Pilgrims and art lovers alike usually make straight for the Basilica di San Francesco, justifiably famed as Umbria’s single greatest glory, and one of the most overwhelming collections of art outside a gallery anywhere in the world. Started in 1228, two years after the saint’s death, and financed by donations that flooded in from all over Europe, it’s not as grandiose as some religious shrines, though it still strikes you as being a long way from the embodiment of Franciscan principles. If you don’t mind compromised ideals, the two churches making up the basilica – one built on top of the other – are a treat.

The Lower Church

The sombre Lower Church – down the steps to the left – comes earlier, both structurally and artistically. The complicated floor plan and claustrophobic low-lit vaults were intended to create a mood of calm and meditative introspection – an effect added to by brown-robed monks, a ban on photography and a rule of silence. Francis lies under the floor in a crypt (entrance midway down the nave) that was only brought to light in 1818 after 52 days of digging. He was hidden after his funeral for safekeeping, and nowadays endures almost continuous Masses in dozens of languages.

Frescoes cover almost every available space and span a century of continuous artistic development. Stilted early works by anonymous painters influenced by the Byzantines sit alongside Roman painters such as Cavallini, who with Cimabue pioneered the move from mosaic to naturalism and the “new” medium of fresco. They were followed by the best of the Sienese School, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, whose paintings are the ones to make a real point of seeing.

Martini’s frescoes are in the Cappella di San Martino (1322–26), the first chapel on the left as you enter the nave. He was given free rein in the chapel, and every detail, right down to the floor and stained glass, follows his drawings, adding up to a unified scheme unique in Italy. Lorenzetti’s works, dominated by a powerful Crucifixion, are in the transept to the left of the main altar. Vaults above the altar itself contain four magnificent frescoes, complicated but colourful allegories of the virtues on which Francis founded his order: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Once thought to have been the work of Giotto, they’re now attributed to one of the church’s army of unknown artists. The big feature in the right transept is Cimabue’s over-restored Madonna, Child and Angels with St Francis, a painting Ruskin described as “the noblest depiction of the Virgin in Christendom”. Look out for the famous portrait of Francis and for the much-reproduced fresco of St Clare on the wall to its left.

If time allows check out the cloisters, accessible from the rear right-hand side of the Lower Church, and the Treasury, or Museo del Tesoro e Collezione F.M. Perkins, reached via the apse of the Lower Church. The latter, often passed by, contains a rich collection of paintings – including works by Pietro Lorenzetti and Masolino da Panicale.

The Upper Church

The Upper Church, built to a light and airy Gothic plan – which was to be followed for countless Franciscan churches – is more straightforward than the Lower Church and a completely different experience. It’s less a church than an excuse to show off Giotto’s dazzling frescoes on the life of St Francis. Francis Preaching to the Birds and Driving the Devils from Arezzo are just two of the famous scenes reproduced worldwide on cards and posters. The cycle starts on the right-hand wall up by the main altar and continues clockwise. Giotto was still in his 20s when he accepted the commission, having been recommended for the job by Cimabue, whose own frescoes – almost ruined now by the oxidation of badly chosen pigments and further damaged in the 1997 earthquake – fill large parts of the apse and transepts. In the vaults, several harsh areas of bare plaster stand as graphic monuments to the collapse of that year.

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