Fiesole is one of the most perfect day trips from Florence: it has so much to offer, and it is so very easy to reach, by bus or car. Larger than a village, but still a very small town, Fiesole is home to about fifteen thousands inhabitants, a third or so of whom live in the ancient city center, with another third in the outlying streets, and yet another third scattered through the surrounding hills. The town itself is known as the “roof of Florence” for good reason: the hills start to rise just north of Florence and reach their peak in Fiesole near the Convent and Church of Saint Francis. Spectacular views of Florence are available from vantage points scattered throughout Fiesole.
The landscape around the ancient small city is both agrarian and forested, punctuated with olive trees, cypresses, and views of the great villas perched here and there among the trees. The picturesque quality of Fiesole not only lies outside the town, but within, where in 1983 a resolution was passed to preserve the ancient qualities of the town’s architecture and landscaping, thus saving the cultural beauty of a gem of a small Tuscan town. This beauty is further preserved in that there are no industries within Fiesole and its borders; instead, small artisanal companies flourish.
History of a little gem
There is evidence supporting the presence of man in Fiesole since the Bronze Age. Archaeological finds support a strong Iron Age presence in the area, and of course, the Etruscans had a successful modern city in Fiesole. The Etruscan town that once flourished here was politically organized as a city state, with a rich and complex economy.
This Etruscan city that was once what is now modern Fiesole was encircled by defensive walls; its geographic position provided a strategic advantage in controlling the area between Etruria’s southern center and the Po, from where Northern invaders would mount their attempts to conquer the city.
Later, Fiesole allied itself with Rome in the struggle against Hannibal. But just a hundred or so years later, the city was destroyed for the anti-Roman positions it had later taken: Fiesole became the center of the anti-Roman Revolution of Catilina. Suffering a defeat, Fiesole soon was rebuilt as a typical Roman city. A Roman theater was built; a Roman temple erected over the Etruscan one; and a monumental thermal complex was also erected by the Roman conquerors.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Fiesole continued to be a prime target for conquerors. Next to occupy her hilltop were the Longobardi, and numerous graves, tools, and implements of living have been discovered from that period. But the eventual rise of Florence eclipsed Fiesole’s strategic position, and Fiesole’s importance as a military stronghold began to gradually diminish. However, as the town lost its military importance, it began to gain importance as an immense and powerful diocese of the Catholic Church, with many ties to Rome. The earliest traceable mention of a bishop of Fiesole occurs in the late 5th century. The bishops of Fiesole soon acquired great political influence, and governed an immense territory that the diocese still controls, albeit in only a religious function, today.
Jacopo, Bishop of Bavaro, founded Fiesole’s cathedral in the 11th century. But during the 12th century, the increasingly powerful Florentine church conquered Fiesole’s bishops and forced them to become part of the Florentine territory. Sadly, this period marks the destruction of Fiesole’s monumental Roman theater, temple, and baths, as the dominant Florentines used them as a quarry to build their own spectacular constructions. Much of what we see in 12th century Florentine stone construction was built with materials raided from Fiesole.
During the Renaissance, Fiesole became a popular spot for the wealthy of Florence to build their holiday villas. Many of these gorgeous villas dot the surrounding hills, and some can be visited by the public. The artistic spirit of the Renaissance inspired the sculpture, paintings, architecture and gardens of the grand villas. The cypresses, introduced by the Etruscans, were wisely used by the wealthy builders and their landscape architects to define and introduce the approaches to the villas and palaces. Taking into account the building of these grand villas, and the plunder-quarrying of her Roman monuments, it is easy to see how the once powerful military town gradually became populated by a class of builders, stone masons, and other construction artisans and workers.
As Italy began to unite, during the second half of the 19th century, the immense job of restoring the antiquities of Fiesole also began. A huge rush of civic improvement took place; roads were built, public areas were improved, and, in 1873, the remains of the Roman amphitheater became an archaeological zone. The Civic Museum, housing Etruscan and Roman treasures from Fiesole’s past, was established 1878.
The Civic Museum of Fiesole was established where it now stands, adjacent to the Roman amphitheater and baths, in 1914. It was rebuilt as the really remarkable facility that it is today between 1981 and 1990. The Museum is truly a work of art; its depth, character, organization and presentation are all world class. It should absolutely not be missed. This is the showplace of Fiesole’s ancient legacy; its archaeological riches on display are equal in impact to the panoramic beauties of the town.