Pistoia’s civil and religious landmarks are clustered around the lovely Piazza del Duomo. The squat, octagonal Battisero (Baptistery) of green and white striped marble anchors one corner of the stage-set-like space. A curious presence off to one side is the Catiline tower, named for the conspirator who almost brought down the Roman empire and in the minds of many made the good-natured and righteous consul Cicero into a tyrant. In a.d. 63 Cicero began a campaign to suppress a coup that Catiline and other young aristocrats were fomenting. He had Catiline tracked down in Pistoia and executed without trial, a transgression against Roman law for which the consul was exiled to Greece.

A walk up the narrow lane on the north end of the square reveals the spectacular facade of the Ospedale del Ceppo (Hospital of the Tree Trunk), named for the “poor man’s stump,” a hollowed-out log that in the middle ages was placed in front of the door to collect alms. Giovanni della Robbia, of the well-known clan of Florentine sculptors who worked in ceramics, decorated the Renaissance portico with images of the Seven Works of Mercy (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and so forth) and the Cardinal Virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance)—practices that all Christians are expected to perform, and should you need a refresher course, these beautiful and colorful panels provide an artful brush-up.

The side facade of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, just south of Piazza Grande on Via Crispi, is an orderly and utterly delightful festival of blind arcades, inlaid diamond lozenges, and enough stripes to put a zebra to shame. West of the Duomo, on Via degli Orafi, is a show of early-20th-century exuberance, the Art Nouveau Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. The steel-and-glass structure with shops surrounded by elaborate metal scrollwork is a little tattered looking, but nonetheless reminiscent of grand shopping arcades in Milan and other European cities.

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