The origins of the castle are very old – indeed it is first mentioned in 1301. It was variously owned by the powerful Visdomini and Alessandri families. For no fewer than 800 years the castle was sold, or lost at cards among the most important families in Florence until its almost total destruction.
In 1840, its ruins caught the attention of a young English peer, John Temple Leader who, strolling through the hills of Fiesole, came across this picturesque pile of ruins which so fascinated him that he resolved to buy it and in twelve years he rebuilt it in the Gothic revival style. He entrusted the architect Fancelli, the son of his factor and the most renowned craftsmen, sculptors, stone masons and painters from Florence with the detailed reconstruction of the castle sticking closely to the medieval style.
Renovation not limited to the building but also the grounds; the slopes of the hill were replanted with rich undergrowth and plants that would flourish in stony ground. Temple Leader’s great merit was that he gave character to the landscape, replanting it with cypresses, pines and ilexes romantically sited in the more visible areas. He purchased the old Column quarry, so called because its stone was used to fashion the pillars in the Cappella dei Principi in San Lorenzo, transforming this natural basin into a small lake-pond.
Legend has it that the castle has secret passages, traps, mysterious chambers and other devilry which romantic imagination had attributed to the Middle Ages. Of all the stories imprisoned within these walls, Temple Leader loved the legend of Bianca, the White Lady, a beautiful young maiden wooed by many men but in love with the son of her family’s sworn enemy. Despite this, their love seemed set to conquer all until their wedding day when Bianca’s brothers slaughtered the future bridegroom on his way to marry his beloved. Still in here wedding gown, Bianca died of a broken heart and from that day on, her spirit flits within the castle walls protecting love of all kinds, especially the most difficult.
The hill got its name from the swans that would flock there. The people of Florence called them “ceceri” from cecio meaning chickpea or wart because of the excrescence on their beaks.
Since ancient times this was a place famed for its pietra serena quarries which were exploited for stone to be used in all the important buildings in Fiesole, the Roman theatre, the Etruscan tombs, the Badia fiesolana and the Cattedrale… and in the 15th Century by the great Florence artists such as Brunelleschi, Vasari, Michelangelo and Cellini for the prestigious monuments and commonplace articles.
A wealthy tradition of artisan and artistic workmanship began to grow around pietra serena or Fiesole stone that lasted long throughout history. Indeed from the Etruscans to the Romans, from the Middle Ages to the present day the quarries were not only the place where raw material was obtained but also the school and workshop where craftsmen were trained and where continuity of every aspect of tradition was assured. A history of art, a history of social relations and of local economy and “industrial archaeology” blend together in this unique place.
This area, which has now become a historical naturalist park, counts 19 quarries (the most important being Cava Braschi, Righi and Sarti) which have been in disuse since the early 1900s and cannot be visited. However, the visitors can see the remains of a number of drystone storerooms built by the stonemasons to store their tools and the hollowed stone – rain-water drainage channels made by the masons by inserting stone diagonally into the ground.
Previously, Montececeri was wholly bereft of vegetation because of the quarrying but now is almost wholly green because of the plant replacement project begun in 1929 by the forestry commission.
Montececeri, however is not only quarries and pietra serena, but also a Leonardo da Vinci location. Indeed it was from the top of the hill that Leonardo tested his flying machine in 1506. The characteristics of the location, presuming they are unchanged since then, would have been the most suited – there is a sheer drop at the rock walls of the Sarti quarry. Leonardo mentions “Monte Ceceri” and drew the profile of the hills around Florence in sheet 20v of the Codex of Madrid II.
Legend has it that Tommaso Masini aka Zoroastro da Peretola, a pupil of Leonardo’s in Milan and Florence tested the machine as mentioned in a note by Leonardo himself in the Codex of Flight.
“Il primo grande uccello effettuerà il primo volo lanciandosi dalla cima del monte Ceceri, riempiendo l'universo di stupore e tutte le scritture della sua grande fama, donando eterna gloria ai luoghi dov'è stato concepito”.
In the distant past, just outside the eastern Etruscan city wall of Fiesole stood a village whose name is still a puzzle for us, namely Borgunto.
Its actual position is intriguing – there must have been at least one link with the pre-Apennine ridge of Mugello in Etruscan and Roman times.
The indent between Montececeri and Poggio Magherini and the hill of St. Apollinare, then down to the centre of the village and beyond in the direction of the Mugnone valley contains a fault (a vertical fracture of the rock underground) which has always accumulated water and makes the place the richest in water springs in the whole area of Fiesole.
Celebrated by the learned and the antiquarians of the 19th Century as a work of Etruscan civilisation, it is an artificial grotto the first chamber of which is 10.5 metres deep and some 32.5 metres long.
Its capacity in normal times was estimated in 1870 by A. Maiorfi the municipal engineer as 700 cubic metres.
The indications are fairly certain that it was the continual source of water for the village of Borgunto (from Medieval times or even earlier) up to 1944 when it became a temporary air-raid shelter (archive documentation and word of mouth).
The only change that it has been subjected to which was perfectly registered during the first cleaning operation in 1997 was the digging out of a six-metre-deep well in the bedrock to be used as an emergency exit to the air raid shelter.
In 1937 Napoleone Raspanti signed a contract with the town council to pipe water from the spring to cool his ice-making plant.
After the war it fell into complete disuse.
Time has created a legendary halo around the spring, sometimes magic and religious associating the spring water with the Virgin Mary (a sacred image was probably placed at the entrance during the counter-reformation) and with the popular belief in the water’s healing properties.
It is the hamlet of Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, Renaissance architects and sculptors (whose masterpieces can be admired in Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, in the Florence Cathedral Dome, as well as in San Gimignano, Naples and Rome), but also of the slate blue sandstone caves, also known as Pietra Serena.Giorgio Vasari mentions it in 1568, while Agostino del Riccio (1541-1598) called it the stone of the Fiesole hills, but already Dante Alighieri, also speaking of Fiesole, referred to it as a boulder (Inf. XV, 63).
The Borgo di Maiano (Maiano Hamlet) includes a small church, from the 11th century, shaped as a Latin cross and with a single aisle.In 1885, John Temple Leader, who had bought the villa and the farm of Maiano, rebuilt it in the 14th century style.A major highlight is a sepulchral monument including: sarcophagus, niche, stone statue of the Virgin Mary from the end of the 18th century.
The farm, once a Benedictine Monastery, preserves a colonnade of pietra serena, where a fresco of Spinello Aretino, 14th century, is found, depicting a “Mater Misericordiae”.
When going from the church to the mountain, one may find to the left an open-sky cave of colossal dimensions, immediately reflecting the sudden landscape transformation due to the effect of some centuries of stone extraction, also from the geological structure of the Monte Ceceri, that guards the Maiano Hamlet.
The caves of Fiesole, exploited until the beginning of the 20th century, are actually famous for the “pietra serena”, widely used by sculptors from the 16th century.Remembered by Benvenuto Cellini and Giorgio Vasari, the stone of Fiesole was used for architectural works and monuments, but also for civilian, religious and urban buildings.
In the past, the Etruscans built the Fiesole walls with stone of Fiesole, while the Romans used it in Florence for the Florence Baptistery.However, the pietra serena found its best use with Filippo Brunelleschi, who exploited it for his masterpieces in Florence, such as the Hospital of the Innocents, the Saint Lawrence Basilica or the Holy Spirit’s Church (to name only three works), taking advantage of the contrast between the homogeneous grey of the stone posited on bearing elements and the white shades that covered the walls.
As of that time, the use of the grey/white dichromy became usual in Renaissance architecture; for instance, it was also used by Michelangelo for the Laurentian Library.In Florence, it is also present in exterior architecture, such as the Uffizi Gallery, the lodges of the Santissima Annunziata Square or the facade of the San Giovannino degli Scolopi Church. In the 19th century, it was widely used by Giuseppe Poggi, especially for the rustications in the facades of palaces.
Visit the Villa di Maiano, the ancient mansion of the Farm, that will open for you the gates of its magnificent halls.
The majestic hall of tapestries, the theatre of unforgettable dancing jokes; the studio which its rich library, including unique and precious ancient volumes; the enchanting doll hall and the splendid lunch room where the director James Ivory directed some scenes of the unforgettable movie A Room With a View, that won an Oscar for the best screenplay.In order to conclude this immersion into history, you can then walk along the splendid Italian gardens, with an impressive view of Florence.
The name, fame and identity are associated with its early history, indeed, in the past the walled city was an important administrative and economically dynamic centre. The origins of Fiesole are last in the mists of time, giving rise to various legends about how it came to be founded. The most imaginative one has it that Atlas, after having been in Africa, travelled north through Gibraltar, Spain and France, and crossed over the Alps into Italy. Hi then asked Apollo where the most beautifull place to rest was. The god told him to go down towards the sea, then travel up along a large river until he reached a big hill, which he would recognize immediately because it was the most beautiful in the world. Atlas did as Apollo suggested: he arrived at the mouth of the Arno and followed it upstream until he saw a hill inhabited by hard-working, peaceful people. He flattened the top of the hill and carved out massive blocks of stone from the hillside with which he built the walls and palaces of a beautiful city. After his labours he stopped to admire it, exclaiming “tu fies sola”, meaning that it would be the only and most beautiful city for centuries to come.
The place name “Fiesole” is considered to be of Etruscan origin, even thug it has come down to us from the Latin “Fesulae”.
Fiesole lies on high ground dominating the Arno Valley to the south and the Mugnone Valley to the north –west. Its spreads over two hills, San Francesco and Sant’Apollinare, and the saddle in between, where the modern town is situated. There has been a human presence on the two hills, which from a distance evoke the characteristic shape of a sickle moon and indeed is represented as such on its crest, since as early as the Bronze Age (around 2000 BC).
Some from of settlement continued through to the Iron Age, during which the Etruscan civilization (circa 8th -4th century BC) gradually flourisched. The primitive settlements on the hilltop were gratly developed into a distinct urban plan. An imposing ring of walls stretching for over two and a half kilometres (lengthy stretches of which can still be seen along the eastern and northern perimeter), were erected to defend Fiesole from northern invasion (the Gauls) and to control trade and communication routes between the Arno, central and southern Etruria and Etruscan cities in the Po Valley.
The most well-known and significant archaeological remains, which reveal the presence of a well-organized layout and a considerable level of development, date to the Hellenistic Age. The terracing, the construction of a temple and probably of other places of worship as well, the necropolis, and the walls circle the two hills, and the saddle between them suggest the extent of the city’s growth.
In 217 BC Fieosle seems toh ave been allied with Rome against Hannibal. However, in 90 BC the city was destroyed by Marcus Porcius Cato for having adopted an anti- Roman stance in the Social War. Ten years later it was Romanized by Sulla, who established a colony. Subsequently Fiesole was the centre of Catiline’s revolt against the Roman Republic, the result being that it had to take the consequences of another defeat.
From that time on the city acquired the typical appearance of a Roman town, with a Forum – the political and commercial heart of the town, situated in the area now occupied by Piazza Mino – a theatre (built in the Augustan Age) and a new temple, erected over an earlier Etruscan one. The layout of the city remained almost unchanged until the second half of the 19th century.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, Fiesole was occupied by the Lombards (6th-7th centuries AD), as evidenced by the uncovering of a large number of graves and objects. Archaeological excavations (1987-88 and from 2004 anwards) in the town centre have brought to light a Lombard cemetery (the dig is till in progress), a public building from the Hellenistic Age and another Roman thermal spa structure.
The role of Fiesole as a military stronghold gradually diminished as Florence grew in importance.
In the meantime the Church had also established a large diocese within the Roman administrative boundaries of Fiesole. Legend has it that Christianity was brought to Fiesole in the Ist century by Romulus, a Roman of noble birth who was sent there expressly by Saint Peter together with two companians.
Over time the bishops of Fiesole acquired great political influence, taking on civil functions in addition to their religious ones and administering to a vast area that still takes in not only Fiesole itself but also parts of important historic areas such as the Casentino, Valdarno and Chianti.
Churches and convents were founded at the centre of extensive landed properties, and became an important focus for city life.
Fiesole’s first cathedral, now Badia Fiesolana, was built on the old road half way up the hill. The church of San Pietro in Gerusalemme was erected over the walls of an Etruscan temple in the upper part of Fiesole. It is the burial place of Saint Alessandro, the hishop whu managed to secure recognition of the rights of the local Church from the Lombard King Autari (9th century) and to whom the Basilica was subsewuently dedicated.
The Churc of Santa Maria Primerana was built on top of the remains of a Roman temple in the area formerly occupied by the Roman Forum. During the bishopric of Donatus of Scotland, Fiesole recovered from the damage caused by Norman raids. In the 11 th century, under Jacopo Bavaro, work began on a new Cathedral within the protective embrace of the city walls. The relics of Saint Romulus were translated there, he was proclaimed patron of the city and the church was dedicated to him.
In the age of the comuni, Fiesole was finally conquered by Florence in 1125, amidst widespread destruction. Florence needed to exert direct control over the contado – the rural area in its immediate vicinity – as a necessary prerequisite for establishing the commune as a sity state. The story goes that the conflict between Fiesole and Florence was sparked off by a trivial incident: a Florentine merchant was robbed in Fiesole. To gain revenge the Florentines attempted to occupy Monte Ceceri, the plan being to come down on and surround Fiesole from above. Although Fiesole managed to hold out, partly due to the arrival of winter, hostilities resumed the following summer, and despite stubborn resistance by its inhabitants, in the following year (1125) the Florentines entered Fiesole and brought in under its Yoke.
This marked the decline of the city, which was reduced to a heap of ruins and was used as a source of building materials for the nearby dominant city. Fiesole thus became part of the legacy of ancient memories and of legends about the origins of Florence that are recalled by Dante in his Divine Commedy.
Firenze granted administrative autonomy to Fiesole, which imitated it in the organization of its public offices, with a podestà, gonfalonieri and craft and professional guilds. Ipetus for the intellectual and spiritual life of Fiesole was provided by two major religious orders, the Franciscans and the Domenicans. The former settled on the western hill on the spot occupied by the ancient fortified stronghold, hence the nome San Francesco, setting up what became the oldest Franciscan convent in Tuscany. The Dominicans based themselves in San Domenico, whose importance is reflected in some of the illustrious figures who spent time there: Domenico Buonvincini, Sant’Antonino and Giovanni da Fiesole known as Angelico.
Few traces of the medieval period remain today. Apart from some architectural and urban features in the eastern area of Borgunto, what bas survived was remodelled in the 19th century. Much of the Gothic-style architecture, expecially around Fiesole, was reconstructed in the 19th and early 20th century, an expression of a late Romantic taste of Anglo – Saxon origin. Indeed, from the 17th century onwards, many wellknown travellers, artists and writers began to sojourn in Fiesole, leaving memories and traces of their presence in the local an Tuscan culture. The peak of this foreign presence was undoubtedly the 19th century.
The Bishop’s Seminary was built in the 17th century, one of the first after the Council of Trent, and for almost three centuries it was a major centre for training clergy and promoting religious culture. In ghe meantime the existing religious and civic buildings were embellished with artworks and ornamentation. Between 1865 and 1870 Florence was the capital of Italy, and Fiesole, which since Renaissance times had been home to many aristocratic families and cultured Florentine merchants, became a much soughtafter area for the new bourgeois classes. The sumptuous houses and villas on the slopes of the hill bear testimony to this.
From the 14th century onwards a significant proportion of the working population of Fiesole were quarrymen and stonecutters in the quarries of pietra serena, a local grey sandstone originally used by the Etruscans and Romans for buildings and decorative items, and which was intensively exploited for the needs of Florence and of Fiesole itself. Indeed, many public and private building works were initiated in this period: a public park on the slopes of San Francesco; ezpansion of the monumental cemetery; the building of Piazza del Mercato, a pblic abattoir, on elementary school (now Palazzina Mangani) and a factory for loomwaven straw; and housing for workers, who in the meantime had set up cooperatives and mutual aid associations. The existing bourgeois houses were also further embellished.
In 1873 work began to excavate the Roman theatre, under the direction of Marquis Carlo Strozzi. The dig was them extended to the thermal spa complex and the Roman-Etruscan temple, leading to the gradual definition of the urban archaeological area. The Municipal Museum was established five years later to display the antiquities of Fiesole, quickly becoming one of the finest museums of its kind in unified Italy and bringing sweet revenge over Florence, the former ruling bower. Later moved to new prmises on the current site, the duly reorganized museum houses the principal archaeological finds made in Fiesole and the surrounding area.
The current premises of the Bandini Museum were erected in 1913 to house the collection of 12th to 15th century paintings set up in the Oratory of Sant’Ansano by the humanists Angelo Maria Bandini, the librarian of the Laurenziana Library in Florence and canon of the chapter house of Fiesole Cathedral.
Some years later the Missionary Museum of Ethnography was established in the Convent of San Francesco. It houses items collected by missionary monks in Egypt and China, and interesting archaeological finds from Fiesole.
The extension of the city boundaries of Florence decided upon in 1865 following the constitution of Italian State resulted in Fiesole losing significant portions of territory Rovezzano, Settignano, Pellegrino, Coverciano and Mensola. However, indelible traces of their shared history with Fiesole can be seen in settlements of great historic and artistic interest, high-quality street and water systems, and tasteful, highly functional parks and gardens.
One of the municipalities situated in the line of hills around Florence, Fiesole has a population of around 15,000 and extends over approximately 42 Km. This includes the ridge of hills running almost as far as the boundary with the Mugello and substantial portions of the Arno and Mugnone valleys.
Nestling in a gentle hill landscape dotted with olive, pine and cypress trees, fiesole offers wonderful views of Florence, with an atmosphere and cultural attractions that are truly memorable. A visit to Fiesole offers an opportunity to appreciate the area’s many works of art but also the natural beauties, the quiet tranquillity of the countryside and the discreet fascination of its villas, the pleasures of its olive oil and wine.
Hermann Hesse, who often stayed in Fiesole, said: “… from the Roman ruins to Böcklin’s villa, Fiesole offers a host of fascinating attractions, a heritage of different historic ages. But the most beautiful thing about it is its enchanting position, spread out as it is along the enchanting position, spread out as it is along the slopes and tops of two imposing hills overlooking Florence and clad with orchards and country houses [….]. Anyone seeking refuge on this hilltop from the bustle of Florence will find rest and gratification for the eyes and spirit by tracing the green contours of the hills and the clusters of cypresses in the gardens” (Hermann Hesse, Dall’Italia, 1901).
From the summit of the hill of San Francesco there are superb views of Florence. To the west lies the Mugnone Valley with Monte Morello and the Via Bolognese in the distance. Here the landscape is more rugged and severe, while in the opposite direction, towards Settignano, it is gentler and more serene, covered with olives and cypresses. Further down is the mouth of the Sambre (described by Etruscan as the “river of the dead”, and explored and drawn by Leonardo da Vinci), and then the Arno Valley, a habitat for herons, cormorants, kingfischers….
In spring the hills of Fiesole, with the green hues of its woods, cypresses, olives and vines, and the bluish grey of the local rock are ablaze with the colours of irises, anemones, roses and a host of archid varieties that grow spontaneously in these parts, or in autumn, with those of the saffron crocus or “zima di Firenze”.
Over the centuries, Fiesole has succeeded in preserving its views and hills, which have remained unspoilt.
The Florentine merchant classes saw to the complete reorganization of the agrarian landscape. Estate were divided into sharecropping units with the main farmhouse in the middle, and most of the feudal castles and villages were eliminated or remodelled.
Typical crops of this agricultural system, which was based on the self-sufficiency of peasant families, were graminaceous, fadder and leguminous plants grown in rotation, often right alongside vines, olives and fruit trees or leafed plants for animals.
The cypress, said to have been introduced by the Etruscan, was in fact intensely propagated by Romantic culture, and was used widely by the upper classes as a decorative element for their villas and houses.
The Renaissanse saw the embellishment of the area’s houses and churches, the building of villas and laying out of gardens, and the creation o fan aboundance of sculptural and pictorial worksmany of which can still be found today in their original locations.
Visitors can roam the length and breadth of the valleys and hills, taking to the minor roads as well in order to fully appreciate the position of farmhouses, churces and noble residences, the land use pattern, and its characteristic features: farm roads linking scattered houses, springs, dry-stone terracing walls, ditches to regulate water flow or to channel it to mills. The place names often date back to the Etruscan civilisation and to the period of Roman colonization, recalling episodes in ancient and medieval history or production activities that have now died out. At crossroads there are often tabrnacles of varius Kinds, signs of religious devotion and features of a social, cultural and environmental order built up and consolidated over a number of centuries.
The variety of views are a constant source of surprise, especially for travellers tired of the urban scene.