It was 25 April 2023, the day that the Italians celebrated their Festa della Liberazione or Liberation Day. I had travelled to Pisa on a crowded train and was strolling through the city, looking for interesting churches that I had not seen before. That is how I got to the Romanesque church of San Frediano, just north of the river Arno. I immediately liked the rounded arches of the façade, the lozenge-shaped decorations and the central mullioned window. The church is dedicated to Saint Frediano, also known as Frigdiano, Frigiano or Frigidiano. The saint was presumably born in Ireland, travelled to Italy as a pilgrim and ultimately became bishop of Lucca. Soon after his passing on 18 March 588 he was venerated as a saint. The chief miracle he was held responsible for was diverting the course of the river Serchio.
The history of the church goes back to at least 1061, when it is first documented. Back then the church was co-dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours. In 1076 it passed into the hands of Camaldolese monks, who built the adjacent convent and ran a hospice for pilgrims and poor people. They furthermore rebuilt the entire church between the end of the eleventh and the beginning of the twelfth century in the Pisan-Romanesque style. The bell-tower, which can be seen very well from the little square in front of the church, presumably dates from the thirteenth century. The lower part is made of stone, the upper part of brick. This is a clear indication that the tower was raised after its completion.
In 1561 the Camaldolese were replaced by the Knights of the Order of Saint Stephen (see Pisa: Other attractions), who in their turn were succeeded in 1594 by Clerics Regular of Saint Paul, also known as Barnabites. The Clerics added the side chapels to the church, which were leased and sponsored by illustrious families from Pisa. However, it was also under the Barnabites that the church was struck by disaster in 1675. A fire destroyed the interior of the San Frediano, after which a restoration took place in Baroque style. This restoration was largely reversed in the twentieth century, because at the time it was felt that medieval churches should be given back their original appearances. In 1784 the San Frediano became a parish church and since 1999 it is the church of the University of Pisa (chiesa universitaria).
The interior of the church can hardly be called spectacular. In fact, in the nave we do not find a single decorative element. The aisles and the chapels, eight in total, are a lot more interesting. Here visitors will find, among other things, paintings by Ventura Salimbeni (1568-1613) from Siena and by the local painter Aurelio Lomi (1556-1634). All these works were painted before 1675 and must either have survived the fire of that year or have been put up here later. Truly splendid is the funerary monument for Giovanni Battista Ruschi (1605-1649) in the right aisle. He was professor of medicine, anatomy and philosophy at the University of Pisa. The monument, by an unknown craftsman, dates from 1653 and has been placed above a confessional. The decoration in the lunette was inspired by the Book of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 37 the prophet walks in the Valley of Dry Bones. Gods asks him to prophesy, and subsequently the skeletons are resurrected.
The highlight in the San Frediano must be the painted wooden crucifix in the first chapel on the left, the Cappella Pesciolini. The crucifix dates from the middle of the twelfth century and is attributed to the Maestro di San Frediano. Christ has been depicted as a Christus Triumphans. Unlike the Christus Patiens, which is all about the suffering of the Messiah, the Christus Triumphans symbolises Jesus’ victory over death. Indeed, the Saviour almost seems to be enjoying his time nailed to the cross. The crucifix moreover has a number of special features. Above Christ the twelve apostles have been painted. Judging by the rays above their heads this is clearly a depiction of Pentecost. At the hands of Christ we see two male saints, who have been identified as David and the prophet Isaiah. Lastly, on either side of the Saviour we see six scenes from his life.
Further reading: Chiesa di San Frediano | Comune di Pisa – Turismo