The church of San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, dedicated to Saint John the Evangelist, is a very special edifice. The long side of the building, i.e. the northern side wall, basically serves as the façade of the church while the real façade is hidden away in a narrow alley. And the pseudo-façade is beautifully decorated to boot, with alternating bands of white and green marble, blind arches, lozenges and two colonnades, one above the other. The real façade facing the Via della Misericordia Vecchio is, on the other hand, not much to look at and primarily consists of naked brick. The church furthermore has a bell-tower with a spire which should just be visible from the Via Camillo Benso Cavour. A shrub seems to be growing near the top of the tower, which appears to be indicative of its state of maintenance. A better place to see the bell-tower is another bell-tower: that of the Duomo of Pistoia, which is situated at a distance of just 250 metres.
The name of the church refers to the fact that in the Longobard era (568-774) it stood just outside the walls of Pistoia. Fuori civitas literally means ‘outside the community’, the community comprising just the people living within the walls. In modern Pistoia the church is dab smack in the city centre, from which we may conclude that Pistoia in the Middle Ages was no more than a large village. In 1119 bishop Ildebrando of Pistoia (1105-1131) observed that the Longobard era church was in a pretty rotten state. It is likely that he subsequently ordered its rebuilding. When the northern wall was decorated in 1323, the San Giovanni got its famous pseudo-façade. The back of the church was decorated in 1344 and now the church was complete. The edifice was largely built in the Romanesque style, but it has a few Gothic elements here and there, such as the window in the back wall and the spire of the bell-tower.
Things to see – exterior
The Romanesque façade with its bands of white and green marble is a typical feature of churches in Tuscany. The most famous examples can be admired in Florence and Pisa, and the architects in much smaller cities like Pistoia have no doubt found inspiration there. The portal in the northern wall is composed of various elements and was installed here well before 1323. Above the entrance we see a beautifully decorated architrave that features the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples are sitting at a long table. The Messiah is in the centre with young John, ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. John is resting his head at Jesus’ shoulder. Judas is also present, but he is sitting on his knees on the other side of the table, so clearly he is not considered part of the exalted ones.
The architrave dates from 1166-1167 and was made by the sculptor Gruamonte, a man who decorated several other churches in Pistoia as well. On the arch above the entrance is an inscription that reads:
GRUAMONS MAGISTER BONUS FEC[IT] HOC OPUS
(“good master Gruamonte made this work”)
The relief of the Last Supper also has an inscription, but regretfully the central part of the text (above John) is lost. We are fortunate that all the words have been recorded in the past. The full inscription was:
CENANS DISCIPULIS CHRISTUS DAT VERBA SALUTIS CENA NOVAM TRIBUIT LEGEM VETEREM QUOQUE FINIT
Now my Church Latin is a bit rusty, but these words mean something along the lines of:
“At Supper Christ blessed his disciples, and this Supper initiated the new Law and also ended the old one.”
Above the architrave stands a statue of Saint John the Evangelist, the man who – as was already mentioned – is equated to ‘the disciple whom Jesus loved’. He is flanked by two lions and the animals have both caught a prey. The prey on the left is an animal, probably a dragon, while the prey on the right is a sinner. All these sculptures look like they were made somewhat later, so they should not be attributed to Gruamonte.
Things to see – interior
The San Giovanni Fuorcivitas has a single nave and is a rather gloomy church. Moreover, the church is fairly small, but in spite of its unimposing stature it has a surprisingly large number of interesting objects on display. Close to the official entrance is a beautifully sculpted holy water stoup that is usually – but very tentatively – attributed to Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1250-1315). The stoup is supported by three women representing the theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Charity (or Love). The stoup itself has four women’s heads representing the cardinal virtues. These are easily identifiable by their Latin captions: Prudentia (Prudence), Iustitia (Justice), Fortitudo (Fortitude) and Temperantia (Temperance).
Opposite the side entrance, on the right side of the church, we may admire a splendid pulpit dating from 1270. It was made by the Dominican lay brother Frà Guglielmo Agnelli (ca. 1238-1313), also known as Guglielmo da Pisa. Guglielmo was a highly talented student of Nicola Pisano (ca. 1220-1284), father of the aforementioned Giovanni Pisano. The pulpit is supported by lions; in the centre it is decorated with the symbols of the four evangelists. The winged ox, lion and man represent Luke, Mark and Matthew respectively. The eagle of John towers high above the other three symbols, obviously, as the church is dedicated to John. The bearded men at the corners of the pulpit may also be the evangelists, but now in their ‘normal’ human shape. Alternatively, these men may be certain apostles. The front and sides of the pulpit have been embellished with beautifully carved reliefs featuring scenes from the life of Christ, including a dramatic depiction of the Crucifixion.
In a niche to the left of the pulpit we find a famous statue made of glazed terracotta, which was crafted in 1445 by Luca della Robbia (ca. 1400-1482). It represents the Visitation, i.e. the visit of Mary to her relative Elizabeth. During the visit (and as a consequence of it) Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and conceived John the Baptist. The story is told in the Gospel according to Luke, and so it may be considered appropriate that the man who made the statue was also called Luke (Luca in Italian). A good photo of the statue can be viewed here.
Finally, the church has a few paintings that warrant closer inspection. The damaged and largely lost frescoes in the back of the church are attributed to the mysterious Maestro del 1310. Pistoia’s Museo Civico has another one of his works on display, in a more satisfactory state. In the choir, a polyptych painted by Taddeo Gaddi in 1350-1353 has been attached to the left wall. Gaddi (ca. 1300-1366) was a pupil of the great Giotto. The Madonna and Child occupy a central position in the painting. They are flanked by Saints James the Great and John the Evangelist on the left side and Saints Peter and John the Baptist on the right. Unfortunately it is so dark inside that church that it is difficult to take a photo that is not marred by blur.