Here’s a reprint of a 1988 article in the New York Times about Prato:
By ANNE MARSHALL ZWACKFEB. 7, 1988
PRATO is Florence’s industrial alter ego, the milling ants to Florence’s blithe cricket, as in the fables of La Fontaine. But when it comes to play, it is Prato that does the chirping. Porsches from Prato are parked outside the expensive restaurants of Florence, and it is the matrons of Prato who patronize the fashionable boutiques and jewelers of Florence. Indeed, not without a pinch of envy, the more parsimonious Florentines consider the Pratesi ostentatious.
In the 13th century Prato – 12 miles northwest of Florence – was an important center for the spinning, weaving, carding and dyeing of wool. In the 19th century the cenciaioli (rag men) of Prato started recycling wool on a vast scale. Today the city is said to be the biggest wool-producing center in the world, with 2,000 firms and 60,000 people involved mostly in the recycling of wool, but in every other facet of the wool trade as well. (Recycled wool becomes the short-fiber, carded wool that, for instance, pea jackets are made of, as opposed to long-fiber or combed wool.)
The first merchant of Prato was Francesco di Marco Datini of Iris Origo’s biography, who waited for his ships to come in during the 14th century, and who at a time when accountancy was in its infancy invented the letter of credit. Today Pratese merchants sponsor the arts – a Henry Moore statue dominates one of the main squares and the Pecci Museum of Modern Art will soon be completed.
It is hardly surprising then that the narrow streets of old Prato are full of stores selling cloth and knitting wool. The city has always been known for its scampolai, stores that collect end pieces of material, the leftover stock or spoiled lengths from which they cut away flawed parts, and then sell as samples.
The scampolai are mostly in a network of streets to one side of the cathedral square, and they sell not only local wool but also silk, cotton and velvet. Fabric by the yard (in 36- and 60-inch widths) and sample pieces are available at excellent prices.
In Via Magnolfi every other store is selling samples and cloth by the yard. At No. 25, Bruno Franchi (telephone 38400) has been a scampolaio since 1958 and threatens to close his shop because of his age, but this evidently depends on his wife, Rita, whom he calls la padrona, the boss. The stock is a constantly changing spectrum of wools, silks, striped cotton for shirts, taffeta, toweling and so on, at prices that start at $2.50 a yard for cotton and anything from $4 to $40 for the silks, One item carried all the time is tartan blanketing, very soft and warm-looking wool that sells at $5 for a single-bed size and $11.50 a double.
CENTRO Scampoli (44-46 Via Magnolfi) is a large store selling every possible kind of material as a sample or by the yard. The real bargains are, of course, the samples (24 to 80 inches in length usually) but the material sold by the yard is also remarkably inexpensive. Cotton can be found for $7.75 a yard, linen mixed with rayon at around $14 in lilac, turquoise, lemon yellow and Nile green. There is quilted material for robes or bedspreads at $11.50 to $15, while the panno for which Prato is famous – the wool cloth in colors such as bright blue, geranium red, turtledove gray and muted emerald – retails at $12. If you dig around among the bolts of cloth, you can find silks by Valentino or Galitzine for $27 to $31 a yard, and pure silk Gucci unhemmed scarves – with a defect such as a smudge of color or a blurred outline – that cost less than $20.
At 83 Via Magnolfi there is a store (telephone 20667) that is worth a visit more for the owners than for the shelves of samples. Albina Gori-Pacini is a poet, and one wall is lined with cups and medals and literary awards, while her eight volumes of poetry are kept in an antique chest in an adjoining room. Albina Gori-Pacini and her husband, Dino, have been scampolai since 1933 in a period piece of a store that was once a hotel dining room with fat stone columns and a vaulted ceiling frescoed with vine leaves.
Around the corner to the right, in Via San Giorgio, Franco and Anna Polichetti have a rambling store (telephone 26311) redolent of mothballs with several rooms where you can browse undisturbed. Particularly attractive were the printed velvets retailing from $11.50 to $34.50 and the crushed velvets at $29.
Another street parallel to Via Magnolfi is Via del Serraglio, where, at No. 83, there is a tiny store – with materials spilling out onto the street – called Ditta Marmino. They have a good selection of furnishing materials such as 60-inch-wide Gobelin-style tapestry designs selling at $35 a yard in addition to rasatello, a cotton satin featuring large flowers, English country house-style, for $15 a yard; they also had the same kind of floral designs in cotton for $5 or in a linen mixture for $11.50 a yard. Bold deck-chair striped heavy cotton in blue and white or red and sand sells for $5 a yard.
The largest store with the biggest choice is Renzo Rosati at Nos. 56 and 60 in Via del Serraglio (telephone 24267). Six family members work in the street store and in the warehouse next door; the courtyard of the warehouse is dominated by a large olea fragrans tree that in autumn fills the drab little street with a haunting scent. Mr. Rosati has been in the fabric business since he was 15, and his daughter, Laura, who has been to the United States, speaks English. He sells any length of pure silk in plain colors, prints or Jacquards for $17 a yard. Soft wools in luminous white, deep purple and fuchsia cost $24. Men’s suiting materials signed Ermenegildo Zegna cost $50, while similar cloth in what Mr. Rosati calls ”super merino’‘ is $27. Harris tweed and Scottish-made kilt materials in clan tartans cost $18 a yard, while various shades of soft German-made velvet are priced at $19. This is the store where more enterprising members of the Florentine aristocracy might come to shop, whether to cover a sofa or to make party frocks for their junior jeunesse doree.
It should be stressed that in none of these stores are the materials inexpensive because they are shoddy; the choice and the quality are excellent.
In the Piazza San Antonio, at No. 12, tucked away behind the churches of San Francesco and Santa Maria delle Carceri is a store called L’Angolino del Tessuto di Sorello Scarlini (telephone 21149) owned by sisters named Scarlini. While I was there a group of Pratese ladies-who-lunch were buying materials for evening dresses: pure silks at $15 to $19 a yard, satin at $24 and Lurex at $28 while silk goffering started at $11, crepe de chine silk mixtures at $19; higher priced were chiffons covered in sequins at $43 a yard and silk velvet that looked like astrakhan fur at $32. PRATO: A TOWN FOR FABRICS The Scampolai
The stores mentioned (called scampolai) are open 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. and 3:30 to 7:30 P.M. (They are closed Monday morning and Saturday afternoon.) No credit cards are accepted. Lodgings
At the Villa Santa Cristina (Via Poggio Secco 58, 50047 Prato; telephone 595951) – which also has an excellent restaurant – a double room costs $73 and a single $49. The hotel is closed during August. In the dining room a meal for two with wine costs about $80; it is closed Sunday evening and all day Monday. Dining Out
One of Italy’s better fish restaurants is Il Pirana (Via Valentini 110; telephone 25746), in a less lovely part of the city a short taxi ride from the center. The spaghetti with lobster is a first and second course in one. The restaurant is closed Saturday, Sunday and during August. A meal for two with wine costs about $95. A. M. Z.
A note about Albina Gori Pacini, La Poetessa di Prato. Time marches on and Signora Pacini has died since the Times published the article above.