A journey in the Florence province: Empolese – Valdelsa
The territory of Empoli-Valdelsa, which lies in a central position among three world-famous cities of art, Florence, Pisa and Siena, offers tourists both cultural and natural treasures still to be discovered by mass tourism. Leaving the middle area of the Arno, our journey takes us towards the Montalbano hills to the North or Valdelsa to the South.
On our way we meet areas of historical and artistic interest, where museums (sometimes not well known but without a doubt valuable), villages and hamlets immersed in typical Tuscan hillside scenery, and areas of naturalistic importance. Far from the flux of mass tourism, the territory is still an important cross-roads for communication in the Florentine area and an ideal area for those tourist who may be attracted by universally famous names such as Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci and Pontormo, and who want to spend their holidays in quiet but welcoming areas, with well-preserved landscape, among history, nature and tradition, which especially means the production of Chianti wine and olive oil, craftsmanship of ceramics, glass and leather goods.
The township of Cerreto Guidi lies between two areas of great naturalistic interest, Montalbano to the East and the Padule (Westlands) of Fucecchio to the West, and is predominantly an agricultural hill area. The inhabitants of the countryside are widespread and the rural landscape has kept its own balance, being still rich in traditional vineyards and olive groves. Against a background of a well-kept and preserved countryside, we can see the homesteads, farms, villas and churches so typical of Tuscan hillside scenery. The first historical references to Cerreto date back to 780. The name Cerreto in Greti was used until 1079 when it was changed due to dominion by the Guidi counts. The end of the feudal age and the hand-over of Cerreto to the Florentines officially took place in 1273. The 17th century was fundamental to the history of Cerreto, when its future was sealed by linking the name of the city to the Medici family.
The Medicean Complex, which bears witness to the rule of the family over the village, stands in a central position. It is made up of the Museo Villa Medicea, the farm, which is separated from the manor house by the Parish church of San Leonardo, and the four stone staircases leading to the square in front of the villa, known as the ponti medicei (Medicean bridges).
The area was obviously so dear to Cosimo dei Medici that he wanted to build a splendid residence on the peak of one of the hills where a then-derelict Guidi castle bore witness to their previous dominion. In 1564 the Grand duke wrote a letter giving consent for work to be started, and in a document of 1575 it is shown that the Medici architect Bernardo Buontalenti, presumably the villa’s designer, was in the area. The brickwork and stone facade of the Villa is austere, but is balanced by the stone staircases leading to the square, the so-called bridges, thus giving a strong chromatic contrast.
The villa’s interior is extremely rigorous and embellished with pictorial decorations dating back to the 19th century. The villa is the seat of the Museo Storico of the Hunting and of the Territory.
Due to lack of documentation, the origins of the Parish church of San Leonardo are unknown. Inside the church, the baptismal font is of artistic note, made of glazed polychrome terracotta from the workshop of Giovanni della Robbia.
This town appears in documents of the 8th century as a castle, but the city was nised in 1119 as organised around the Parish church of Sant’Andrea. Today the town is still organised around Piazza Farinata degli Uberti where the most important historical buildings of the city are to be found: the Palazzo Ghibellino, which houses the Museo Paleontologico and the Archivio Storico, and the Palazzo Pretorio, which was at one time the town hall. But the most noteworthy building, both for its age and importance, is the Collegiata di Sant’Andrea, which dates back to 1093. The two-tone marble facade marks the furthest western reach of the aristocratic architectural influence of the Florentine Romanesque style.
The church of Santo Stefano (14th-15th Century) and its connected Convento degli Agostiniani (16th century) lie not far away. The church contains remains of many important frescoes and synopties by Masolino da Panicale and a splendid marble Annunciation by Bernardo Rossellino. It is also possible to visit the Casa Natale di Ferrucio Busoni (Birthplace of Ferruccio Busoni) (1866-1924), which now houses a museum dedicated to the great musician and the Study center named after him.
The parish church of San Michele in Pontorme, home of the painter Jacopo Carrucci, also known as il Pontormo (1494-1556), contains the two famous paintings of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Michael Archangel. The painter’s birthplace is to be found on the main street that crosses the hamlet.
Due to a centuries-long tradition of artists and craftsmen the glass industry represents one of the oldest production activities of the Empolese area. Even today, objects made of glass, crystal and the traditional Empolese green glass are created in an environment that has changed very little.
One of the oldest ecclesiastical museums, its architectural origins were founded in the background of the Renaissance movement. The current layout dates back to 1990. There is an attractive Baptistery with a monumental baptismal font attributed to Bernardo Rossellino and among the frescoes there is the masterpiece by Masolino depicting The Deposed Christ, from where we move on to the sculpture hall.
The painting gallery is on the upper floor, where the works are arranged chronologically, from the polyptych by the Pistoiese artist named Maestro Pistoiese in 1336 to the interesting products from Florentine workshops, most productive between the end of the 14th century and the start of the 15th century. We then move on to fully Quattrocento-style works, with masterpieces such as the two triptychs by Lorenzo Monaco and the small Madonna in Majesty by Filippo Lippi. The next room contains the works of the Botticini artists, whose workshop was active until the first decades of the 15th century. Finally there are other works from the late 15th and 16th centuries and also some 17th century works. The museum itinerary finishes in the upper part of the cloister, where some Robbia works are on display.
Since ancient times Montelupo, which lies between Montalbano and the river Arno, has been an important cross-roads for communication between the Florentine area, the Apennine world and the Tyrrhenian coast. Its location and the presence of waterways helped to develop numerous craft activities, especially ceramics, which reached its greatest splendor in the course of the 15th and 16th centuries.
This art is still alive in the numerous artistic ceramics workshops. Every year in the month of June there is the “Festa Internazionale della Ceramica” (International Ceramics Festival) where the area’s history and traditions are re-enacted in a series of exhibitions and artistic events.
The origins of Montelupo probably coincide with the building of a castle at the end of the High Middle Ages. When the Florentine republic conquered this area in 1204, rebuilt and enlarged the ancient military stronghold. In the 14th century (1333-36) a new city wall, which can still be made out, was erected to protect the inhabitants. At the end of the 1500s the Medici built a large villa on the left bank of the river Arno in the nearby locality of Ambrogiana, which has been the seat of the Judiciary Psychiatric Hospital since the last century.
THE ARCHEOLOGICAL-TECHNOLOGICAL AND NATURALISTIC PARK (P.A.N)
An area of land situated between the residential area of Pulica and the Pesa and Virginio rivers was set aside to create a park where the archaeological remains also safeguard the environment. The archaeological dig area of the Roman Villa, dated to between 80 and 60 BC, is now visible from the outside and may be visited with a pre-arranged guided visit organized with the Museum’s offices.
The Museum is divided into two thematic areas: archaeology of the area and the history of Montelupo ceramics.
The first section shows the results of more than twenty years of digs and topographic research, which have contributed to turning Montelupo into one of the most important Tuscan prehistoric collections, but it also includes vast documentation of many Proto-Historic, Etruscan and Roman sites of the Florentine Middle Valdarno.
On the two upper floors, the museum houses the archaeological exhibits concerning the production of ceramics in Montelupo from the origins of this art (in the late 13th century) to the end of the Modern age. The exhibition starts with the first archaic majolica pieces and continues with objects dating back to the 1400s,thus demonstrating the strong position that Montelupo was gaining among Tuscan ceramics producing towns. The objects, which are almost all majolica, are inspired by the prestigious enamel vases of the time originating in Valenzano art, from which the Montelupo style became progressively distinct in the last decades of the century. A growing crisis in the sector, which became irreversible in the mid-seventeenth century, led to the creation of objects with limited decorations and lower cost.
The town is situated on the slopes of Montalbano, surrounded by an agricultural landscape which has remained unaltered since the last century and the system of share cropping has allowed it to remain virtually intact until the present day, with agricultural production traditionally based on Chianti wine and extra-virgin olive oil.
In this context there is a widespread network of footpaths and cycle paths which can be used to reach hillside villages surrounded by dense vegetation, archaeological sites, ancient woods such as the ilex wood of Pietramarina. Some of the itineraries start directly from Vinci. Path number 14, with the first part called Strada Verde (1hour round trip), takes you to the “Casa natale di Leonardo” (Birthplace of Leonardo).
Modern day Vinci is still dominated by the primitive construction of the Castle of the Guidi Counts, dating back to the late Middle Ages when the town was conquered by Florence and changed into a Commune. After many changes of command and modifications the original castle returned to the ownership of the Commune of Vinci in 1919 and since 1953 it has been the seat of the Museo Leonardiano. Inside we can still see frescoed and sculpted coats of arms, and the splendid ceramic Madonna and Child by Giovanni della Robbia.
3 km from Vinci, in the area of Anchiano, the Casa Natale di Leonardo can be integrated into a visit to the Museum. The building, surrounded by an attractive hillside panorama, contains a permanent educational show. The Biblioteca Leonardiana completes our cultural itinerary. It is a documentation center specialized in the works of Leonardo, and is a meeting place for scholars both from Italy and abroad.
This library is one of the largest and most original collections of designs by Leonardo the Inventor, the Technologist and the Engineer. The machines on show are organized into different sectors of study and the large collection of Leonardo’s drawings is just as vast and versatile, showing how the artist used to note down his intuitions or adapt and refine machinery and mechanisms that had been handed down from the technical literature of the 1400s.
At the start of the itinerary a large panel shows the important steps in the life and works of Leonardo in relation to the main historical cultural and social events of the time. But the visitor’s attention is immediately caught by the models of Leonardo’s machines, from war machines to ship-building equipment and scientific instruments.
The theme presented in the first-floor rooms is more homogeneous: Leonardo and machines for moving air, water, and on land, three different sections of research organically exhibited in a second panel dedicated to the Course of Technology from 1300 to the start of the 20th century.
The video room and the video library, which allow documentaries on Leonardo to be shown on request, contains 8 models of solid figures designed for the De Divina Proportione of Luca Pacioli.
With the opening of a New Section of the Leonardo Museum, the museum complex with the Library can be seen as a complete documentation center on Leonardo and his age, as well as a location for educational programmes in the cultural heritage sector. The new buildings contain a multimedia laboratory and a well equipped teaching room.
Capraia and Limite sull’Arno
Partly located on the slopes of Montalbano, the area of the Commune covers a typically Tuscan hillside landscape. It is criss-crossed by a network of hill-walking paths radiating out from the ridge to reach Limite or carry on as far as Capraia. Along the routes, which often follow the Roman lines of march of Montalbano, we can find religious buildings of great architectural note dating from Medieval times. Travellers should visit the Romanesque rural church of San Jacopo a Pulignano (only visible from the outside), and the Abbazia di San Martino in Campo which was built near Artimino around the year 1000.
On the hill of Bibbiani, to the East of Montereggi, the Frescobaldi family built a villa in the 16th century which was later transformed by Cosimo Ridolfi in the early 1800s into a “Romantic” park where Giacomo Puccini often stayed, and a botanical garden with 120 different species of trees (visits only with previous booking).
The history of Capraia and Limite is linked to the presence of an important waterway, the River Arno, which contributed to its continuity and promoted economical and cultural exchange,
From the 1500s it was also the river which gave the impulse to ship and boat production, aided by the presence in the area of thick woods of suitable trees, thus creating a tradition of “master axe-wielders” which has continued up to the present day with individual recognition on a national level of the skills used in production of sea-going vessels and competition ships in the shipyards which are still hard at work today. The link with the river also led to the creation of the Limite Rowing Club in 1861.
Fucecchio is situated half way between Florence and Pisa. It lies on the right bank of the Arno near the natural basin of the Padule, or Wetlands, from which it has taken its name, and also near the hilly Cerbaie area.
On the Poggio Salamartano, a beautiful panoramic point over the Lower Valdarno, we can find the 12th century Vallombrosan Abbazia di S. Salvatore and the Collegiata di S. Giovanni church. The Palazzo Montanelli-Della Volta, which is now the seat of the Fondazione Montanelli-Bassi, has medieval origins and was re-organised in the 16th-17th century.
It is important to note the Medicean Ponte Cappiano, ordered to be built by Cosimo I around the middle of the 16th century. The 16th century Franciscan convent, known as the Chiesa della Vergine alle cinque vie is also worth visiting, with its frescoed cloister by Carlini, the oratory of Madonna della Ferruzza, with a valuable fresco from the 15th century Florentine school and the Church of Santa Maria delle Vedute with its beautiful Baroque ceiling, built in the 18th century.
The economy of Fucecchio is mainly based on leather goods production (shoes, handbags etc.), famous both in Italy and around the world. However, the agricultural sector has remained important due to its production of oil, Chianti and sparkling wines.
Every year on the last Sunday of May, Fucecchio holds its Palio delle Contrade, a historical parade and bareback horse race.
The Padule di Fucecchio (Wetlands of Fucecchio) is the most important Italian inland marsh area, and holds particular interest because its warm climate plants live in close proximity with plants of Nordic origin. The best time for bird-watching, especially heron watching, starts during the Spring. The aviary of the marshland is home to several species of waterfowl and the rare crested heron. It is also possible to observe the marshland falcon, several species of duck and interesting migratory birds, such as osprey and storks. Inside the Padule there are 9 nature walks which can be done on foot, preferably in Springtime.
Another area with interesting natural habitats and landscapes to visit is the hill area of the Cerbaie, which has a characteristic sequence of olive groves, meadows dotted with trees and thick woodlands with mostly oaks and resinous trees.
A visit should also be made to the Commune’s Cultural center and Library, and the Raccolta Comunale d’Arte in Via Tilli, which contains important frescoes and sinopites by Benozzo Gozzoli painted between 1484 and 1490. In the Castelfiorentino fresco cycle the artist, a student of Beato Angelico, brought about the invention of the sinopites and partial interventions in the laying of fresco pigments. His work in the smaller towns of the Province contain some notes of popular archaisms which, however, allowed him to develop an extraordinarily original poetic vein in the better works found in Valdelsa.
Not far away is the church of S. Francesco, a notable example of 13th Century Franciscan architecture, recently restored and re-opened. The church of S. Verdiana, is also worth a visit, as it was completely rebuilt at the start of the 18th century on the ancient oratory of S. Antonio, and is one of the best preserved examples of early 18th century architecture and pictorial art in Tuscany. Next to the church there is an art gallery with some valuable pieces.
As well as offering atmospheric views over magnificent landscapes, the countryside around Castelfiorentino is rich with historical and artistic treasures.
The Cappella della Madonna della Tosse, in the Dogana area, is another characteristic church, from which some of the Benozzo Gozzoli frescoes were taken. From here it is possible to reach the village of Castelnuovo d’Elsa, an autonomous commune even in the Middle Ages, in the center of an area which still bears the signs of man’s dominance over nature so typical of Tuscan rural culture in the 18th and 19th centuries, and for which the Marchese Cosimo Ridolfi is best remembered with his Meleto estate.
Since the end of the Second World War, Castelfiorentino has had energetic development of extra-agricultural activities, prevalently small businesses (mostly craftsmen) concentrated on tailoring and dressmaking, cabinet-making, mechanical and ceramics production. In this prevalently industrial context, a good level of agriculture has also been maintained, especially in medium and large scale farms, with the production of high quality wine and olive oil, as well as the introduction of new crops (sunflowers, rape-seed, etc.). Since the 1980s there has been a notable increase in service industries, helping to make Castelfiorentino into a service center for the whole Lower Valdelsa area. Farm-staystead accommodation has also been very carefully developed in this area.
The natural heritage of the territory of Certaldo, which includes areas of natural and geological interest, has been improved by the Commune’s initiatives to safeguard and conserve the environment, also for a correct use for sporting and recreational activities.
The programme “Dolce Campagna, Antiche Mura”(Gentle countryside, Ancient City Walls) has been geared towards natural and cultural excursions, with four itineraries for hill-walking, mountain bike and horse-riding, all joined together in a four-leafed clover design and connected by a large ring-shaped path (130 km), with the same number of itineraries in the surrounding communes and with a “halting place” in the Fiano locality which offers overnight and longer term accommodation.
The River Park has recently been created to follow the banks of the River Elsa, including an area from Gambassi Terme as far as Castelfiorentino. The Hill Park, equipped by the Presbytery has also been opened recently: a wonderful wooded area for excursions and picnics, also equipped with professional open-air gymnastic equipment.
The agricultural traditions of the area, which are characteristic of this hilly area, are especially concentrated on production of extra-virgin olive oil and D.O.C.G.Chianti wine. The precious white truffle is gathered here and farm-stay accommodation has been undertaken by many farmsteads which also offer their own products directly to the public.
The craftsmen and small industries of the area are of a similar high standard, concentrating on production of footwear, picture frames, furniture restoration, mechanics and the production of typical regional salami.
Certaldo also offers a wide variety of accommodation, ranging from quiet stays to active holidays, as well as opportunities to sample the typical Tuscan cuisine, both in the Medieval and modern villages.
The Palazzo Pretorio, built in the 12th century, was the residence of the Alberti Counts, and was later enlarged and modified to serve the purposes of the Vicariate. In the Palazzo and the now de-consecrated annexed church of SS. Tommaso e Prospero (from the early 13th century), we can admire frescoes and sinopites from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Certaldo Alto is the home of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), one of the fathers of the Italian language. The novelist’s house and his tomb are still preserved (the tomb is in the church of SS. Jacopo e Filippo).
Boccaccio’s house, a tower and a loggia rebuilt after the Second World War, is now the seat of the National Boccaccio Study center, with a rich library and a notable collection (over 500) of contemporary artists’ work which is periodically exhibited in the hall of the Palazzo Pretorio, and the “Premio Boccaccio”, a prize awarded to modern-day writers who have had critical success.
After thousands of years of agricultural traditions and craftsmanship, the modern city is now tending towards an image of Natural Tourism and the thermal springs. In fact the springs themselves, together with the verdant countryside, offer the most congenial side of Gambassi’s range of tourism.
The water of Pillo has been famous for years for its curative powers, and has been defined by the experts as a “sum of curative effects”, similar to the waters of Vichy, with medicinal qualities unrivalled by the best thermal springs.
These waters contain sodium bicarbonate salts, sulphates and alkaline salts and are particularly recommended for treatment of the digestive system. The ideal period for thermal remedies is from April to October.
A large public garden with centuries-old trees is connected to the Spa Complex in the old center of the town.
Gambassi Terme is situated in an extraordinary environmental habitat, both for historical and artistic treasures that the area contains, and for its ideal climatic conditions. It boasts copses and pine woods that cover 60% of the territory and create an enviable natural framework for recreational activities. The woods, olive groves and farm-castles are becoming more and more popular with people who find in farm-stay accommodation a new answer to their needs for alternative holidays to re-discover the country ways of life. To further improve and safeguard the habitat of this large wooded area, the project “Dolce Campagna, Antiche Mura” has been set up, with itineraries suitable for hill-walking, horse riding or mountain bikes.
Some important annual events are “Classica”, the festival of chamber music in June, the “Mostra Mercato” or antique fair in the last week of August, and several shows under the name of “Valdelsaestate”.
The castle took its name from Allone di Lucca, and was mentioned in ancient maps as “Mons Allonis”, later corrected to “Montaione”. It was already a commune in 1257, and was involved in the wars between San Gimignano, Volterra and San Miniato, but it sided prevalently with the Republic of Florence. From1200 the art of glass-working was practised, which later spread to the rest of the Valdelsa.
Today, Montaione is a quiet city with its well preserved old town center, made up of a simple town plan crossed by three parallel streets which then join to reach the town gates. Unfortunately little remains of the ancient town walls, which were mainly destroyed by German mines in 1944 together with the town gates and the towers. Of note is the Palazzo Pretorio (14th century) with its facade embellished by several coats of arms. Today it is the seat of the Commune’s Library and the Mu
Montaione’s main economic resource today is “Green Tourism”, developed by renovating old country farmhouses and villages abandoned in the 1960s, which have now been transformed into alternative recreational centers (holiday apartments, farm-stay and bed and breakfast) with an availability of around 2000 places.
These centers have swimming pools, tennis courts, and an 18-hole golf course is also available in Castelfalfi.
The territory is criss-crossed by a network of hill-walking paths, clearly signposted along the way and shown on a tourist map published by the Commune.
There is a water discharge point for motor homes and caravans in Montaione’s Piazza Nunziatina (this is a free 24-hour service).
Within the territory of the commune we find the Sacro Monte di San Vivaldo, where the Franciscan Vivaldo Stricchi da S. Gimignano retired as a hermit in the 14th century. He was found dead in the hollow trunk of a chestnut tree which he used as a home and later an oratory was erected on the spot. Later, around 1515, Fra’ Tommaso da Firenze ordered a group of chapels to be built with terracotta decorations representing scenes from the Life and Passion of Christ, and a scale reproduction of the topography of Palestine. For this reason the area has been called the “Jerusalem of Tuscany”.
Of note are the permanent exhibition in the former convent barn and the festival of classical music held in the cloister in the month of July.
The commune of Montespertoli is situated on the characteristic central Tuscan hills, in the area of Chianti. The village is 25 km. from Florence and is centrally located for tourists to visit the centers of Pisa, San Gimignano, Siena and Volterra.
In the past, even as far back as the Etruscan age, the territory of Montespertoli had an important role due to its central position, allowing Florence to carry out trade along the Via Volterrana which crossed the modern-day commune from North to South and connected with the Via Francigena. This enormous district, with a notable range of agricultural tourism activities, is rich in valuable historical and archaeological references, such as the village of Lucardo, the castles of Poppiano and Montegufoni, the convent of Botinaccio and innumerable churches dating from Mediaeval times.
Today Montespertoli is best known as one of the Tuscan wine capitals, and the annual Festa di Montespertoli is a fixed date for the major producers of Chianti wine. As well as the Chianti show usually held between May and June, there is the Festival of the Novello Wine, held in early November, Paneolio (a festival of local bread and oil) and many other gastronomic festivals which involve the main villages in the territory.
Since the mid 1950s, Montespertoli has seen great developments in the non-agricultural area and, in particular, a growth in craftsman industries and small scale industrial production, especially in the sectors of tailoring and ceramics.
All the villages in the Commune have a rich variety of places to eat, serving typical Tuscan cuisine, and it has an important tourist-sports center in the Molino del Ponte area (football pitch, covered tennis courts, five-a-side football pitches, clay pigeon shooting, gymnasium, swimming pool, hotel and restaurant) and a series of hill-walking on the “Dolce Campagna Antiche Mura” circuit.
The Museum of sacred art is housed in the thousand year-old Parish church of San Piero in Mercato and holds innumerable treasures gathered from the churches of the Commune which are no longer in use. The museum is the result of collaboration between various organizations and the aim of the exhibition is to group together the works from each church and then of the churches in the same parish. It is possible to admire not only precious works from the 15th and 16th centuries, including church silverware, but also documentation and wall decorations which have been collected in this museum due to their extreme sensitivity to light and humidity.
Where to stay in Empoli
There are numerous high quality hotels, villas, apartments and agriturismi (Farm stays) available, check them out and make a reservation here.