Archaeological findings have proved that Prato's surrounding hills were inhabited since Paleolithic times. The plain was later colonized by the Etruscans. In 1998 remains of a previously unknown city from that civilization was discovered in the neighbourhood, near Campi Bisenzio: it was of medium size and it was already a centre for wool and textile industry. According to some scholars, it could be the mythical Camars. The Etruscan city was inhabited until the 5th century BC, when, for undisclosed reasons, it decayed; control of the area was later shifted to the Romans, who had their Via Cassia pass from here, but did not build any settlement.
In the early Middle Ages the Byzantine and Lombard dominations followed. The history of Prato itself begins from the 10th century, when two distinct villages, Borgo al Cornio and Castrum Prati (Prato's Castle), are known. In the following century the two settlements were united under the lords of the castle, the Alberti family, who received the imperial title of Counts of Prato. In the same period the plain was dried and a hydraulic system regulating and exploiting the waters of the Bisenzio River was created to feed the gualchierae (pre-industrial textile machines).
After a siege in 1107 by the troops of Matilde of Canossa, the Alberti retreated to their family fortresses in the Bisenzio Valley: Prato could therefore develop as a free commune. Within two centuries it reached the number of 15,000 inhabitants, spurred in by the flourishing textile industry and by the presence of the Holy Belt relic. Two new lines of walls had to be built in the mid-12th century and, respectively, from the early 14th century. In 1326, in order to counter the expansionism of Florence, Prato submitted voluntarily under the seigniory of Robert of Anjou, King of Naples. However, on February 23, 1351 Joanna I of Naples sold the city to Florence in exchange of 17,500 golden florins. Prato's history therefore followed that of the former in the following centuries.
In 1512, during the War of the League of Cambrai, the city was sacked by Spanish troops assembled by Pope Julius II and emperor Charles V to recover the nearby city of Florence for the Medici family. The severity of the sack of Prato led to the surrender of the Florentine Republic, and to the restoration of the Medici rule. The army slaughtered some 50,000 Pratesi in the streets.
In 1653 Prato obtained the status of city and became seat of a Catholic diocese. The city was embellished in particular during the 18th century.
After the unification of Italy in the 19th century, Prato became a primary industrial centre, especially in the textile sector (Italian historian Emanuele Repetti described it as the "Italian Manchester"), and population grew up to 50,000 in 1901 and to 180,000 in 2001. The town experienced a significant internal immigration; Previously part of the province of Florence, in 1992 Prato became the capital of the eponymous province.
The city of Prato has the second largest Chinese immigrant population in Italy. Legal Chinese residents in Prato on 31 December 2008 were 9,927. Local authorities estimate the number of Chinese citizens living in Prato to be around 45.000, illegal immigrants included. Most overseas Chinese come from the city of Wenzhou in the region of Zhejiang. Some of them have moved from Chinatown in Paris. The first Chinese people came to Prato in the early 1990s. The majority of Chinese work in 3,500 workshops in the garment industry and ready-to-wear. Chinatown is located in the west part of the city, spreading to Porta Pistoiese in the historical centre. The local Chamber of Commerce registered over 3100 Chinese businesses by September 2008. Most of them are located in an industrial park named Macrolotto di Iolo. Raids on factories employing illegal immigrants in 2010 highlighted problems with the growth of an apparel industry in Prato based on cheap, and sometimes illegal, labor.
Prato is home to many museums and other cultural monuments, including the Filippo Lippi frescoes in the Cathedral of Santo Stefano, recently restored. The Cathedral has an external pulpit by Donatello. Also of interest is the Teatro Metastasio, the city's main venue for operas and other theatrical productions, which was built in 1829-1830.
Palazzo Pretorio was built from the 13th century in red bricks. The part in white stone is from late-Gothic era. In the 16th century an external staircase and a watch were added. Also notable is the Palazzo Datini, built from 1383 for the merchant Francesco Datini. It has decorations by Florentine artists like Agnolo Gaddi and Niccolò Gerini. In 1409 it housed Pope Alexander V and Louis of Anjou. The Palazzo degli Alberti (12th century) is home to an art gallery with works by Filippo Lippi (Prato Madonna), Giovanni Bellini (Crucifix with Jew Cemetery) and Caravaggio (The Crowning with Thorns).
The Castello dell'Imperatore is the northernmost castle built by Frederick II of Hohenstaufen in Italy. A further major attraction of the city is the Centro per l'arte contemporanea Luigi Pecci a museum and education centre concerned with contemporary arts.
Other churches include:
Higher education institutions include Il Polo Universitario "Città di Prato" (a branch of the Università degli Studi di Firenze) and the Monash University Centre which is located in the Palazzo Vai.
Prato frazioni are:
Borgonuovo, Cafaggio, Campostino, Canneto, Capezzana, Carteano, Casale, Castelnuovo, Cavagliano, Cerreto, Chiesanuova, Coiano, Figline di Prato, Filettole, Fontanelle, Galcetello, Galceti, Galciana, Gli Abatoni, Gonfienti, Grignano, I Ciliani, Il Calice, Il Cantiere, I Lecci, Il Ferro, Il Guado, Il Palco, Il Pino, Il Soccorso, Iolo, La Castellina, La Dogaia, La Macine, La Pietà, La Querce, Le Badie, Le Caserane, Le Colombaie, Le Fonti, Le Fornaci, Le Lastre, Le Pantanelle, Le Sacca, Maliseti, Mazzone, Mezzana, Narnali, Paperino, Pizzidimonte, Ponte alle Vanne, Ponzano, Popolino, Purgatorio, Reggiana, Sacra Famiglia, San Giorgio a Colonica, San Giusto, San Martino, San Paolo, Santa Cristina a Pimonte, Santa Gonda, Santa Lucia, Santa Maria a Colonica, Sant'Andrea, Sant'Ippolito, Tavola, Tobbiana, Vergaio, Viaccia, Villa Fiorita
Prato is twinned with: