A Day between the Ruins

A Half Day Trip to Ancient Fiesole


The city of Florence originated from a Roman colony established probably around 59 BC as a settlement for the Roman veteran soldiers. However, the surrounding area had been populated much earlier, not by the Romans but by the Etruscans, a population that colonized Central Italy from the tenth century BC until they were completely dominated by the Romans during the first century AD. During these long eleven centuries, Etruscans developed a highly advanced civilization with their own language, religion, commerce and art. From the fifth century BC the most important urban centre located near the valley of the Arno river was a well-protected Etruscan settlement – the hilltop town of Fiesole. Today Fiesole represents a perfect place, where to go for a half day trip out of Florence on the discovery of the Etruscan and the Roman civilizations, culture, religion and every-day life of the people who lived here centuries ago.


Florence seen from Fiesole.


How to arrive to Fiesole?
Fiesole is located above Florence and you can reach it very easily with the local public transport. The public bus n. 7, that departs from the San Marco square (bus stop in via Giorgio la Pira) will bring you there in 15-20 minutes. You can buy your bus ticket at a “tabacchi” shop in the centre. It costs 1,20 € and you will have to punch it on board. The bus leaves you in Piazza Mino da Fiesole from where you can start your tour.

What to see in Fiesole?
The most interesting sights to see in Fiesole are the archaeological area and the archaeological museum, the cathedral, the church of San Domenico, the monastery of San Francesco, the Etruscan walls and the Etruscans necropolis in via del Bargellino.

A bit of archaeology!
The archaeological area of Fiesole preserves the remains from Etruscan, Roman and Lombard periods, ruins that date from the fourth century BC to the seventh century AD. Eleven centuries of history in this single place!

The most ancient part of the archaeological area is the temple. During the fourth century BC, using the ruins of an archaic sanctuary, the Etruscans built here their holy site. The plan of the temple followed a typical form ad alae, with one larger central room and two smaller spaces on both sides. In front of it there was a colonnade and a monumental stairway. There is very little decorative material left from this temple. The pediment was decorated with the figure of a warrior, which is exposed in the museum. However, in the surroundings of the temple the archaeologists found many little votive figures, one of them in form of an owl, Minerva’s symbolic animal, which suggest that the Etruscan temple was dedicated to one of health deities of the antiquity, maybe Minerva herself.

Fiesole was conquered by the Romans in 90 BC, the temple was destroyed in a fire and since then the Etruscan population of the city suffered always stronger control and influence of the Romans, their culture, religion and lifestyle. After the conquest, Romans rebuilt and enlarged the temple and on the South they added a rectangular space, a sort of portico for pilgrims who visited the sanctuary. At the same time, not far from the temple the Romans built a theatre using the natural slop of the ground. In fact, the cavea, the part dedicated for the public, was sculpted directly in the rock of the hill. There were four passages, called vomitoria, which allowed to enter a covered gallery called crypta. To facilitate the flow of the people, the cavea was divided in four zones by narrow steps, which helped the public to reach their seats. The stage was divided in a semi-circular orchestra and a rectangular proscenium, where the representations took place, and it was closed by a high architectonic stage design, called fronscaenae. The theatre was used until at least the third century AD and was fully excavated only in 1900. Today, during the summer, the theatre hosts the festival “Estate fiesolana” with various concerts and spectacles, and so, this place full of history is still alive.

Contemporary to the construction of the theatre the Romans started to build also a thermal complex in the Western part of the new urban centre. The thermal baths were a crucial element of the social life of the Roman empire. This is where men discussed their business affairs, alliances and politics. The public thermal baths were accessible to everybody but there were strict rules regarding the access of men and women. If in the city there was only one thermal complex, like in Fiesole, women could enter the baths only in the morning, leaving the afternoon hours, considered more beneficial, for the men. In the bigger towns, where one could find more baths, some of them were reserved for women, who could use it also in the afternoon. After entering the baths in Fiesole, one found itself in a big open space with different pools. There was also a cryptoporticus used as a gym. The exercises they did were obviously rather gentle and moderate and served to warm up the body before going to the actual baths. After the warm up one would pass to the covered part of the building where the frigidarium, the calidarium and the tepidarium were located. A classical stay in the baths would start in the tepidarium, a room warmed by only one stove. Then, one would pass to the hottest room – the calidarium – heated by two stoves. The hot air produced by the stoves would circulate under the floor and along the walls of the room thanks to special bricks, empty inside, which put together created a sort of a tube. In fact, in Latin these bricks are called tubuli. After some time in the calidarium, one would go back to tepidarium and then to frigidarium, the coldest room of the three, with a circular pool for a bath.

During the fourth and the fifth century Tuscany suffered various barbaric invasions and the barbarians coming from the North destroyed also Fiesole, the temple, the theatre and the baths. However, this hilltop city was a great and a very secure fortress, still surrounded by the massive Etruscan wall. Thus, thanks to this particular location, Fiesole became an important spot for the Lombards, who during the sixth century conquered a vast part of the Italian peninsula. The fortress of Fiesole was of a great strategic importance as it allowed the Lombards to control the traffic of people and products from North to South. The Lombards contributed to the destruction of the Roman buildings and they completely re-shaped all the area. In the area of the temple, in the space previously dedicated to the pilgrims, they organized a cemetery. Archaeologists found in their tombs many precious objects, such as glasses, knifes, swords and some jewellery. Today, you can admire them in the museum.

The visit to the archaeological museum completes the visits to the archaeological site as the exhibition exposes different objects excavated in the area of the theatre, the temple, the baths and in other parts of the city. A part of the exhibition is also dedicated to the Lombards and their tombs excavated under the temple and in Piazza Garibaldi.

After your archaeological tour, you can climb the hill and reach the church of San Francesco, from where you can admire a beautiful view on the valley and on Florence. You can walk down, pop into the cathedral and go back to Florence with the same bus no. 7.

Before your visit, check the website http://www.museidifiesole.it/en/ where you will find all the practical information, prices and opening hours.

Have fun!