During my first visit to Vicenza in 2017 I became acquainted with the local saints Felix and Fortunatus. The two brothers were depicted on a large polyptych by Lorenzo Veneziano in the Duomo of the city. Not much is known about them, but it is usually assumed that the brothers served as soldiers in the Roman army and were martyred as Christians in Aquileia in either 303 or 304. This is in any case how Lorenzo Veneziano painted them on his 1366 altarpiece: as soldier saints. It was a status that, over a thousand years after their death, was no longer disputed. In 2017 I also learned that there is a church in Vicenza that is dedicated to the brothers. It can be found just outside the city centre, and unfortunately I did not have the time back then to visit it. Five years later I was back in Vicenza, with the church of Santi Felice e Fortunato high on my list for that day. When we arrived, people were still celebrating mass and the attendance rate was high. After the service had ended, there was fortunately enough time left to walk around and admire the building before the doors were closed for the rest of the day.
If you walk towards the church from the street, you will pass by a number of Roman sarcophagi. These have been placed here for a reason, i.e. to indicate that there was a pagan cemetery here in Antiquity. The Via Postumia, built in 148 BCE, ran along the cemetery. This was an important Roman road that connected Genua in the west with Aquileia in the east. On both sides of the road there were many rows of funerary monuments, just like at the Via Appia. At the time Vicenza was a relatively unimportant Roman city that was called Vicetia.
Between the middle and end of the fourth century a Christian church was built in the cemetery. It was a small building, with a single nave, but it had a spectacular mosaic floor of which parts have been preserved. Vicenza’s Christian community subsequently grew so rapidly that soon it needed a larger building. The popularity of the church must have been influenced by the decision, taken at an unknown date, to move the relics of Felix and Fortunatus from Aquileia to their home city of Vicenza. In the first half of the fifth century this led to the construction of a new church on the site of the old one. This new church was much larger and had the shape of a classical Roman basilica, so a building with a central nave and side aisles. This church was also provided with a beautiful mosaic floor, and again part of it has been preserved.
In the second half of the fifth century a chapel or martyrion was added to the church. The relics of the two brothers were enshrined here. The church furthermore had a baptistery that, unlike the martyrion, has unfortunately not survived. In the eighth century a group of Benedictines founded a monastery next to the church, which they dedicated to Saints Vitus and Modestus. Vitus was a Sicilian martyr. Together with his entirely fictitious teacher Modestus, he was supposedly martyred during the same persecution of Christians that was said to have claimed the lives of Felix and Fortunatus. Unfortunately the whole complex was burned to the ground by marauding Magyars in 899. In the tenth century the church and monastery were rebuilt. Thanks to an extensive grant of land by the then bishop Rodolfo, the monastery quickly became rich and powerful. The complex was then again heavily damaged by the infamous earthquake of 1117, that caused death and destruction in large parts of Northern Italy. Not much later the church was rebuilt in the Romanesque style. The current church therefore largely dates from the first half of the twelfth century.
The thirteenth century was a century of rapid decline for the Benedictines, which was in part caused by corruption. The monastery next to the Santi Felice e Fortunato also lost its prominent position. To make matters worse, the popularity of Felix and Fortunatus as patron saints of Vicenza was also eroded. Towards the end of the fourteenth century they were replaced with Saint Vincentius of Zaragoza, whose name proved to be a better match with the name of the city. In 1404 Vicenza became part of the Venetian territories on the mainland. For a while, an influx of non-Italian abbots and monks turned the tide for the monastery, as did the temporary acquisition of the complex by the abbey of Santa Giustina in Padova. In the seventeenth century the church was remodelled in the style of the Baroque. First a Baroque façade was added to the building in 1660, and then between 1662 and 1665 the church interior was renovated as well. During the latter renovation the apse fresco of the church was painted by Giulio Carpioni (1613-1678). In 1806 the monastery was closed down, and sometime after the church became parochial. It is still a parish church, which is frequented quite well on Sundays, as was already mentioned in the introduction of this post. However, visitors will no longer find any Baroque decorations in the church, apart from the apse fresco. These were all removed in 1936-1937.
Things to see
Around the central entrance to the church we still see the remnants of frescoes that apparently date from the first half of the eleventh century, and must therefore have been painted before the 1117 earthquake. Two angels with trumpets are raising the dead from their graves. Also of interest is the bell-tower to the left of the church. It probably dates from the tenth century and originally served as a defensive tower. The presence of such a tower can be explained by the fact that the church of Santi Felice e Fortunato and the adjacent monastery stood outside the walls of Vicenza and were therefore vulnerable to attack. The tower was damaged by the 1117 earthquake, but it could be partially saved. It was rebuilt and subsequently converted into a bell-tower with a height of some 55 metres. Inside the tower the year 1160 (MCLX) is reportedly visible, being the year of completion.
The interior of the church is plain and simple. It consists of grey columns, much brick and wooden beams that make up the roof construction. The church once had a coffered ceiling, but this was removed along with all the other Baroque decorations. Carpioni’s fresco in the apse (see the image above) is not of exceptional quality and, moreover, appears to be damaged in the middle. Here we now see a painting by Pietro Damini (1592-1631) representing the Coronation of the Virgin. The coronation is performed by the Sacred Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Below them we see Saint Benedictus, Pope Gregorius the Great and Saint Gallus. Carpioni’s fresco also seems to refer to the Coronation of the Virgin. Inside a cloud of angels the dove of the Holy Spirit is visible, while above it we can read the text REGINA CAELI L[A]ETARE ALL[ELUIA], “queen of Heaven, rejoice, hallelujah”. The text obviously refers to the Virgin Mary. On either side of Damini’s painting we see two saints, no doubt Felix and Fortunatus.
The main reason to visit this church are the floor mosaics from Late Antiquity that have been preserved. In the nave, to the left and right of a walkway, we can admire sections of mosaic from the late fourth century. They are made up of geometrical figures, many Solomonic knots and texts that indicate which generous patrons sponsored the laying of the floor in fulfilment of a vow. On the right we read that Felix, Toribius and Immola sponsored 200 Roman feet of mosaic ex voto. What is interesting about Felix is that not only does he share a name with one of the saints to whom the church is dedicated, he also appears to have been a VC or vir clarissimus. This means he was a member of the senatorial order. It follows that aristocratic Christians were associated with the church from its earliest days. The other names are intriguing as well. In the fifth century there was a bishop named Toribius (or Turibius) in Roman Spain, while the name Immola appears to derive from the Latin verb immolare, which means ‘to sacrifice’ or ‘to burn’.
To the left of the walkway we see more names. Splendonius, Justina and others (cum suis) also sponsored part of the mosaic floor ex voto, and so did Leontius, Mariniana and others. Presumably they were not as wealthy as Felix cum suis, as the text does not specify how much of the floor was financed by them. This part of the floor moreover seems to be a bit simpler and less elaborate than on the right side. An element that immediately catches the eye is the use of yellow tesserae for the mosaic. This was new for me. Lastly I must mention that Leontius also shares a name with a saint who is especially venerated in Vicenza. Leontius and his brother Carpophorus were said to have been martyred around the same time as Felix and Fortunatus, so at the start of the fourth century. They too have been depicted on Lorenzo Veneziano’s polyptych mentioned in the opening paragraph of this post. We will probably never know whether the Leontius who added his name to the floor at the end of the fourth century was named after the martyr. It is not even clear when the cult of Leontius and Carpophorus was introduced in Vicenza.
In the right aisle we can admire a part of a the mosaic floor from the early fifth century, so from the second, much larger church. The decorations of the floor consist of repeating geometrical patterns. Here the names of the sponsors are absent, and so are the conspicuous yellow tesserae. If you walk down the right aisle and then turn right, you will find the martyrion. Unfortunately there was not enough time to go in, as the custodian was already checking his watch. It did not matter much. I had, after all, come to see the mosaic floor and had been able to study it extensively.