|The first was constructed in the Gothic style between 1257
and 1265, the second is a little older and decorated with an elegant middle portal with
three rose-windows. The Cathedral, dedicated to the Patron Saint St. Rufino, vaunts a
splendid and unaltered facade with sculptures and reliefs; the interior, however, has
undergone much reconstruction during the centuries which have distorted the original
project dating back to the 13th century. On the Town Square situated on the ancient Forum,
you will find the Priors' Palace (1337), the Palace of the People's Captain (12th century)
and the temple of Minerva, built during the augustean period with pronaos,
columms and corinthian capitals which are still intact. Nearby, places which are connected
with the life of St. Francis can be visited, sich as the Eremitage of the Prisons,
immersed in a thick wood of oaks and ilex on the slopes of the Subasio Mountain,
and the convent of St. Damian, which was built up around the oratory were, according to
tradition, the Cross spoke to the Saint. Finally, in the plain, the impressive basilica of
St. Mary of the Angels was built according to the plans of Alessi between 1569 and 1679 to
protect the Porziuncola Chapel, which was the first simple meeting-place of the Francescan
brotherhood. All those who have the good luck of visiting this splendid town have to agree
with who says that the beauty of town goes beyond a short, and necessarily incomplete list
of works of art more or less extraordinary, but is however to be found in the atmosphere
of places which the story and the faith of the Saint have rendered unique all over the
Both churches were consecrated by Pope
Innocent IV in 1253, before work was started on the large cycle of fresco decorations.
The square outside the main facade did not exist at the time. A large flight of steps led
upwards to the gothic entrance, pierced by a large rose window surrounded by the symbols
of the four evangelists. This in turn was sealed off by a central drum. The lateral towers
served as supports for the structure, while those near the choir contained stairs.
The benediction loggia on the left side of the facade, above the supporting curtain wall,
was added in 1754 when the church was raised to the status of basilica. Another entrance
was added in 1487, in front of the gothic entrance that stood above that of the Lower
Basilica. This new work was by Francesco da Pietrasanta. The colonnade in the lower
square is also from the 15th century, as well as the oratory of San Bernardino opposite
the entrance to the Lower Basilica, built for the Third Order and with 17th century
alterrations in the interior. Given that there was little space for building on the
hillside chosen for the entire complex, the massive supporting structure for the convent
buildings and the papal apartments built in the 13th century and enlarged by the
Franciscan Pope Sixtus IV between 1472 and 1474 had to stretch outwards in the opposite
In the Lower Basilica the visitor arrives first at a
transept that was built after the building of the church between 1280 and 1300. The
lateral chapels opposite the entrance were added between 1350 and 1400. The ceiling of the
single nave that runs the entire length of the Lower Basilica is supported by cross
vaulting all the way to a semicircular apse at its farthest extremity, which is preceded
by a transept with barrel vaulting in its lateral arms. Between 1300 and 1350 a series of
chapels were opened up in the lateral wall of the transept and nave, wrecking the frescoes
that once decorated the side wall.
Half way along the nave a stairway leads downwards to the crypt containing the remains of St
Francis, discovered only in 1818.
The crypt was in fact designed in 1822 by Pasquale Belli, and
re-worked in neo-Romanesque style by Ugo Tarchi between 1925 and 1932. On the left hand
wall of the entrance transept, next to the chapel of San Sebastiano, there is a gothic
fresco of the "Madonna della Salute with the saints Antonio Abate, Francis and
Rufino, by Ceccolo di Giovanni (early 15th century). Opposite stands a gothic
funerary monument to the Cerchi family of Florence, from the early 14th century. Another
funerary monument, from between 1320 and 1330 stands a little further down the same side.
It could be for either Jean de Brienne or Philippe de Courtenay, the Latin Emperor of
Constantinople and bearer of the title of King of Jerusalem.
The style is similar to that of another sepulchre in San Domenico, Perugia, and to the
sepulchre designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in San Domenico, Orvieto. There follows the chapel
of Sant'Antonio Abate, with the sepulchre of the Duke of Spoleto Blasco Fernandez,
assassinated along with his son Garcia in 1367. From here an exit leads to the old
semetary of the Lower Friars, with a two-order cloister.
The transept terminates with the chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria, designed by
Gattapone in 1367. Cardinal Albornoz commissioned this chapel and was initially buried
here. The frescoes of the "Life of St Catherine are by Andrea da Bologna
(1368). A portrait of the cardinal is on the left wall. Mostly painted in tempera, the
cycle of paintings that decorate the nave was completed around 1260 by an unknown artist,
later known as the Maestro di San Francesco. It features episodes from the life of St
Francis on the left side opposite episodes from the life of Christ on the right. When the
lateral chapel were opened, several of these paintings were cut in half. Although the
paintings are deteriorated, they are the most important examples of Tuscan wall paintings
prior to Cimabue.
The high altar is from 1230, while the canopy above dates from the 14th century.
Originally it was surrounded by twelve columns, as a direct analogy with the Holy
Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but these were removed in 1870. The paintings in the vaults
(1315-20) depict the "Apotheosis of St Francis and allegories of Obedience,
Poverty and Chastity by the so-called Maestro delle Vele. The cycle of paintings on the
right hand side of the transept (The Childhood of Christ, Posthumous Miracles of St
Francis) is less unitary and is partly ascribable to the workshop of Giotto
(1315-20). It also contains work by Cimabue ("Enthroned Madonna with Angels
and St Francis, 1280), and Simone Martini (1321-26 "Madonna with Child and Two
Wise men and "St Francis, St Ludwig of Toulouse, St Elisabeth of Thuringia, St
Claire and an Unknown Saint).
The left side of the transept was on the other hand completely decorated by Lorenzo
Lorenzetti and his workshop between 1315 and 1330. The cycle represents the
"Passion of Christ. Other works by Lorenzo Lorenzetti are in the chapel of St
John the Baptist: "Madonna with Child, St Francis and St John the Baptist .
Once decorated with frescoes depicting an allegory of the Crucifixion, the walls of the
apse are now covered with a "Last Judgment" by Cesare Sermei di Orvieto. The
fine gothic wooden choir was completed in 1471 by Apollonio Petrocchi da Ripatransone,
with the help of Tommaso di Antonio Fiorentino and Andrea da Montefalco. The first chapel
on the right hand side of the nave is dedicated to St Ludwig of Toulouse and St Stephen,
with frescoes by Dono Doni (1575) and a stained glass window attributed to Simone Martini.
This is followed by a chapel to St Anthony of Padua, frescoed by Cesare Sermei in 1610,
and one to Mary Magdalene. This chapel has a series of frescoes by the workshop of Giotto
(around 1320), depicting the life of the saint. On the lef side the chapel of San Martino
is decorated with exquisite frescoes by Simone Martini (1321-26), depicting the life of St
Martin and featuring portraits of St Anthony of Padua, St Francis, St Louis of France, St
Ludwig of Toulouse, St Claire, St Elisabeth of Thuringia, St Mary Magdalene and St
Catherine of Alexandria. Stairs lead up from either side of the choir to a cloister
behind, built in 1476 by request of Pope Sixtus IV. From here one can access either the
Upper Basilica or the Museo del Tesoro that houses reliquiaries, valuable manuscripts and
vestments, works from the 13th century and two sinopites by Simone Martini and Jacopo
Torriti. The adjacent rooms house the Perkins collection of precious 14th and 15th century
panels. There is a fragment by Beato Angelico depicting "St Francis" (~1430), as
well as a "San Rocco by Nicoḷ Alunno and "St Francis Receiving the
Stigmata" by Antoniazzo Romano.
The layout of the Upper Basilica is an exact
reflection of the original plan of the Lower Basilica. The single nave terminates in two
lateral arms and a polygonal apse. But the airy, light, gothic architecture of the Upper
Basilica, which displays French influences even though it is markedly individual in style,
is in direct contrast with the heavy, crypt-like construction of its lower counterpart.
The ceiling is cross-vaulted, and a gallery runs along the entire perimeter under the
windows that are placed half way up the walls.
Coming up the stairs from the Lower Basilica, the visitor enters the Upper Basilica at the
transept and choir. With the exception of the upper right hand side section, decorated
between 1267 and 1270 by a Gothic and Roman artist, the decorations here are entirely by
Cimabue and his workshop (~1280). The grandiose cycle is sadly in a poor state of
conservation on account of the lead oxide used to mix the lighter shades and the colours
used to paint the flesh, that have all oxidised black. Left hand section:
"Crucifixion, five "Apocalyptic Scenes and "St Michael and the
Dragon. Apse: "Story of Mary; the inlaid wooden choir is by Domenico
Indivini (1491-1501). Right hand section: "Episodes from the Life of St Peter
and "Crucifixion. Cross vaulting: "Four Evangelists.
The walls of the nave contain a cycle of 34 episodes from the Old and New Testament
painted above the gallery on the left and right hand side respectively, attributed to
painters of the Rome School and followers of Cimabue. Only the scenes from the life of
Isaac are thought to be an early work by Giotto (1290-95). The vault of the third span of
the nave presents four medallions painted by Jacopo Torriti of Christ, Mary, John the
Baptist and Francis. The first span is decorated with the "Four Doctors of the
Church: Jerome, Augustine, Gregory and Ambrose, attributed either to a young Giotto
or to one of his followers. The walls under the gallery are covered with 28 frescoes of
episodes from the life of St Francis (taken from "The Life of St Francis by San
Bonaventura). There is considerable doubt as to whether the attribution to Giotto of these
frescoes is correct. The clear differences with the cycle of the life of Isaac by the
artist indicate that the cycle was probably painted by others, working from an original
project by Giotto. The stained glass windows were the first decorative element to be
completed in the church. Italy's backwardness in the technique for the production of
stained glass at the time resulted in a German workshop being commissioned for the windows
of the choir (the oldest), and a French workshop called in to make the windows of the left
hand side of the church. Those on the right hand side have been attributed to the workshop
of Maestro di San Francesco.
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