Pistoia’s 12th-century cathedral is topped by the city’s two patrons, St. Zeno and St. Jacopo. The presence of both show Pistoia, despites its reputation, to be a good-natured place, as Zeno was known for his devotion to charity and helping children and Jacopo (James), the fisherman who became one of the apostles, is the patron of pilgrims, who often found hospitality in Pistoia on the well-trod path to and from Rome. In fact, pilgrims throughout Europe often wore his emblem, a cockle shell on their travel attire. An eclectic yet pleasing mix of striped marble and arched loggias rise below a clumsy old defensive tower that was heightened with a slender, arched top for use as a campanile.

James is honored inside with the Dossale di San Jacopo (the altar of St. James), a masterful piece of silversmithing begun in 1287 and almost 2 centuries in the making, fashioned from more than a ton of silver. The spectacle was Pistoia’s big attraction for medieval pilgrims on the Via Francigena, the road between Rome and Canterbury, England, and, quite lucratively for local tradesfolk, put the town on the map. No fewer than 628 figures populate the biblical scenes and episodes from the life of James, and with a close look you can pick out lively and intricate reenactments of such well-known stories as the angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds in the fields and the demise of James, the first martyr, at the hands of sword-wielding Roman soldiers.