The splendid church of San Fermo Maggiore is also known as the church of Santi Fermo e Rustico. Fermus (or Firmus) and Rusticus were according to tradition Christians from Bergamo who were martyred in Verona in the year 304. The execution supposedly took place on the shores of the river Adige, and as early as the fifth or sixth century a sanctuary dedicated to the two martyrs was said to have been founded close to this spot. What is rather peculiar, is that the remains of the two men ended up in Carthage in North Africa. From there they found their way to Capodistria, modern Koper in Slovenia, from where they were subsequently taken to Trieste. It was not until the eighth century, in 755 or 765, that bishop Annone of Verona managed to get the relics back to his city. The story of the lives of Fermus and Rusticus is told on the door of the San Fermo, which was made in 1997 by the sculptor Luciano Minguzzi (1911-2004). It is likely that the story was largely made up, as it is much more plausible that the two martyrs were actually North Africans whose remains were later translated to Europe. This would also provide a much more convincing explanation for the Carthaginian connection.
Although it is certainly not impossible that a church has stood on this site since Late Antiquity, the first evidence that it was dedicated to Fermus and Rusticus dates from the middle of the eighth century. At some point the complex was granted to Benedictine monks, who founded a convent here. In 1065 the Benedictines launched a large-scale renovation, which was not completed until 1143. The monks divided the building into a lower church and an upper church. The lower church served as a repository for the precious relics of the two martyrs, while religious services were held in the upper church. The Benedictines also started the construction of the bell-tower of the church, but the tower was still uncompleted when they were forced to leave the complex in the middle of the thirteenth century. In this century, the Benedictines in Italy had got themselves into huge trouble. Many of their churches and convents had become blatantly corrupt and religious zeal was lacking everywhere. At the same time new monastic orders were founded that quickly became popular. The best-known examples are the Franciscans and Dominicans.
As a consequence of these developments, successive popes evicted the Benedictines from their convents and granted these to the new orders. In Rome, for instance, the church of San Biagio de Curtibus in Trastevere was given to the Franciscans, which is why the church is nowadays known as San Francesco a Ripa. In Verona too the Franciscans were beginning to put pressure on the ecclesiastical authorities. Unhappy with their small church of San Francesco al Corso, which was also quite far from the city centre, they asked Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254) and the bishop of the city to grant them the complex of San Fermo. Just a handful of Benedictines – six according to one of my sources – were reportedly still living there, so a complex exchange seemed quite reasonable. But although the pope and bishop gave their consent in 1248 and 1249 respectively, the Franciscans had to wait until 1260 before the Benedictines actually left. In 1261 they were finally able to settle in their new complex.
The Franciscans immediately began remodelling the upper church, a project that was completed around 1350. They were, of course, quite familiar with churches consisting of a lower and an upper church, for that was exactly how their mother church in Assisi (built between 1228 and 1253) was constructed. Two men can be considered the driving forces of the renovation in Verona. The first was the Franciscan guardian Daniele Gusmerio, the second the condottiero (mercenary captain) Guglielmo da Castelbarco. Guglielmo was a friend of Cangrande I della Scala, lord of Verona between 1311 and 1329. His beautiful tomb can still be admired at the church of Santa Anastasia. Moreover, both Daniele Gusmerio and Guglielmo da Castelbarco were immortalised on the magnificent fresco that adorns the triumphal arch of the San Fermo. On the fresco, the latter can be seen holding a scale model of the renovated church. The conspicuous façade of the church is clearly visible.
The Franciscans converted the Romanesque upper church of San Fermo into a Gothic church with a single nave, five apses and a striking ceiling that has the shape of an inverted ship’s hull (completed in 1314). The Franciscans preferred single-nave churches, as these could accommodate the large masses that flocked to their sermons. Many painters and sculptors were commissioned to embellish the renovated building. Much of their work has fortunately been preserved, which makes the San Fermo one of the most interesting churches in Verona. Regretfully the location of the complex so close to the river Adige proved to be highly problematic. In order to protect the relics of Fermus and Rusticus against flooding, these were taken from the damp lower church in 1759 and placed under the high altar of the upper church. The decades that followed were difficult for the San Fermo. Italy was occupied by Napoleon’s French and in 1807 the Franciscans were kicked out of their complex. At the end of the nineteenth century a hurricane and a flood caused severe damage, while during World War Two an Allied bombardment started a fire in the church. Luckily there was limited damage on that occasion.
A conspicuous feature of the façade of the San Fermo are the alternating bands of brick and stone (tuff according to one source, marble according to another). The façade is a mix of Romanesque and Gothic elements. The portal with the main entrance of the church has the familiar Romanesque rounded arch, while the rectangular windows have been provided with Gothic pointed arches. Remarkably, the position of the windows is not the same as on the fresco featuring Guglielmo da Castelbarco. The scale model held by Guglielmo clearly shows how the façade is divided into two distinct parts: a Romanesque portal down below and Gothic windows above it. But in reality we see about sixteen Gothic pointed arches on either side of the portal. Now it is conceivable that the fresco presents a slightly simplified version of the façade, but it is equally possible that the façade was altered after the fresco had been painted (1314-1320).
The tomb against the façade is that of the physician Aventino Fracastoro, who died in 1368. He too was a friend of the Scaligeri, the rulers of Verona. Once there was a second tomb on the other side of the entrance, but apparently only its arch has been preserved. The San Fermo was a prestigious church in the past, and people really wanted to be buried in and around the church back then. In a previous post I have already mentioned the tomb of Giovanni della Scala (ca. 1325-1359), which was later moved to the Santa Maria Antica elsewhere in Verona. Giovanni was a grandson of Bartolomeo della Scala, lord of Verona between 1301 and 1304.
A curious feature of the lower church is that it has four naves, or two naves and two aisles. The three rows of columns and pillars are probably necessary to carry the weight of the vault and the upper church above it. On these columns and pillars we see frescoes that were painted between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. It follows that not all decorations were commissioned by the Benedictines. After they had left in 1260 (see above), the Franciscans continued embellishing the lower church. That explains why one fresco represents their founder, Saint Franciscus of Assisi (ca. 1181-1226). A French fleur de lis on one of the columns is also a reference to the Franciscans, more specifically to the Franciscan Saint Louis of Toulouse (1274-1297), a son of the king of Naples.
In total about 70 frescoes have been preserved. Among the most interesting is an image of the Madonna and Child, the empress Helena and her son, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great (306-337). The Madonna is breastfeeding baby Jesus, but Jesus looks more like a mini adult than a baby. Helena is holding the True Cross, a relic that she had discovered during her trip to the Holy Land in 326-327, at least according to tradition. Her son Constantine became the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire. Although he was not baptised until he was on his deathbed, there is ample evidence that he gave preferential treatment to Christians during his long reign, so it cannot be ruled out that he considered himself a Christian way before 337. Even better is a fresco of the baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, perhaps made by the same painter. The Saviour has been depicted completely naked, but one leg covers his genitals. The fresco furthermore features Saint John the Baptist, the dove of the Holy Spirit and two angels holding robes to clothe Jesus after he has been baptised. The two frescoes date from the twelfth century and have clearly been executed in the Byzantine style.
Visitors on their way to the upper church will pass by several beautiful tombs, again a clear indication that people wanted a final resting place in the church or adjacent cloister. Among other things we see a part of the tomb of Maestro Omobono, which dates from about 1330. The tomb has an inscription that states that Omobono was a philosopher and physician. The deceased has been depicted as a scholar studying behind his desk. Elsewhere we find three parts of the tomb of Antonio Pelacani, a lawyer, philosopher and physician who passed away in 1327. A fresco, a relief and a tomb slab have been preserved. The fresco, painted by an unknown master, represents a Madonna enthroned with saints. The beautifully sculpted relief, again by an unknown master, shows the deceased giving a lecture to four students. Lastly, the tomb slab features Antonio Pelacani lying next to his wife Mabilia Palavicini.
There is much to see in the upper church. Since I cannot discuss everything, I will confine myself to a couple of highlights. Above I already mentioned the fresco on the triumphal arch and the remarkable ceiling of the San Fermo. The fresco of the triumphal arch is composed of three parts. The upper part featuring God the Father was painted in the seventeenth century by Paolo Ligozzi. The middle part, featuring Daniele Gusmerio and Guglielmo da Castelbarco, dates from 1314-1320 and was made by a painter called the Maestro del Redentore, who also painted the frescoes in the apse and on the vault of the choir. There we see Christ the Saviour among the Virgin Mary, Saint John the Baptist and Fermus and Rusticus, as well as the symbols of the four evangelists. The Maestro del Redentore, who I assume was named after the Christ the Saviour that he painted, and his associates were moreover responsible for the portraits of saints painted on the ceiling of the church. According to all my sources there are 416 portraits in total. I have not counted them myself, but have no reason to doubt the number. The series reminded me of the collection of busts of popes in the cathedral of Siena.
Another painter was responsible for the decoration of the lower part of the triumphal arch. On the left he painted a Coronation of the Virgin, on the right an Adoration of the Magi with some lovely details. Note for instance the old king who is on his knees before the Christ child, the black servant who is drinking from a flask and the man dressed in white wearing a pointy head and sporting a long beard who appears to be feeding a horse. These frescoes are presumably the work of fourteenth-century painter Paolo Veneziano, whose work on Murano, in Venice and in Bologna we have seen previously. Below the frescoes a circular colonnade from 1573 (tornacoro in Italian) closes off the choir.
As was already mentioned, the San Fermo has been a Franciscan church for ages. This is evident from the many different decorations. A series of frescoes on the near side of the right wall is for instance about the fate of a group of missionaries who were martyred in Thane, India, in 1321. The group was led by a Franciscan called Peter of Siena and comprised two more Franciscans, a Dominican and an Armenian or Georgian acting as an interpreter. After arriving in Thane, on an island off the west coast of India that is now part of the metropolis of Mumbai, the Dominican left the group, but the Franciscans and the interpreter stayed behind. Soon they were in hot water for speaking of the prophet Muhammed in a less than flattering way. The local ruler, a Muslim, then had them executed. The Four Martyrs of Thane had been born.
It is, however, doubtful whether it is the Four Martyrs that have been depicted on the San Fermo frescoes. On the large fresco we see five men (not four!), one of whom is wearing a crown. They are wearing oriental clothing and have been brutally hanged and cut in half. This article in Rolling Stone rightly argues that the people we see are likely the murderers of the Four Martyrs. The Four Martyrs themselves have been depicted on the first, smaller fresco, where they are haunting the local ruler in his sleep. On the second fresco the ruler is arrested by order of the sultan of Delhi, who is most unhappy with the way the man has treated the Franciscans. The murderers then suffer a horrible fate. They are themselves executed in a beastly fashion, little devils are dancing on their corpses and their souls are also kidnapped by little devils. The message is apparently that murderers of martyrs can have no hope of escaping their just sentence. Again the Maestro del Redentore was responsible for the frescoes.
In other chapels we also find frescoes referring to the history of the Franciscans. This is, for instance, the case in the chapel left of the choir, which is dedicated to Saint Antonius of Padova (1195-1231). Antonius’ real name was Fernando Martins and he was born in the Portuguese city of Lisbon. After joining the Franciscans, Fernando took the name Antonius from the fourth-century Saint Antonius the Great, also known as Anthony of Egypt or Anthony the Abbot. In Italy, he met with Franciscus of Assisi, the founder of the Order, and quickly became not just his follower, but also his friend and confidant. Around 1226, Antonius settled in Padova. Just five years later, he died while still only in his mid-thirties. He was canonised in 1232 by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241).
On a fourteenth-century fresco in the chapel, recently rediscovered (2004), we see a number of Franciscans being made martyrs. They are killed by order of the REX MAROCHORVM, the king of the Moroccans. The fresco refers to the five Franciscan missionaries who were murdered in Morocco in 1220 for spreading Christianity. It was this event that made Fernando Martins join the Franciscan Order. There is another fresco in the chapel that features Pope Gregorius IX and the Roman curia. The pope can be seen pointing at a man preaching from behind a lectern. The man is obviously Antonius, even though only his left arm is still visible. The frescoes were painted by an unknown artist. Later the chapel was given more modern decorations. Liberale da Verona (ca. 1445-1530) for instance painted a panel depicting Saint Antonius between two bishops, Saint Augustinus and Saint Nicholas.
In the left transept there are traces of a fresco cycle (ca. 1325-1350) about the life of Saint Franciscus of Assisi himself. The cycle is attributed to the Secondo Maestro di San Zeno and comprises familiar scenes such as the speaking crucifix in the church of San Damiano and Franciscus renouncing his worldly goods. In the adjacent room is the mausoleum of father and son Della Torre, both associated with the university of Padova. The mausoleum was made at the beginning of the sixteenth century by the sculptor Andrea Riccio (1470-1532). The original bronze reliefs were unfortunately stolen by French soldiers and are now in the Louvre in Paris.
In the Cappella Alighieri, re-fitted in 1545-1558, the last direct descendants of the great poet Dante have been buried. Dante (ca. 1265-1321) was given shelter in Verona after having been exiled from Florence (see Ravenna: Dante’s tomb). Some decorations in the chapel date from the Late Middle Ages, as here we again find frescoes painted by the aforementioned Maestro del Redentore. One of them features another important moment in the history of the Franciscans: Louis of Toulouse, the son of a king, is presented with a Franciscan habit. This event took place in 1295. Two years later Louis became bishop of Toulouse, but he quickly stepped down again and died aged just 23. In 1317 he was canonised.
It is really incredible how many interesting Late Medieval frescoes can be admired in the church of San Fermo. The imposing Crucifixion scene above the entrance to the church is attributed to Turone di Maxio, a follower of Giotto from Lombardy. The fresco is dated to the middle of the fourteenth century. There is a second Crucifixion scene above the side entrance, and this one is dated to 1363. In terms of composition and execution this fresco is a bit simpler. It is attributed to someone from the school of Turone di Maxio. A beautiful pulpit on the right side of the church dates from 1396. It is a work of the sculptor Antonio da Mestre, but the frescoes around it were painted by Martino da Verona (died 1412). They represent church fathers, evangelists, prophets and stories from the Old Testament. In the large chapel to the left of the pulpit we find more work by Antonio da Mestre and Martino da Verona. Antonio crafted the tomb of the lawyer Barnaba da Morano (died 1411) which can be admired here. The detached frescoes that have been affixed next to the tomb were made by Martino. They were once part of the decorations of the tomb, which was originally set up outside the church.
Another famous tomb in the San Fermo is the so-called Brenzoni Mausoleum. The sculptor Nanni di Bartolo from Florence and the painter Pisanello (ca. 1395-1455) from Pisa collaborated on a funerary monument for one Niccolò Brenzoni, a rich citizen of Verona. The monument was completed in 1426. The magnificent sculptural work represents the Resurrection of Christ. The Saviour is standing on his sarcophagus, of which an angel is holding the lid. Soldiers are fast asleep below the sarcophagus and topping the baldachin is a statue of the prophet Isaiah, the man who prophesised about the coming of Christ. Pisanello painted the scene of the Annunciation (with the archangel Gabriel) and the two archangels above it, Raphael and Michael. Frescoes by Pisanello are fairly rare. All of the frescoes he and Gentile da Fabriano painted for the San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome have for instance been lost. His work in the San Fermo has fortunately been preserved, although the condition of the frescoes is rather unsatisfactory.