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San Francesco al Prato (1253)

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San Francesco al PratoMain page    Relics of Blessed Giles 

Art from Choir    Art from Exterior Chapels     Other Art from Church

According to tradition, the first Franciscan community of Perugia was established by St Francis himself, in 1212, on a site that later became the nunnery of San Francesco delle Donne (see below).  Whatever is the precise truth of this claim, it is clear that a Franciscan convent was established on that site early in the 13th century.   It was some way outside the city walls, and the friars soon made plans to move to a more central location.

Local tradition has the friars acquiring houses from Longo di Puccio and Oddone degli Oddi next to the ancient church and hospice of Santa Susanna, outside the ancient city walls, in 1218.  The source for this is unknown, but “Tonglus quondam Peritti” (probably Longo di Puccio) is documented in 1218 as the owner of land near the hospital (see the reference to Anna Imelde Galletti below, note 14).  The precise location of this church is undocumented.  Valentina Borgnini (referenced below, at page 14) suggests that it can be identified with remains that were recently found under the crypt of the present church of San Francesco al Prato.  (Santa Susanna gave its name to the city gate that in turn gave its name to the rione (administrative district) di Porta Santa Susanna.  The district was documented in 1073, so the gate in question is unlikely to have been in the outer circuit of walls (which date to the 13th century).  The likelihood is that Porta Trasimena in the Etruscan walls was known as Porta Santa Susanna before the outer circuit of walls was built.)

The date at which the friars began their new church and convent is sometimes given as 1230, but modern scholarship suggests that this is too early.  What is clear is that the Oddi family gave them some property in Campo d’ Orto (now Piazza di San Francesco) in ca. 1248, and that Pope Innocent IV issued three bulls from Lyon in 1248 that were related to the new foundation.  These were directed respectively to:

  1. the Bishop of Perugia, who might have been unenthusiastic at the prospect of having a Franciscan church so close to the Duomo;

  2. the people of Perugia, who were exhorted to give alms for a new church; and

  3. the monks the Eremo di Fonte Avellana, outside Gubbio, who owned the adjoining church of San Matteo in Campo d' Orto.

In 1253, the Franciscans sold their original convent to a community of Benedictine nuns (hence that church’s later appellation “San Francesco delle Donne”), and it seems likely that this was the point at which they finally moved to Campo d’ Orto.  They probably bought San Matteo at this time for their own use.  A persistent tradition has Innocent IV laying the foundation stone of the new church: if this is correct, it probably occurred in ca. 1253. 

The church must have been in use by 1256, the year in which Pope Alexander IV issued indulgences to those worshipping there on the feast days of SS Francis, Clare and Antony of Padua.   This must have helped to finance an impressive series of  artistic commissions, many of which were inspired by developments at San Francesco, Assisi. 

The Blessed Giles, one of the first companions of St Francis in Assisi, died in 1262 in his hermitage near the convent.  His relics were brought to San Francesco and venerated in a shrine that seems to have constituted an important cult site.  The  history of this site is set out on the page San Francesco al Prato: Relics of Blessed GilesGiacomo di Boncorte Coppoli gave the land on which the Blessed Giles had had his hermitage to the friars in 1276.  A convent (the Convento di Monteripido) was documented there in 1290 and a church in 1310.  

14th Century

The church and convent were built on a site that was initially outside the city walls.  However, they lay just within the new circuit that was completed in the early 14th century.  This photograph, which is taken from Viale Orazio Antinori, shows the convent above this second circuit of walls.

The church and its convent became important to both the city and to the Franciscan Order.  For example:

  1. In 1300, the leading citizens of Perugia assembled in the cloister of the convent to take the momentous decision to build a new Duomo.

  2. When the Templars at San Bevignate were accused of heresy in 1307, the friars were appointed to act as Inquisitors. 

  3. In 1320, during a war with Assisi, Perugian forces took the town of Bastia (in the contado of Assisi), stole the relics of the Blessed Conrad of Offida from the Franciscan church there and brought them to to San Francesco al Prato.  (Pope Pius VII beatified the Blessed Conrad in San Francesco al Prato in 1817.  His relics were translated to his native Offida in 1994 and are now in the Collegiata there.)

  4. The convent hosted the a number of General Chapters of the Franciscan Order, including that of 1322 during which it issued the statement on the absolute poverty of Christ that led to its excommunication by Pope John XXII.  

The Minister General transferred the Convento di Monteripido to the new Observant wing of the order in 1374.  

Unfortunately, the church of San Francesco al Prato suffered from structural problems from its inception, mainly because of the presence of underground streams.  Four chapels were built in the late 14th and early 15th centuries, one at each of the external angles of the crossing, probably in an attempt to stabilise the structure.  One of these (the Cappella di San Matteo, between the right transept and the right wall of the nave) originally belonged to the Michelotti family, and Biordo Michelotti was probably buried in it after his murder in 1398.  (For more details, see the page on Art from the Exterior Chapels).  

15th Century

In 1421, Braccio Fortebracci consulted the leading architects of the day in order to solve the structural problems at San Francesco.   As a result, two huge arched buttresses were built on the right side of the church.  Braccio met his death in 1424 outside Aquila in Southern Italy, during the interminable war for the succession to the crown of Naples.  His enemy, Pope Martin V, who then took control of Perugia, tried to deny him burial on consecrated ground, but his body was quietly brought home in 1432 and interred with honour at San Francesco.  [Where is the monument now?]

A community of female Franciscan tertiaries that had established a nunnery at Santa Maria di Valfabbrica, near San Francesco al Prato, in 1383 established an off-shoot community at Sant’ Agnese in 1429.  The sisters later concentrated at Sant’ Agnese, and the site of Santa Maria di Valfabbrica was used for the cemetery of the Convento di San Francesco al Prato.

As noted above, the originally free-standing monument to Blessed Giles constituted an important cult site in the left transept.   In 1439, Bishop Giovanni Andrea Baglioni put in hand a renovation of the shrine, probably as part of a conscious revival of the cult.

San Francesco received a further boost in 1450 following the canonisation of Franciscan St Bernardino of Siena, an event of particular importance to the city.  The Perugian Fra Angelo del Toscana, who had joined the convent earlier in the century and had risen to become Minister General in 1450, was prominent among those promoting the new cult in the city:

  1. In 1445, shortly after the death of Fra. Bernardino of Siena and before his canonisation, Fra Angelo hosted another important Spiritual Franciscan, Blessed James of the Marches, who prompted the formation of the Confraternita dei Santi Girolamo, Francesco e Bernardino.  The confraternity was given the perpetual use of an oratory in the convent (the Oratorio dei SS Girolamo, Francesco e Bernardino) in 1450.  

  2. In 1451, he commissioned the Oratorio di San Bernardino on land adjacent to the church.

  3. In 1453, he hosted the annual meeting of the General Chapter of the Order, during which he officiated at a celebration of the feast of St Bernardino attended by the delegates and by the leading citizens of Perugia. 


           Gonfalone di San Francesco al Prato (1464)           Gonfalone di San Bernardino (1465)

                       (detail) by Benedetto Bonfigli                                 (detail) by Benedetto Bonfigli

                        Oratorio di San Bernardino                                  Galleria Nazionale (Room 14)

Two processional banners painted in (respectively) 1464 and 1465 contain important details of the appearance of the church at this time:

  1. The Gonfalone di San Francesco (left), which was originally in the Cappella del Gonfalone (see below), contains an interesting view of the the apse of San Francesco and its campanile: the latter was built in 1455 by Bartolomeo di Mattiolo but rebuilt in 1748 (see below).  The group of flagellants to the left probably belonged to the Confraternita di San Francesco. 

  2. The Gonfalone di San Bernardino (right) shows part of the facade of San Francesco (which was still incomplete), the left side of the church, the left transept and the campanile.  This image provided important evidence for the original appearance of its facade that facilitated its restoration in 1926 (see below). 

Cappella del Gonfalone (1464)

The Commune commissioned the Gonfalone di San Francesco mentioned above during an outbreak of plague in 1464.  It became the centre of a cult when it appeared to have miraculous powers that brought an end to the outbreak.  The Commune sent ambassadors to the newly elected Pope Paul II to seek (among other things) the granting of an indulgence for those attending further processions of the banner during outbreaks of disease. 

The Franciscans were closely associated with these moves, following which they instituted a lay confraternity to oversee the development of the cult.  This confraternity built a chapel to house the banner against the facade of San Francesco, which was known as the Cappella del Gonfalone or alternatively as the Cappella di Santa Maria della Pace.

The banner (which is described in the page on Art from the Exterior Chapels) was again used in processions during outbreaks of plague in 1476, 1486, 1527, 1539 and 1587.  The chapel was remodelled in the Baroque style in 1646, closed in 1909 and demolished in in 1926 to facilitate the rebuilding of the facade (see below).  

16th Century

The early 16th century was a period of splendour for the church, in which it attracted the patronage of the major families of Perugia. 

After taking Perugia in 1506, Pope Julius II (who had studied and been ordained as a priest herein the late 1460s) celebrated a mass here before leaving, at which he formally reconciled the wrring factions.  He seems to have commissioned some works of restoration in the convent. 

The respective political factions sought to establish their ascendancy through (among other things) artistic commissions in the church:

  1. Guido degli Oddi acquired the double chapel at the external angle between the left transept and the left wall of the nave (illustrated here) in 1461, from which point it was known as the Cappella degli Oddi.  This was the original location of Raphael's Pala Oddi (ca. 1503).

  2. Atlanta Baglioni acquired the Cappella di San Matteo opposite in 1499 and was buried there in 1509.  This was the original location of Raphael's Pala Baglioni (1507).

These important altarpieces are described in the page in the page on Art from the Exterior Chapels.

Unfortunately, this felicitous period was soon to end.  The church suffered serious damage during flooding in the early 1520s, and was left in a poor state of repair until 1527, when funds were finally raised for repairs. The high altar was moved to a new location closer to the apse in ca. 1532 and re-consecrated in 1536.  

Later History

The precarious stability of the church was further undermined by earthquakes in 1640, 1695 and 1701, and it finally collapsed, along with it campanile, in 1737.  The friars consequently commissioned Pietro Carattoli to undertake a radical restoration (1740-8), which involved:
  1. the demolition of what was left of the vaults, which were replaced by a wooden ceiling;

  2. the reduction (by about two meters) in the height of the perimeter walls;

  3. the support of these walls using buttresses;

  4. the construction of a high cylindrical drum crowned by lantern over the crossing (which is captured in a photograph in the excellent website “Old Perugia”); and

  5. the reconstruction of the campanile.

The sacristy was rebuilt in 1751. 

The Franciscans were expelled and their church was deconsecrated in ca. 1860, after which it soon fell into a ruinous state.  The works of art that were removed at this time are described on the page "Art from the Church".  Photographs taken in the late 19th century show the dilapidated church with its facade still buttressed by the Cappella del Gonfalone.  At this point there were two portals in the left wall:

  1. the one that still survives; and

  2. another in the bay to the right of it that was probably the main entrance to the church.

Francesco Moretti, whose stained glass laboratory was housed in the ex-convent from 1874 until 1895 (when it moved to what is now Casa Moretti-Caselli), made an important drawing of original appearance of the facade, basing it on an examination of what then survived and also on the depiction of the church on the Gonfalone di San Bernardino mentioned above. 

The church underwent significant restoration work early in the 20th century:

  1. Ugo Tarchi began the restoration of the Cappella degli Oddi (above) in 1921.  The Gonfalone di San Bernardino was moved to this chapel in 1923, an entrance to it from the piazza was opened and it was re-opened for religious services in 1929.

  2. The Cappella del Gonfalone was demolished to facilitate the restoration of the facade in 1926 (as one of the events that marked the 500th anniversary of the death of St Francis).  the drawing by Francesco Moretti mentioned above informed this restoration.

The Franciscans returned to San Francesco in 1932, and adapted the sacristy of the church for their religious services.  However, they lacked the means to restore the church, which continued to deteriorate.  The Commune re-acquired it in 1968 and finally stabilised it in 1977-80.  From this point, the church was used as an auditorium and the convent housed the Museo dell’ Accademia di Belle Arti (below).


Unfortunately, the church and convent were badly damaged by the earthquake of 1997: 

  1. The facade has now re-emerged from the scaffolding.

  2. The interior of the church (photographed on the left in 2006) has been reduced to a shell that is being converted to form an auditorium. 

  3. The apse has been encased in perspex (photographed on the right in 2013).

  4. The Museo dell’ Accademia di Belle Arti re-opened in 2012. 

Read more:

V. Borgnini, “La Chiesa di San Francesco al Prato in Perugia: Vicende Costruttive e Conservative dell' Edificio e delle sue Opere d' Arte”, Bollettino per i Beni Culturali dell' Umbria, 4:7 (2011) Viterbo

A. Galletti, "Insediamento e Primo Sviluppo dei Frati Minori a Perugia", in:

  1. U. Nicolini (Ed.), “Francescanesimo e Società Cittadina: l' Esempio di Perugia”, (1992) Spoleto

San Francesco al Prato:  Main page    Relics of Blessed Giles 

Art from Choir    Art from Exterior Chapels     Other Art from Church

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