Fiesole lies on high ground, dominating the Arno Valley to the south and the Mugnone Valley to the north-west. It 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 are represented as such on the town’s crest, since as early as the Bronze Age (around 2000 BC).
Some form of settlement continued through to the Iron Age, during which the Etruscan civilization (circa 8th–4th century BC) gradually flourished. The main characteristics of this civilization was the use of a different language to that of the Italic and Latin populations, strong integration with the Hellenic culture, a political and territorial organization based on the city state, and a rich and complex economy. The primitive settlements on the hilltop were greatly 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 that circle the two hills and the saddle between them suggest the extent of the city’s growth. In 217 BC, Fiesole seems to have 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, with the resulting 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, which was 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 temple. The layout of the city remained almost unchanged until the second half of the 19th Century.
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 comune as a city 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 descend 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 it under their 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 Comedy.
Florence granted administrative autonomy to Fiesole, which imitated it in the organization of its public offices, with a podestà, gonfalonieri and craft and professional guilds. Impetus for the intellectual and spiritual life of Fiesole was provided by two major religious orders, the Franciscans and the Dominicans. The former settled on the western hill on the spot occupied by the ancient fortified stronghold, hence the name 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 Buonvicini, 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 has survived was remodelled in the 19th Century. Much of the Gothic-style architecture, especially 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 well-known travellers, artists and writers began to sojourn in Fiesole, leaving memories and traces of their presence in the local and Tuscan culture. The peak of this foreign presence was undoubtedly the 19th Century.
In 1873 work began to excavate the Roman theatre, under the direction of Marquis Carlo Strozzi. The dig was then 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 power. Later moved to new premises 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 humanist 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 the 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.
In the early 1980s, the Primo Conti Foundation and the Museum of Historic Avant-garde Movements was established at the foot of the hill on the northern side. Facing onto Via Fra’ Beato Angelico is the Giovanni Michelucci Foundation, an active social, urban planning and architectural research centre. Art and documentary exhibitions are held at Palazzina Mangani.
The Municipal Library and the Municipal Historic Archives are a good reference source for anyone interested in learning more about and researching the history of the area. The rich and extremely well-organized Ecclesiastical Archives of the bishopric may also be consulted by scholars.