Key to Umbria: Assisi

San Rufino (1140 - 1253)

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San RufinoMain page       Earlier churches       Facade       Roman cistern 

                                       Cappella del SS Sacramento       Cappella della Madonna del Pianto

The Duomo of Assisi is dedicated to St Rufinus, the city’s first patron saint.   

Work  began with the apse of the present church in 1140 and reached the facade at an unknown date, probably in the early 13th  century.  The earlier church (ca. 1050), which stood in what is now Piazza San Rufino, probably remained in use until a relatively late point in the construction of its successor.  (The early history of the site is set out on the page on Earlier Churches).

The history of the present church is well documented:

  1. An inscription on the external wall of of the right apsidal chapel records that Prior Raniero commissioned the new church in 1140 from Giovanni da Gubbio.

  2. Construction might have been affected when the Imperial legate, Christian of Mainz seized Assisi in 1174 and/or in the subsequent struggles between the Maiores and Minores and the associated war with Perugia.  The church was still unfinished in 121o, when the terms of the peace signed between the warring factions of Assisi provided for the Commune to complete the construction project.

  3. The relics of St Rufinus had been lost by this time.  They were under water in the crypt of the new new church in 1212 and Bishop Guido translated them to its high altar.  (This was probably Bishop Guido II, who is first securely documented in that year.)

  4. An inscription [that is now in the Museo Diocesano] records the fact that Pope Gregory IX consecrated an altar (presumably the new high altar) in 1228 and that “the one who is venerated” (i.e. the relics of St Rufinus) lay underneath.  (This must have occurred during the Pope’s visit to Assisi for the canonisation of St Francis).

  5. Pope Innocent IV consecrated the church itself during his stay in Assisi in 1253, by which time its construction was presumably complete.


The lower part of the campanile of the earlier church, which was built above a Roman cistern (see below), still survives.  The upper part dates to the 13th century.  The oldest of the bells came from the Abbazia di San Benedetto: its inscription bears the name of Bono da Pisa and the date 1287.

16th century

The Compagnia del Sacramento built the Cappella del SS Sacramento off the right aisle in 1541.

By 1566, San Rufino was suffering from a number of structural problems, and the Cathedral Chapter commissioned Galeazzo Alessi to undertake a radical remodelling of it.   He delivered a model in April 1566, but nothing further was done at that time.  Alessi was recalled to Assisi in 1570 to finalise the plans, and work began 1571, only a year before he died. 

Work on the nave, which was complete by 1573.   The remodelling of the crossing and the choir and were completed in 1583 and the last brick was placed in the cupola in 1585.  The church was then re-opened for services, although the lantern above the cupola was not finally complete until 1588.

The facade and much of the external structure of the church were not affected by the restoration, and the Cappella del SS Sacramento in the right aisle was retained.  The most radical aspect of the remodelling involved the interior, as discussed below.


The radical remodelling of 1566 involved:

  1. the lowering of the ceiling of the nave so that its Gothic arches were hidden, and the closure of its windows;

  2. the elimination of crypt under the originally elevated choir, in order to harmonise the floor level throughout the church;

  3. the closure of the two apsidal chapels and of the entrances to the presbytery from the aisles; and

  4. the creation of the new dome over the presbytery. 

The result was a brilliant transformation of the Romanesque interior into a perfectly coherent late Renaissance design. 

An entrance in the right aisle leads to the Cappella del SS Sacramento, which was unaffected by the remodelling.  (This entrance took on its present appearance in 1637).


The entrance to the Roman cistern at the end of the left aisle also survived the remodelling, although the important Roman inscription above it was partially obscured.  There is a plaster cast (Exhibit 26) of the full inscription in the Museo Civico Blocks from the Roman wall that supported the terrace above are exposed in the wall to the right.


Bishop Tegrimo Tegrimi commissioned the inscription (1633) above the main portal in honour of Pope Urban VIII, who had appointed him as bishop of Assisi in 1630.   The papal arms feature the three bees of the Barberini family. 


Inscriptions commemorating the inauguration of :

                                           Bishop Tegrimo Tegrimi                Bishop Ludovico Giustiniani

Other nearby inscriptions commemorates the inauguration of two important bishops of Assisi:

  1. Bishop Tegrimo Tegrimi (1630-41); and

  2. Bishop Ludovico Giustiniani (1670-85)


Changes made in 1848-94:

   Entrances to presbytery        Altars at sides of presbytery rebuilt      Entrances opened from presbytery                    

    opened at end of aisles                (Altare di San Vitale on right             to Cappella della Madonna del

(right aisle illustrated here)                      illustrated here)                         Pianto (left) and sacristy (right)

Alessi’s plan still suggested the historic separation of the choir of the church from its nave: in other words, of the space reserved for the canons of the duomo from that used by the congregation.  Plans to change this were first mooted in 1611, but it was only in 1848 that the necessary changes were made::

  1. the two altars at the ends of the aisles and those behind them in the apse were demolished in order to make the presbytery accessible from the aisles.  

  2. the two altars to the sides of the presbytery were rebuilt:

  3. the Altare di San Rufinuccio; and

  4. the Altare di San Vitale: and

  5. the two of the altars in the presbytery were demolished to make way for openings to the old apsidal chapels: 

  6. the re-opened apsidal chapel on the left became the Cappella della Madonna del Pianto in 1894;

  7. the re-opened apsidal chapel on the right formed an antechamber to the sacristy.

Altars in the Presbytery

High Altar

When the remodelling of the choir began in 1575, the beautiful San Rufino Polyptych (1462) was removed from the high altar and subsequently installed on the Altare della Immacolata Concezione (see below).  The relics of St Rufinus and their Roman sarcophagus were removed from the crypt and placed under a temporary altar at the head of the newly-completed nave.   When the work was complete, in 1586:    

  1. Bishop Giovanni Battista Brugnatelli translated the relics to a new sarcophagus under the new high altar, which he consecrated; and 
  2. the original sarcophagus, which was now redundant, was probably placed in its current location, in the crypt of Bishop Ugone’s  church

Altare di San Vitale (on the right)

In 1586, Bishop Brugnatelli translated the relics of St Vitalis of Assisi from San Vitale at Viole to a new altar here, which belonged to the Confraternita di San Vitale.  The relics remained here until 2001, when they were translated back to Viole. 

The original altarpiece, which was first documented here in 1613, is attributed to Cesare Sermei.  It depicts a miracle of St Vitalis, in which he restored the speech of a young man who was dumb.  Successive bishops of Assisi objected to this subject (probably because St Vitalis had never been formally canonised), but attempts to remove the altarpiece in 1632 and 1659 came to nothing.  It was replaced when this altar was rebuilt in 1848, and is now in the Museo Diocesano (see below).

Deposition (1563)

The Confraternita di San Gregorio commissioned this altarpiece from Dono Doni for their Altare di San Gregorio Magno at the head of the left aisle.   It was moved to its present location when the original altar (at the head of the left aisle) was destroyed in 1848, and was restored in 2004. 

The predella, which depicts St Gregory the Great with members of the confraternity, was separated from the main panel in 1848 and is now in the Museo Diocesano (see below)

Altare di San Rufinuccio (on the left)

In 1586, Bishop Brugnatelli translated the relics of St Rufinus of Arce from the tiny church of San Rufino in Arce, outside Assisi to a new altar here.  The altar has been rebuilt on two occasions:

  1. Canon Girolamo Evangelisti rebuilt it in 1637 and rededicated it to SS Rufinus d’ Arce and Jerome (his name saint).  He also commissioned an altarpiece that is attributed to Cesare Sermei.

  2. The altar was rebuilt again in 1848.

  3. the relics of St Rufinus of Arce were placed under the new altar, where they are still preserved; 

  4. its altarpiece was replaced and is now in the Museo Diocesano (see below); and

  5. the venerated statue (15th century) of the Madonna del Pianto, which had been moved to this altar from the closed apsidal chapel on the right in 1586, was removed and (in 1895) moved to the re-opened apsidal chapel, which was renamed as the Cappella della Madonna del Pianto.

Crucifixion (1563)

The Confraternita di San Lorenzo commissioned this altarpiece from Dono Doni for their Altare di San Lorenzo in the 4th bay of the right aisle.  It was moved to this location in the 1848 and restored in 2004.  The altarpiece depicts the Crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves in front of a cityscape of Jerusalem, with St Mary Magdalene at the foot of the Cross, St John the Evangelist to the right and the swooning Madonna to the left.  

The predella, which depicts St Laurence with with members of the confraternity, was separated from the main panel in 1848 and is now in the Museo Diocesano (see below). 

Altars in the Left Aisle

Altare di Santa Maria della Consolazione (1st bay)


An altar here dedicated to St Charles Borromeo was documented in 1653.  It was subsequently ceded to the Confraternita di SS Crispino e Crispiniano (Shoemakers’ Guild), who commissioned an altarpiece (now lost) from Feliciano Trapassi in 1681. 

The Confraternita dei Cinturati (which venerated the belt that the Our Lady of Consolation gave to Santa Monica, the mother of St. Augustine) obtained joint patronage of the altar in 1746.

As noted above, part of a Roman wall behind the altar is exposed.

Madonna della Consolazione (1745)

A local doctor, Francesco Valentini obtained the permission of the Confraternita di SS Crispino e Crispiniano to replace the altarpiece with the current one, which is by an unknown artist.  It depicts the Madonna and Child enthroned with SS Crispin, Crispian, Monica and Augustine and angels.  The facts that the angel between St Monica and the baby Jesus holds the Virgin’s belt suggests that Francesco Valentini was associated with Confraternita dei Cinturati

Altare di Sant’ Emidio (2nd bay)


The original altar here, which was dedicated to St Mark, has been rededicated on two occasions:

  1. In 1664, a group of citizens were give permission to rebuild the altar in honour of St Antony of Padua.  The design of the altar and the execution of its original altarpiece are attributed to Giacomo Giorgetti

  2. The altar was re-dedicated to St Emidius at the request of Bishop Ottavio Ringhieri, after an earthquake in 1751 that left Assisi relatively unscathed.  Its original altarpiece, which was replaced at that time, is now in the Museo Diocesano (see below).

Virgin and Saints Intercede for Assisi (1752)

Bishop Ottavio Ringhieri commissioned this altarpiece from Francesco Appiani.  It depicts Christ with God the Father sending an angel to devastate Assisi, while the Virgin and SS Francis, Emidius and Antony of Padua intercede for the city.

Altare della Immacolata Concezione (3rd bay)

An altar here dedicated to the Virgin was documented in 1576, and again in 1581, when the San Rufino Polyptych (1462) from the high altar was in place here (see below).  The altar was ceded to the Confraternita di San Rufino in 1586.  It was rebuilt twice in quick succession:
  1. In 1662, part of the bequest of Girolamo Ortorio Paci was used to rebuild it to a design by Giacomo Giorgetti, on the understanding that the work would be complete by 1664. 

  2. The nearby inscription records that Canon Lattanzio Sermattei rebuilt it in 1672.  Its stucco decoration is attributed to Agostino Silva. 

Altare del Crocifisso (4th bay)


An altar dedicated to the Crucifixion was recorded here in 1579.  The text of an indulgence granted soon after by Pope Gregory XIII is transcribed in Latin and Italian under the statues of prophets to the sides.

The altar subsequently passed to the Confraternita del SS Sacramento, and they presumably commissioned its rebuilding: an inscription [in the thickness of the niche] records that Agostino Silva carried out the work in 1672.   Two gilded wooden angels bearing candle-holders, which originally stood to the sides of the crucifix on the altar (see below), have been lost. 

Crucifix (1561)

The polychrome wooden crucifix above the altar was the subject of a payment to an unknown sculptor in 1561.  The contract was signed in the house of Dono Doni, who might have painted it.  It is carried in the annual procession in Assisi each Good Friday.

Altare di San Gaetano di Thiene (5th bay) 

There seems to have been no altar here until 1660, when Canon Lattanzio Sermattei commissioned the construction of a gilded wooden altar to be dedicated to the Blessed Gaetano (or Cajetan) of Thiene, a co-founder of the Theatine Order. 

Madonna and Child with saints (ca. 1674)

Canon Lattanzio Sermattei commissioned this altarpiece after the canonisation of St Gaetano of Thiene in 1671: he is depicted on the right, meditating upon a vision of the Madonna and Child in glory, in which the Madonna sends angels to crown the murdered St Peter Martyr.  It is attributed to Francesco Refini

Altars in the Right Aisle

Altare di San Filippo Benizi (5th bay)


This altar originally belonged to the tailors' guild and was dedicated to their patron, St Homobonus.  Bishop Ludovico Giustiniani, who belonged to the Servite Order, rebuilt it in 1672 in order to house  a relic of the newly-canonised Servite St Philip Benizi.   He consecrated it in honour of the Madonna Addolorata (the grieving Madonna) and St Philip Benizi.

The altar is decorated with stucco figures of:

  1. two flying angels holding the arms of Bishop Giustiniani; and

  2. the four Cardinal Virtues, one of which, the figure of Fortitude (illustrated above), is signed by Agostino Silva and dated 1672.

Bishop  Giustiniani also commissioned:

  1. a statue of the Madonna Addolorata; and

  2. an altarpiece of St Philip Benizi venerating the Madonna Addolorata, which is attributed to the local artist, Feliciano Trapassi.

Both objects were subsequently removed from the altar:

  1. the statue was removed at an unknown date and was placed on the adjacent altar in 1848 (see below); and

  2. the altarpiece was moved to San Vitale at Viole, outside Assisi in 1848.

Christ in Glory with saints (1555)

The Confraternita dei SS Antonio e Giacomo commissioned this altarpiece (illustrated above), which is signed by Dono Doni and dated by inscription, for their Altare di Sant' Antonio Abate (at the head of the right aisle).  It was moved here in 1848, when that altar was demolished.  It depicts:

  1. Christ in Glory with SS James and John the Evangelist (above), and

  2. an angel bestowing the palm of martyrdom of St Rufinus, with SS Vitalis, Antony Abbot, Francis and Clare (below).

Its predella has been lost.

Altare dell’ Addolorata (4th bay)

This altar originally belonged to the Confraternita di San Lorenzo.  They rebuilt it in 1650, at which point the window above was inserted.  Their altarpiece (1563) by Dono Doni was moved to the Altare di San Rufinuccio (see above) in 1848.

It was replaced by the polychrome wooden statue of the Madonna Addolorata (ca. 1672) that Bishop Ludovico Giustiniani had originally commissioned for the adjacent Altare di San Filippo Benizi (see above).  This statue is carried (along with the Crucifix on the altar opposite - see above) in the annual procession in Assisi each Good Friday.

Altare di San Giuseppe (1st bay)

An altar here dedicated to St Joseph was first documented in 1581.  It bears the arms of the Egidi family, to whom it presumably belonged.  In 1668, it passed to Bernardino Bernardini, the prior of the Compagnia del Sacramento, who commissioned the present stucco decoration (1668-70).  The angels at the top hold the arms of the Antoniacci-Falcinelli family: Giovanni Battista Falcinelli was the heir of Bernardino Bernardini.

The altar was designed to accommodate two earlier works of art:

  1. a processional banner (early 16th century) that is variously attributed to Berto di Giovanni or Dono Doni, which depicts St Joseph showing the Virgin’s wedding ring to an audience of kneeling men and women, with a cityscape of Assisi behind; and 

  2. a predella (mid 16th century), which depicts the Holy Family with SS Antony of Padua (on the left) and Bernardino of Siena (on the right), is more securely attributed to Dono Doni.


The ancient baptismal font of Assisi now stands at the start of the right aisle.  As set out in the page on the earlier churches, it was probably moved to Bishop Ugone’s church here in ca. 1035, when the “Episcopium S. Rufini” replaced Santa Maria Maggiore as the cathedral of Assisi.  It was almost certainly used for the baptism of:
  1. St Francis in ca. 1181; and

  2. St Clare in ca. 1194; and

possibly for that of the Emperor Frederick II in the early 1190s.

The font was documented on its present site in 1581, and it had probably been returned here soon after the completion of the remodelling of the nave in 1573.  It was used for the baptism of St Gabriel (Francis Possenti) in 1838.

The terracotta cover of the font was installed in 1882, as part of the preparations for the celebrations of the 700th anniversary of the birth of St Francis.  The panel behind it, which depicts the baptism of St Francis, was commissioned from the Viennese artist Franz De Rohden at this time.

Sculpted Figures in the Nave

Figures from the Old Testament (ca. 1672)

Bishop Ludovico Giustiniani probably commissioned the nine stucco figures that line the nave, which are attributed to Agostino Silva.  They include this figure of Aaron, which is to the right of the door to the Cappella del SS Sacramento.

St Rufinus (1821-3)

Following the rediscovery of the relics of St Francis in 1818, the canons of San Rufino decided to effect the formal recognition of those of St Rufinus.  Bishop Gregorio Zelli performed this recognition in 1821.  The canons then commissioned this marble statue (1821-3) of St Rufinus from the French sculptor Paul Lemoyne, who was working in Rome.  It stood on the high altar until 1846 and is now in the nave, in front of the last pillar on the right.

SS Francis and Clare (1881-8)

These two figures stand at the end of the nave, near the entrance:
  1. The design of the statue (1881) of St Francis left was the last work of the Sienese sculptor Giovanni Dupré.  His daughter, Amalia Dupré completed the work and gave it to San Rufino on the 700th anniversary of the birth of St Francis.  (A bronze copy stands outside the Palazzo Vescovile.) 

  2. Amalia Dupré also sculpted the pendant figure of St Clare (1888), in front of the first pillar on the right.  St Clare appears holding the pyx with which she repelled a Saracen attack on Assisi in 1240.

Other Works

The door in the middle of the right wall leads to a corridor (which runs along the wall and leads to the sacristy) that now houses an exhibition of art by Giuseppe Afrune that is dedicated to the Blessed Pope John Paul II.

Madonna and Child (early 14th century)

This very damaged fresco to the right, in a monofore window in the corridor, is attributed to the Maestro Espressionista di Santa Chiara.

Art from San Rufino

The following works from San Rufino are now in the Museo Diocesano:

San Rufino Polyptych (1462)

Giovanna, the widow of Francesco Acceptanti, left money in her will for this polyptych for San Rufino in 1462.  The inscription on the base of the throne contains the signature of Nicolò di Liberatore, l' Alunno and a date (MCCCCL ...).  Giorgio Vasari saw the altarpiece on the high altar of San Rufino in 1563, but it was removed during the remodelling of the choir, which began in 1575.  It was first recorded on the Altare della Immacolata Concezione (see above) in 1581 and it remained there until 1864. 

The main panels depict: 

  1. the Madonna and Child with angels and virgin saints;

  2. a deacon and a bishop (presumably St Rufinus) on the left; and

  3. St John the Evangelist and a deacon on the right. 

The upper panels, were removed in 1672, when the chapel received its stucco decoration’ depict:

  1. St Michael (in the pinnacle);

  2. God the Father; and

  3. figures of the Annunciation (to the sides).

The surviving predella panels (which are usually attributed to an assistant) depict:

  1. the burning of St Rufinus and the discovery of his body in the River Chiascio (on the left); and

  2. the translation of the relics to Assisi.  In this last panel, an ox-drawn cart carries the uncorrupted body of the saint, with the earliest surviving cityscape of Assisi in the background.  

The central predella panel, which was probably removed when a tabernacle was placed on the altar in 1582, was subsequently lost.  The inscription that replaced it records that its surviving components were reassembled and restored in 1874.

Doors from the Choir (1518-20)

These doors from the choir by Giovanni di Piergiacomo da San Severino depict St Rufinus and another saint, perhaps St Cesidius.

Baptism of Christ (1556)

These panels are probably associated with the above payment made to “maestro Rafaello” (almost certainly Raffaellino del Colle) in 1556.  They are on what seem to have been hinged doors that probably belonged to a structure in the baptistery of San Rufino.

Predella panels (1563)

These panels by Dono Doni, which are dated by inscription, were removed when the respective altarpieces (see above) were moved to the presbytery in 1848:

  1. The Confraternita di San Lorenzo probably commissioned the panel of St Lawrence and Flagellants, which belonged to the altarpiece that is now on the Altare di San Rufinuccio (on the left in the presbytery). 

  1. The Confraternita di San Gregorio probably commissioned the panel of St Gregory the Great and Flagellants, which belonged to the altarpiece that is now on the Altare di San Vitale (on the right in the presbytery). 

Panels by Cesare Sermei*

The Museo Diocesano contains four panels from San Rufino that are by or attributed to Cesare Sermei:

  1. Three of them were removed in 1848 when their respective altars in the presbytery were demolished:

  2. Miracle of St Vitalis (ca. 1613)

  3. The Confraternita di San Vitale commissioned this altarpiece for the Altare di San Vitale in the presbytery, where it was first documented in 1613.  It depicts a miracle of St Vitalis, in which he restored the speech of a young man who was dumb.  Successive bishops of Assisi objected to this subject (probably because there was no foundation for the miracle), but attempts to remove the altarpiece in 1632 and 1659 came to nothing.  

  4. Madonna and Child with St Francis  (ca. 1636)

  5. Bishop Tegrimo Tegrimi built the Altare di San Francesco in the presbytery and subsequently commissioned this altarpiece for it from Cesare Sermei.  It was removed in 1848 when this altar was demolished.  It depicts St Francis receiving the baby Jesus from the lap of the Madonna.

  6. SS Jerome and Rufinus d' Arce (ca. 1637)

  7. In 1637 ,Canon Girolamo Evangelisti rebuilt the Altare di San Rufinuccio in the presbytery and rededicated it to SS Rufinus d’ Arce and Jerome (his name saint).  He also commissioned this altarpiece, which is attributed to Cesare Sermei.  It was removed in 1848 when this altar was demolished. It depicts St Rufinus in front of the well into which he was thrown, holding a scroll inscribed with the word “veritas” (an allusion to the fact that the testimony that had provoked his martyrdom was actually true.  The penitent St Jerome kneels on the rim of the well, with his lion below. 

  8. The fourth, which was first documented when it was restored in 1685, and was documented again in the sacristy of San Rufino in 1746, can be securely attributed to Cesare Sermei on the basis of a surviving design.   It presumably came from San Rufino, although its original location there and the date of its execution are unknown.  It depicts three saints:

  9. the standing St  Rufinus with the mill stone to which he was tied during his martyrdom by drowning, with two flying angels holding crowns above his head;

  10. the standing St Cesidius, holding the palm of martyrdom; and

  11. the kneeling St Rufinus d’ Arce holding a scroll proclaiming the truth of the testimony that led to his martyrdom. 

Madonna and Child with St Antony (1664)* 

This panel, which is attributed to Giacomo Giorgetti, came from the Altare di Sant Antonio di Padova, which Giorgetti had probably designed.  The altarpiece was removed when the altar was re-dedicated to St Emidius in 1751 (see above).  It depicts a vision of St Antony of Padua in which the Madonna handed the Christ Child to him.

*These were not exhibited at the time of my last visit to the Museo Diocesano, in April 2011.

See also the note on Art from the Cappella della Madonna del Pianto.

Read more

F. Santucci (Ed.), "La Cattedrale di San Rufino in Assisi", Assisi (1999)

E. Lunghi, "Il Museo della Cattedrale di San Rufino ad Assisi", Assisi (1987)

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