heart.
Average property prices aren’t easily calculated, but most apartments are in the 2,000 to 3,000 euro ($2,900 to $4,350) per square meter range. That’s around half the cost of Florence. One of the real estate contacts I met on this trip has furnished one-bedroom apartments to rent for 450 euro ($650) and 500 euro ($730) a month.
I don’t know where Pistoia’s “gloom” is supposed to be. The city has jazz bars, Blues Festivals, and jousting tournaments. And its medieval alleyways are no more shadowy than in other Tuscan cities. They lead into sun-splashed piazzas where color jumps out everywhere.
Renaissance palaces are painted pink and ochre. On Piazza del Duomo, the cathedral is banded with green and white marble and contains one of Italy’s most magnificent silver altars. So too is the octagonal Baptistery. This square is the site of the Saturday market. Bargains include good quality men’s shirts for $7 and ladies sweaters for $15.
A few steps away, on Piazza della Sala, there’s nothing drab about the daily fruit and vegetable market. At its center is a handsome marble well, the Well of the Lioncub, a gift from the Medicis. The townsfolk of former times may have taken the name too literally. This was once the meat market. Until the practice was banned in the 15th century, the well was where to chuck any unwanted bits of beast.
My favorite art work is at the medieval hospital, Ospedale del Ceppo.
Founded in 1277, it was named after a ceppo (tree stump) where alms for the poor were left. Along its facade is Giovanni della Robbia’s sumptuous frieze of glazed majolica panels. Dating from the early 1500s, the colorful figures depict a concept known as the Seven Corporal Acts of Mercy: clothing the naked, housing the pilgrim, caring for the sick, etc.
As for Pistoia’s murderous reputation, that’s old history. It stems from the rule of the Guelphs, when the city topped the Tuscan league table for bloodshed and violence. Michelangelo described them as the “enemies of heaven.”
Machiavelli also recounted an incident of wooden swordplay where one child got slightly injured. Saying “sword wounds are cured with iron, not with words,” the boy’s vengeful Guelph father hacked off the other child’s hand.
Some of the first firearms were made in Pistoia, and it’s where the word pistol originates. But in earlier times, a pistolese was a dagger. The city was renowned for its beautifully wrought silver blades. No doubt every local assassin had one.
But I don’t know what weapon was used on the sons of Signor Melani, a 17th-century Pistoiese bellringer. He had four of his seven boys castrated so they could acquire the angelic voices of castrati singers. Spare them a thought when you hear the Duomo’s bells.
Editor’s Note: You can read more Italy articles here.