Key to Umbria: Assisi

San Francesco (ca. 1228-39)

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San Francesco:  Main Page;  

History:   in the Period 1228-53;   in the Period 1253-1300;   in the 14th Century;

Exterior;    Crypt;   Sacro Convento

Upper Church: Interior;   Stained Glass Windows

Lower Church: Interior;    Frescoes in the Transepts;  

Frescoes in the Apse and Crossing Vaults;   Altars in the Transept;     Chapels;

Monument of Emperor of Constantinople 

In April 1228,Pope Gregory IX announced his intention to build a new church to house the relics of St Francis and granted indulgences to those who made donations towards the cost of construction.  He canonised St Francis in Assisi three months later and laid the foundation stone of the new church on the following day.  
Gregory IX entrusted the construction of San Francesco and the adjacent convent to Brother Elias.  The lower church must have been well- advanced by 1230, when the relics of St Francis were translated from San Giorgio.  The church was probably completed during the period of comparative peace between Gregory IX and the Emperor Frederick II in 1230-9.(See the page on San Francesco in 1228-53 for the historical context).  According to Brother Salimbene (referenced below), Pope Gregory IX built a “magnificent palace” within the convent (in the north part of the present complex) for his own use. 
San Francesco seems to have been conceived from the beginning as a double church: 
the lower church was used by the friars, and by pilgrims venerating the relics of St Francis under the high altar; while 

the upper church served as a papal basilica. 

The decoration of the upper and lower churches began soon after Pope Innocent IV consecrated their high altars in 1253: 
The surviving frescoes in the nave of the the Lower Church  and the present decoration of the Upper Church date largely to the later part of the 13th century - see the page on San Francesco in 1253-1300 for the historical context.  
An extensive programme of amplification, re-organisation and redecoration of the Lower Church was carried out in the in the first two decades of the 14th century - see the page on San Francesco in the 14th century for the historical context.
Assisi was taken by the Ghibelline Muzio di Francesco in 1319, and it subsequently suffered a long period of papal interdict and subjugation by Perugia.  The fortunes of the city and the basilica languished until 1354, when the papal legate, Cardinal Gil Albornoz began the process of taking Assisi back under papal protection.  
The fabric of the churches and the convent suffered from further violence and neglect in the following period, until the election of the Franciscan in the Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84) and the energetic Minister General, Brother Francesco Sansone (1475-99).  He undertook a series of much-need repairs: for example, Gasperino di Antonio was commissioned in 1484 to carry out work on the roofs of the chapels of the Lower Church, and the roof of the Upper Church was restored a few months later.  This work almost certainly saved many of the original frescoes in the church from destruction by rain water.
The Sacro Convento took on its present form at this time with the erection of the dramatic scarp wall to the west and a new papal palace to the south west.  

French soldiers removed a large number of precious objects from San Francesco in March, 1798. 
When the French again invaded the Papal States in 1808, the Franciscan Minister General, Giuseppe Maria de Bonis followed Pope Pius VII into exile and imprisonment in France.  The Sacro Convento was suppressed in 1810 and its library and archives were moved to Spoleto.  Further depredations occurred in 1810-11, when objects that had survived the first assault were stolen.  The friars were able to return after the fall of Napoleon in 1814, but by then their order had lost many of its members.  
The friars were expelled again in 1860, when the convent became the property of the State.  It was used it as an orphanage until 1929, when it was returned once more to the friars. 
Rediscovery of the Relics of St Francis 
After unsuccessful attempts to locate the tomb of St Francis under the high altar of the lower church in 1755 and 1802, Pius VII sanctioned a third campaign in 1806.  This campaign was halted when the French invaded the Papal States in 1808.  Some friars managed to remain unofficially in the Sacro Convento during the suppression of 1810-4, and rumour had it that they had found the tomb of St Francis and his uncorrupted body.   Pius VII sanctioned the resumption of the campaign in 1818, and this met with success: he confirmed the authenticity of the newly-discovered relics in the bull "Assisiensem Basilicam" (1820).  
For more details, see the page on the Crypt of San Francesco. 
Earthquake of 1997 
The earthquake of September 1997 inflicted damage on the basilica, and four people died in an aftershock as they gathered to inspect the initial damage, as two vaults of the Upper Church collapsed.  However, the structure proved generally resilient and the basilica was able to reopen after a two-year period of restoration.