A devout son of an Ulster king is said to have saved Lucca from disaster
Those who have visited this part of Italy will understand Frediano’s abrupt decision to relocate
Frediano’s fame contributed to the popularity of Lucca as a stop for Irish pilgrims in the medieval era. Above, the old town with the Basilica of San Frediano. Photograph: Phas/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Around the corner from the main gate of Lucca in northern Tuscany is the Basilica of San Frediano. Not only is it one of this magnificent walled city’s architectural jewels – not least because of its Romanesque baptismal font and the golden mosaic portraying Christ’s ascension into heaven which adorns the upper part of the façade – it provides welcome shelter from the midday sun and the masses of tourists streaming through the main thoroughfare on their way to visit the cathedral or the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, the distinctive, oval-shaped Roman amphitheatre.
It was while returning home to Ireland that his true vocation was revealed to him and he decided to join a group of hermits
It was as much in search of a few minutes’ tranquil shade as out of curiosity that I entered the church on a recent visit to Lucca. After a quick perusal of the quirkily translated English version of the information leaflet, I discovered, to my surprise, that San or St Frediano, despite his name sounding impeccably Italian, was an Irishman. And that if it had not been for one of his miracles the city of Lucca might have been swept into oblivion.
Believed to have been the devout son of an Ulster king, Frediano – or Fredianus, as he is also known – travelled to Rome on pilgrimage in the sixth century. It was while returning home to Ireland that his true vocation was revealed to him and he decided to join a group of hermits who were living at Monte Pisano, close to Lucca.
Those who have visited this part of Italy will understand this abrupt decision to relocate.
Such was his apparent virtue that when Lucca’s see fell vacant about 560, Frediano was chosen as the new bishop. His immediate challenge was to alleviate the suffering caused by the newly arrived Lombards and win them over to Christianity. Thus began a bout of feverish church-building in the second half of the sixth century.
Frediano is said to have been responsible for establishing nearly 30 churches during his episcopate. As well as the original monastic church upon which the basilica in Lucca stands, there are churches in Florence and Pisa that also bear his name. His efforts to spread Christianity were rewarded by the conversion of many of the ruling Lombards. His fame contributed to the popularity of Lucca as a stop for Irish pilgrims in the medieval era.
After being moved several times over the centuries, Frediano’s body was finally laid to rest beneath the main altar of the basilica in Lucca in 1652. Commemorations of Frediano tend to take place around the date of the first translation of his remains rather than his feast day, which is celebrated on March 18th. Which is just as well given that it would be overshadowed by its proximity to the feast day of another emigrant saint.
Frediano is not only the interesting resident of the basilica in Lucca. The mummified remains of St Zita are on display in the Fatinelli chapel. In the 13th century Zita was a much put-upon domestic servant of a wealthy Luccan family, who achieved sainthood through her unstinting hard work and religious devotion. Patron saint of maids and housekeepers, Zita’s intercession is believed to be effective in the discovery of lost keys.
It seems a benign presence on a sunny summer’s day, but the river has burst its banks on many occasions over the centuries
Across the nave, in the chapel of St Augustine, is a fresco by Amico Aspertini of Frediano’s greatest miracle. Despite his church-building and conversions, Frediano remains best known for saving Lucca from disaster, when he diverted the course of the swollen river Serchio away from the city, a story immortalised in the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I.
Aspertini’s fresco depicts Frediano rather blithely rerouting the river away from Lucca. In the foreground a couple of expensively dressed burghers, wearing expressions of haughty disapproval and disdainful disappointment, watch a disorganised looking group of labourers, up to their waists in the rising waters, vainly attempt to build a dam.
From Lucca’s walls, one can see the Serchio skirting the city. It seems a benign presence on a sunny summer’s day, but the river has burst its banks on many occasions over the centuries. In 1812 the historic centre of Lucca was saved by the city walls, which acted as a flood barrier. In 2009 and 2017, after torrential rains, the floodwaters caused substantial damage to property and crops across the provinces of Pisa and Lucca.
No wonder, then, that Lucca’s citizens decided to name one of their most important churches after the Irishman who could command the river. Irish visitors enjoying a stroll or a cycle around the ramparts this summer may reflect on the fact that if it wasn’t for one of their compatriots, Lucca might not be the breathtaking city it is today.