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home / guide / art & culture / history of Fiesole
Fiesole Fiesole (300 m. above sea level in Piazza Mino, its main square) is situated some 9 km. from the centre of Florence. It is the main town in a borough of 15,000 inhabitants. The territory itself covers about 42 square km. and is composed almost entirely of a series of hills. The town itself is linked to the Mugello by a road that runs along the hill ridges. A thick network of ancient roads ensures communication in all other directions. The countryside is punctuated by olive trees patches of conifer woods and copses, and by houses that, thanks to the wisdom born of long experience, have become totally integrated with nature. In 1983 the Town Council drew up various measures to help to maintain and preserve the landscape. These rules regulated the restoration of local farmhouses, thereby saving the cultural and ecological values of this precious inheritance of centuries of Tuscan farming culture. Industry is limited to small craft laboratories, while the large number of facilities and commercial activities have ensured that Fiesole and its surrounding district retain their characteristics as a residential and tourist area.

The area has been inhabited from at least as early as the Bronze Age (around 2000 B.C.). Traces of later settlements have been found through the successive Iron Age, when the Etruscan civilization reached its height (roughly from the 8th - 4th centuries B.C.). The Etruscans, who spoke a different language from the Italic and Latin populations in the peninsula, were strongly integrated with Greek culture, organized their territory into city-states and developed a rich and complex economy. Thus Fiesole first grew up around the sites of the earliest hilltop settlements. The town itself, marked by an imposing defensive wall that runs for more than 2,500 m. around the two hills, dates from the Hellenistic period (late 4th early 3rd century B.C.). Fiesole's geographic position made the town strategic for the traffic travelling-along all the main roads between southern and central Etruria to the South (covering large parts of presentday Tuscany, Umbria and Latium)and the Etruscans in the area around the Po valley. Fiesole was apparently allied with Rome against Hannibal in 217 B.C. In 90 B.C. Portius Cato destroyed the town, which had taken an anti-Roman stance during a civil war in the capital. Ten years later Fiesole was colonized by veterans from Silla's army, displacing the local farmers. In due course the town became the centre of Catiline's revolt against the Roman Republic and thus suffered the consequences of his defeat. By the second half of the 1st century B.C. Fiesole had been transformed into a typical Roman city. The new buildings included a theatre, which could seat 3,000, a new temple, to replace the earlier Etruscan version, and the baths. After the fall of the Empire, Fiesole was occupied by the Lombards (6th-7th century A.D.), as attested by the recovery of some tombs and objects. The Roman administrative district formed the basis for the organization of the Church, which explains why the diocese of Fiesole was so extensive. Bishop Jacopo the Bavaro founded the Cathedral in the 11th century. When Florence organized itself as a free town in the 12th century, it proceeded to conquer and destroy Fiesole, whose bishop was required to reside in Florence. Thenceforth the ruined town entered a phase of relative decline, reduced to supplying Florence with materials and skills. Fiesole thus became part of a wealth of memories and legends about the origins of Florence. Dante Alighieri makes mention of this in Divina Commedia.

Boccaccio, Poliziano, Lorenzo Il Magnifico
Giovanni Boccaccio's works leave no doubt that he felt the slopes of Fiesole to be a delightful place and the ideal setting for his narratives and his imaginative mythology. Since Renaissance times this countryside, celebrated by Poliziano and frequently visited by Lorenzo il Magnifico and the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, has been chosen as the haunt or country seat of well-to-do Florentine (and later foreign) families, whose splendid homes and villas remain as evidence today. Much later, after the second half of the 19th century, during the brief period when Florence was the capital of Italy (1865-70),Fiesole was affected by growing urban expansion with the construction of many new buildings, exclusive residences and housing for the middle class. The result was basically the Fiesole we can still see today. The remains of the Roman Theatre were excavated in 1873 under the direction of Marquis Carlo Strozzi, while the archaeological area and Civic Museum were opened shortly after in 1878. The museum's present home was built in 1914 and restored, enlarged and rearranged in 1981-1990.

The English at Fiesole
The presence of foreigners, and especially the English, plays a major part in the 19th century cultural renewal and rediscovery. The most prominent example of this is John Temple Leader's reconstruction of the Castle of Vincigliata, which was also accompanied by a revival of the Middle Age. This fashion even extended to restoration and landscape design (as with the Lake of the Columns on the estate of Maiano, the planting of cypress and ilex woods) and gave life to a taste that was only to wane at the beginning of this century. Most of the great fascination of Fiesole today is due to the splendid views all around. The countryside was reorganized and reshaped, the cypress tree, traditionally thought to have been introduced by the Etruscans, became a very fashionable decorative element for the great mansions in this area in the late 19th century. During the Renaissance, a wealthy and refined class of patrons enriched and embellished the fine houses and churches in the area, building many more villas and gardens, furnishing them with paintings, sculptures and artistic crafts, many of which have remained in their original locations. The period of Medici rule was fundamental for the redefinition of, the territory in ways that would serve the interests of Florence. The care that was taken is perceptible in whatever direction we turn, whether in the hills or the dales, even along the less important routes, where it is impossible not to admire the position and design of the scattered farmhouses and lordly residences. A census of 1870 listed 177 historic villas and 564 fine dwellings and farmhouses in the territory. Many of the churches, as well as the characteristic division of the land, with its cart tracks, fountains, dry stone terraced walls and ditches for irrigation or for running the mills, still survive to this day. Some names of place go back to Etruscan times, others to the Romans, and others still refer to the medieval period or to activities that have since disappeared. The crossroads are still marked by tabernacles, signs of devotion and, at the same time, by a social, cultural and spatial order that was consolidated over the centuries. An excursion to the quarries helps to get an idea of the scale of the stone working activity that was once carried out here. Thanks to this activity, the Renaissance architecture, so intimately bound up with decorative elements, was developed, and Florence and other areas in Italy became richer in art objects and in more practical building elements (paving, stairs, portals, brackets, fountains, chimney-pieces, benches, basins, facings and tablets).