None of my travel guides mention the church of San Remigio in Florence, but thanks to a question from one of my colleagues I did end up there during my last stay in the city. He was doing research on a Dutch painter from the nineteenth century who had travelled to Florence and had visited a “French church” there. After doing some research of my own I suggested this church may have been the San Remigio, a church that is, after all, dedicated to Saint Remigius, bishop of Reims in the fifth and sixth century and known as the “Apostle of the Franks”. It was Remigius who baptised the Frankish king Clovis, traditionally in the year 496 (but possibly as late as 506 or 508). All in all, I could not think of a better candidate for a “French church” in Florence. In the end, however, it turned out that my colleague was looking for an entirely different church, and not even a Catholic one to boot. In the meantime I had read up on the San Remigio and had collected enough interesting information to put the church on my list for my next visit to the city. In April of this year, I was back in Florence.
Since the early Middle Ages, possibly since the ninth century, there was a hospice for Frankish pilgrims who were on their way to Rome on this spot. A church dedicated to Remigius is first documented in 1040. This Romanesque church was presumably heavily damaged by the flooding of the Arno river in 1333. In 1350 the San Remigio was rebuilt in the Gothic style and decorated with frescoes, traces of which can still be found on the walls and especially the vaults. The Florentine families of the Pepi, Alberti, Bagnesi and Alighieri were involved in the rebuilding. This is evident from the coats of arms they left behind in the church. And yes, the Alighieri were relatives of the great poet Dante. At the end of the sixteenth or beginning of the seventeenth century Baroque side altars were installed in the church and in 1818 Leopoldo Pasqui (1801-1876) provided the church with its current high altar. Restorations took place in 1954-1955 and after the new flooding of the Arno in 1966. During the latter restoration the church was largely given back its original Gothic appearance.
Things to see
The San Remigio has a simple façade made of pietra forte. Decorations are completely absent. Oddly enough, while there is a secondary entrance to the right of the main entrance, such an entrance is absent on the left. The interior of the church is simple, with the striped Gothic arches immediately catching the eye. On the walls we find a couple of remnants of frescoes from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. On the left we see a Saint Christopher with Christ on his shoulders, on the right a rather damaged Saint Sigismund. The Burgundian king Sigismund (died 524) is also considered a French saint. His sister Clotilde was married to Clovis and is said to have encouraged her husband’s conversion. Sigismund himself traded in his heretical Arian faith for Orthodoxy (i.e. Catholicism). To the left of the fresco with Sigismund we see a second fresco, painted in a different era. Little is left of the fresco, but the pierced hand makes clear that Jesus Christ was depicted.
The best preserved frescoes can be found on the church vaults (see the images above and below). Each segment of the vault has four tondi with busts of saints. These seem to be evangelists, apostles, prophets and/or bishops, but it is difficult to establish who exactly they are (and the light in the church is far from ideal). Saint Remigius himself has been immortalised in the church on a canvas from 1821 by the local painter Giuseppe Bezzuoli (1784-1855). The canvas was initially hung above the high altar, but was later moved to the right side of the church. In the chapel to the left of the high altar we find a work by Empoli, the moniker under which the painter Jacopo Chimenti (1551-1640) became famous. The main reason I wanted to visit the San Remigio was a work which should be in the right chapel. I am referring to a panel painting of a Madonna and Child with two angels from ca. 1280. The work is sometimes attributed to Gaddo Gaddi (ca. 1240-1312), the father of Taddeo Gaddi and grandfather of Agnolo Gaddi. The information panel in the church, however, ascribes it to the anonymous Maestro di San Remigio. Unfortunately I did not get to see the panel: for reasons that have not become clear to me it was covered by a curtain. An image of the painting can be found here.
The best work of art that once adorned the church was moved to the Uffizi in 1851. This is the Pietà of San Remigio by Giottino (ca. 1324-1372). Giottino’s real name was Tommaso di Stefano. He was the son of Stefano Fiorentino, a pupil of the great Giotto di Bondone (ca. 1266-1337). Apparently he acquired his nickname “Little Giotto” because he extensively studied and copied the work of his father’s master. Giottino’s Pietà of San Remigio (ca. 1360-1365) is probably his best known and certainly his most beautiful work. Those who want to find out more about the panel painting should really watch this movie on YouTube.
The Pietà of San Remigio is clearly based on a similar (but mirrored) scene in the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova. Jesus has been taken from the cross and is being lamented by his mother Mary (in the purple mantle with stars) and the other women that were present at the Crucifixion. The woman in the bottom right corner is Mary Magdalene and at the foot of the cross is Saint John with folded hands. To the right of him we see Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. The former is recognisable by the myrrh and aloe he is holding (John 19:39). On the left are Saint Benedictus of Nursia and Saint Remigius. The latter is clearly a bishop, wearing a (slightly discoloured) chasuble, with a mitre on his head and staff in his hand. Benedictus has placed his hand on the head of a kneeling nun and Remigius has put his on the head of a kneeling young woman. The woman is wearing a beautiful dress with a matching belt, both no doubt fine examples of the latest fashion in the fourteenth century. The identities of the nun and the young woman are unknown, but we can be fairly sure that they were the ones who commissioned the Pietà.