At the end of Via Fillungo, just a few steps away from Piazza Anfiteatro, we come into the small, compact Piazza San Frediano, overshadowed by the imposing sight of the basilica. The church in fact closes the view with the white colour of its limestone façade, interrupted only by an impressive mosaic. As early as 685 AD there are records of the Church of San Frediano, the biggest after the complex of the Duomo.
In that position, when it was still outside the city, there was already a religious building dedicated to the saints Stefano, Vincenzo and Lorenzo. Frediano, bishop of Lucca from 560 to 588, built the first basilica precisely in that position, where it was brought back to light by excavations. It had three naves with a unique characteristic: the façade to the East, unlike other churches, which faced West.
The change in orientation is due to the fact that the church entrance was too close to the second circle of the city walls, which were still being built at the time. In the 8th century a crypt was added to receive the body of San Frediano.
The Basilica is a fascinating sight to observe also when walking along the walls nearby. The massive bulk of the basilica seems to face Lucca's picturesque walk as an imposing, stern image, so near that you feel you could touch it! The church as it appears today is the result of the remaking which went on until its consecration in 1147.
The design provided for a lower church and it was made higher only in the 13th century, decorating the part added to the façade with the splendid mosaic of the Ascension. Christ, in an almond shape, is surrounded by the apostles; the Madonna was portrayed in the centre, but her image was cut away to open a single-light window.
The style of the mosaic is decidedly Byzantine; it may have been made by the Roman school in the upper part and by the local Berlinghieri Workshop for the lower area. On the city wall side there also rises the crenellated bell-tower; today it is near to the apse but perhaps, before the change in orientation of the church, it was on the façade, as in the case of San Martino.
It clearly shows the stages of its construction, which was carried out over a number of centuries, up to the addition of mullioned windows with two, three and four lights in the 13th century. It was also used as a defence tower over the centuries, because of its position near the walls.
The inside of the Basilica retains the appearance that it probably had in the Middle Ages, in spite of the changes undergone over the centuries, especially in the 1500s. According to medieval practice, the columns and capitals are all in re-use material and come from Rome.
In the basilica is one of the oldest examples of Lucca medieval painting of the early 12th century, with the three saints Lorenzo, Vincenzo and Stefano, after whom the church was first named. The frescoes and decorations inside date from the 14th to the 19th century and, among the most prized works in one of the chapels, there stands out a polyptych (panel painting), a work by Jacopo della Quercia.
But the most important work, inseparably linked to Lucca Romanesque sculpture, is the Baptismal Font (or perhaps a Lustral Fountain), positioned at the beginning of the right-hand nave and dating from the 12th century; the work is signed "Robertus Magister".
Around the circular basin, in a convulsive motion that envelops it, is a tumult of Biblical figures, contorted and sometimes disjointed, so that the leg of one horseman seems to ride back to front. Santa Zita, very dear to Lucca, is venerated in one of the oldest chapels of the church, built over the space in the cemetery where she was buried in 1278.
Santa Zita is the patron saint of domestic servants, housewives and also bakers, because of a miracle by which she is said to have transformed bread into roses to defend herself from the accusation of having stolen it from the family where she was in service to give it to the poor. The saintly aura that already surrounded her during her lifetime was fed by the fact that her body, on being exhumed, was found completely intact.
This is probably explained by the characteristics of the ground, which is extremely rich in minerals, but this did not prevent people from talking about a miracle and now the frail body of the saint is displayed in a shrine, inside a chapel decorated with the images of her life.