Basilica di San Francesco ★★★

The massive basilica, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi, Italy (Photo by Roberto Ferrari)
The massive basilica

The basilica of St. Francis is covered in the greatest Gothic frescoes in the world

Francis’s story is told below, with the handy visual aid of Giotto’s fresco cycle in the upper church. But suffice it to say that Assisi’s grandiose, gorgeously embellished Basilica di San Francesco is an incongruous memorial to a man who preached and lived an utterly simple life—one of poverty, abstinence, and renunciation of worldly goods in search of greater spirituality.

The basilica’s implacable bulk rises like a force of nature from the rock of the mountainside, and the first sight of it as you approach the town from the valley is stupefying.

The person responsible for this edifice was one of Francis’s right-hand men, the Cortonan disciple Brother Elia. For all his spiritual devotion, Elia remained much more worldly than Francis. In fact, it was probably Elia’s tireless marketing and promotion of the Franciscan order, coupled with papal encouragement (which had political motivations of its own), that ensured the longevity of the Francescani.

With the basilica he built in 1230 to house Francis’s recently sanctified bones, Elia was basically sending a public-relations message: Here was a man so holy he needed not just one but two churches, stacked on top of each other, to honor him. The bi-level basilica enjoys an odd marriage of form and function as one of the world’s focal points of both high art and intense spirituality.

It moves the devout to tears and art lovers to fits of near-religious ecstasy.

THE LOWER CHURCH

Entered through a Gothic portal under a Renaissance porch on Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco (the lower of the two squares abutting the church), the basilica’s bottom half is a low-ceilinged, extremely dim cryptlike church. It’s full of masterpieces of the early Sienese school of painting, but they’re poorly lit, mainly by beautiful but unfortunately not very transparent stained-glass windows, many of which are as old as the church itself.

There’s a 1422 fresco of the Madonna Enthroned with Saints by Eugubian master Ottaviano Nelli just past the tiny decorated chapel on the left as you enter, plus some fine Gothic tombs along the right wall. At the opposite end of this hall, past the nave, is the Cappella di Santa Caterina (usually closed), frescoed by Andrea de’ Bartoli with scenes from the Life of St. Catherine (1367).

The nave was the first part of the church to be frescoed, with the Passion on the right wall and Life of St. Francis on the left—all of them damaged when the side chapels were built and all painted by the mysterious but talented master named, because of this job, the Maestro di San Francesco. The first chapel off the nave on the right was decorated in 1574 by Dono Doni with the Life of St. Stephen.

Across the nave, the first chapel on the left is the Cappella di San Martino, frescoed with that saint’s life by the Sienese genius Simone Martini (1312–15). Martini amply displays both his penchant for boldly patterned fabrics—not unusual in an artist from a textile center—and his mastery of the medieval forms and themes of late Gothic Sienese painting. The scene on the right wall, St. Martin Is Knighted by Emperor Julian, sums up the chivalric medieval ideal perfectly: the ceremony of a king strapping on a knight’s sword and a squire slipping on his spurs; the noble sports of the hunt and falconry; and the love of good music and singing of the bel canto. The portrait of Julian, by the way, is probably accurate; Martini based it on the official profiles stamped on Roman coins from the emperor’s era.

Halfway up the nave on either side are stairs descending to the crypt containing the venerated stone coffin of St. Francis surrounded by the graves of four of his followers. This crypt was lost until the 19th century, sealed up by canny Brother Elia to keep rival Perugians from stealing the saintly remains. Up in the nave again, beyond the stairs on the left wall, is a cantoria tricked out with cosmatesque colored marbles. Above it is a niche with the remains of a Coronation of the Virgin (1337) and other frescoes by Giotto’s talented disciple Puccio Capanna.

Across the nave again, the middle chapel on the right side has 17th-century decorations, but the Cappella della Maddalena next door, the last chapel on the right, was frescoed with the Life of St. Mary Magdalene by Giotto and his assistants (1303–09). For two of the more dramatic scenes—the Raising of Lazarus, where bystanders dramatically cover their noses at the stench of Lazarus’s rotting flesh, and a Noli Mi Tangere where Christ appears almost to hitch up his robes as he scurries from the Magdalene’s touch—Giotto borrowed the compositions from the same scenes he’d recently finished in his fresco cycle for Padua’s Scrovegni Chapel.

In the left transept’s barrel vault and on its walls, early Sienese master Pietro Lorenzetti left one of his masterpieces. A 1320 cycle of Christ’s Passion ends with a huge and colorful, but sadly damaged, Crucifixion, and on the wall is a touching and dynamic Deposition, featuring a gaunt Christ and whimpering Marys.

The barrel vault of the right transept was originally frescoed in 1280 by Giotto’s master, Cimabue, but only his Madonna Enthroned with Four Angels and St. Francis survives, containing what has become the most popular portrait of the saint. This panel sticks out like a sore thumb amid the early 14C frescoes on the Childhood of Christ painted by Giotto’s assistants under his direction—though the master himself apparently took his brush to the Crucifixion scene.

Beneath the Cimabue fresco is the tomb of five of Francis’s original followers, above which Pietro Lorenzetti frescoed their portraits.

To the left of the door and on the end wall are half-length figures of the Madonna and seven saints (including St. Clare) by Simone Martini.

Giotto’s assistants also frescoed the large Cappella di San Nicola beyond the transept’s end according to the master’s plans. (Giotto may have dabbled directly in the triptych of the Madonna and Child with Saints Nicholas and Francis.) One of Francis’s famous brown habits is sometimes displayed here.

A doorway in the right transept opens onto the chapter house, housing a 1340 Crucifixion by Puccio Capanna and a horde of Franciscan relics. These include a patchwork moth-eaten tunic, shirts and slippers, one of only two surviving letters signed by the saint, the rock on which his head rested in his coffin, a staff presented to him by the Sultan of Egypt (after Francis proved his holiness, or at least impressed the Sultan, by walking over hot coals), and the “Rule of the Franciscans” sent to Francis by Pope Honorius II in 1223.

Stairs lead up from the lower church’s two transepts to the upper level of a 15C cloister. More stairs lead from here to the upper church, but you may want to take a minute to zip through the gift shop and the treasury. Its best works are a 15C altar frontal, a Flemish tapestry of St. Francis, and a 1290 silver chalice with an enameled portrait of Pope Nicholas IV.

Beyond the treasury is the Mason Perkins Collection of paintings by Lorenzo Monaco, Taddeo di Bartolo, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Pier Francesco Fiorentino, among others (closed at press time).

THE UPPER CHURCH

The tall, light-filled Gothic interior of the upper church is a striking contrast to its downstairs neighbor. Though its best to start with the lower church (so you can view the art chronologically) you could also enter the upper one through the plain medieval facade with its double portal (common in pilgrimage churches) and large rose window behind a small grassy park called Piazza Superiore di San Francesco.

However, I’ll assume you’re coming up from the lower church and begin with the oldest frescoes in the upper church, those in the transept.

The choir is lined with early 16C inlaid stalls, including a papal throne—the only one outside the Vatican. Above them are large frescoed scenes whose weird photo-negative quality is the result of oxidation in the pigments. As with most of the frescoes in this church, no one can agree on the attribution of these works. Some hold the Vasari opinion that Cimabue did them all (with the help of assistants) in 1277; others allow him only the masterful and dramatic composition of the Crucifixion and pin the others on his Roman assistants (Jacopo Torriti, Rustici, and possibly Pietro Cavallini).

By 1288, the artist or artists had moved on to the upper register of the nave, filling the top half of the left wall (standing at the altar and facing the main entrance) with stories from the Old Testament and the upper-right wall with scenes from the New Testament.

Among Cimabue’s assistants working here was a young Giotto, who’s now given credit for the two red-heavy scenes in the second bay of the left wall depicting Isaac Blessing Jacob and Esau Before Isaac.

The lower register of the nave, with 28 scenes of the Life of St. Francis, is what most art aficionados have traveled here to see: the frescoes of Giotto. These frescoes were fully restored in 2002, five years after the earthquake that shattered them. Again, there were probably assistants at work here, and there’s strong evidence that one pupil, the anonymous Maestro di Santa Cecilia, finished the final four compositionally crowded scenes and may have touched up the first. But most of the attempts to find some additional unknown master can be written off as mere iconoclasm—everyone from Giotto’s contemporaries to Vasari to many modern-day art historians accepts Giotto as the primary author of the cycle.

Here is the story those frescoes tell.

Francesco (Francis), the son of a wealthy local cloth merchant and his Provençal wife (hence the derivation of his name: "That French Kid"), spent much of his youth carousing, drinking, gambling, and going off to wars with his buddies—he even spent a year stewing in Perugia’s dungeons as a prisoner of war. Restless and bored, the youth began to suspect there was more to life.

The frescoes pick up the story (at the transept end of the right aisle) as Francesco’s initial glimmers of saintliness begin to appear. The first few frescoes illustrate the traditional background for the saint’s beginnings (I’ve described only the most important ones here):

  • (1) Francis is honored by a simple man, who lays his cloak in the mud for the future saint to walk on—you can tell it’s Assisi because of the Temple of Minerva in the background.
  • (2) Francis gives his mantle to a poor man (typical first sign of saintliness).
  • (4) Francis, while praying in front of a crucifix (now in Santa Chiara) in the ruins of the church of San Damiano, hears the cross speak to him. It charges him to “go and repair my house, which as you can see is falling into ruin.” The church is obviously falling apart, and Francis went on to take the command both literally, fixing the place up, and figuratively, reforming the spirituality of his fellow man.
  • (5) Francis renounces his father’s inheritance, taking off all his clothes and returning them to Dad.
  • (6) Pope Innocent III dreams the Lateran basilica, cathedral of Rome, is on the verge of collapse when a poor little man (Francis) arrives to shore it up with his own shoulders. Finally... 
  • (7), Francis and his small band of followers journey to Rome, where the pope, for political reasons, approves the Franciscan rule of poverty, chastity, and obedience and gives the pilgrims papal approval to wear monastic tonsures and preach in public.

The rest of the frescoes focus primarily on the miracles of Francis, including the exorcism of some demons from the pastel buildings of a medieval Arezzo.

In a later scene, Francis creates the first Christmas crèche—Francis’s humble, earthy views show here, as he ensures the farm animals and faux rustic setting become an integral part of the Nativity. On the entrance wall is perhaps the most famous and charming of the scenes, where Francis preaches to the birds.

Francis taught that, because God was present in all life, everything from the animals to the trees to the smallest bird is worthy of love and respect.

Francis was quite the talented poet as well, and his flower-child attitude shows through his most famous composition, a beautifully simple poem and prayer to the elements called “Canticle of the Creatures,” or “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (you’ll see copies of it everywhere around town). Also don’t miss the scene on the right wall where Francis, praying on Mt. Verna in 1224, is visited by a heavenly seraph who imparts to him a singular honor, the stigmata of Christ’s wounds.

Although later saints were also blessed with the stigmata, Francis was the first, and the miracle pretty much cinched his sainthood.

After a life spent traveling as far as Spain, Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine to preach simplicity and a return to kindness and the basics, Francis died near his hometown in 1226.

Within two years, he was made a saint, and in 1939 St. Francis was proclaimed the official patron saint of Italy.

Photo gallery
  • The massive basilica, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Roberto Ferrari)
  • The nave of the Upper Church, frescoed by Giotto, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • The facade of the Upper Church, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Quinok)
  • Legend of St Francis: 1. Homage of a Simple Man (c. 1300) by Giotto, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Apse end of the Lower Church, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • Halfway down the nave one can descend into the crypt via a double stairway. This burial place of St. Francis was found again in 1818. His remains had been hidden by brother Elia to prevent the spread of his relics in medieval Europe. By order of Pope Pius, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • The approach to the church, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • Legend of St Francis 6: Dream of Innocent III (1295) by Giotto, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Burial of St Martin (1312–17) by Simone Martini, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • St. Martin Is Knighted by Emperor Julian (1322–26) by Simone Martini, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Frescoes in the lower church, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • The Lower Church, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Tim Kelly)
  • Crucifixion by Pietro Lorenzetti, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Madonna Enthroned with the Child, St Francis and Four Angels (1278–80) by Cimabue, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Frescoes by Giotto in the Upper Church, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo by Dennis Jarvis)
  • Legend of St Francis: 23. St. Francis Mourned by St. Clare (c. 1300) by Giotto, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene: Raising of Lazarus (1320s) by Giotto, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Deposition of Christ from the Cross (c 1320) by Pietro Lorenzetti, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
  • Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene: The Hermit Zosimus Giving a Cloak to Magdalene (1320s) by Giotto, Basilica di San Francesco, Italy (Photo Public Domain)
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Tips

Dress code

San Francesco, like many other churches throughout Italy, has a strict dress code: Entrance to the basilica is forbidden to those wearing shorts or miniskirts or showing bare shoulders.

You also must remain silent and cannot take photographs in the Upper Church.

Be polite on Sunday mornings

You may visit church for Mass on Sunday morning (before 2pm), but purely touristic visits at this time are frowned upon.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).