Gubbio: San Francesco

Church of San Francesco. The historical centre of Gubbio can be seen on the left. On the mountain we see the church of Sant’Ubaldo.

Establishing the exact chronology of the life of Saint Franciscus of Assisi (1181/82-1226) is impossible, but it must have been in about the summer of 1206 that he first visited the town of Gubbio, some 30 kilometres and at least a day’s walk north of Assisi. Franciscus had a friend living there, one Giacomello Spadalunga. Both had fought in the war against Perugia and both had been taken prisoner. The two had met in the ghastly dungeon where Franciscus contracted malaria, one of several diseases that would plague him for the rest of his life.

Tradition dictates that Franciscus was robbed on the way to Gubbio. He had been singing French melodies and a band of highwaymen had mistaken him for a rich traveller. When they demanded to know who he was, he had presented himself as the Herald of the Great King (i.e. Saint John the Baptist – Franciscus’ birth name was Giovanni). The robbers were unimpressed by his boldness, but since there was nothing to steal from him, they contented themselves with beating Franciscus to pulp and throwing him in a ditch.[1] When the future saint finally arrived in Gubbio, he was unrecognisable. The Spadalunga family, however, kindly took him in, nursed him and gave him new clothes. Franciscus would later travel to Gubbio on a regular basis, taking care of the lepers there. He was also credited with having saved the town from a dangerous wolf by taming and befriending the animal. A modern statue of this no doubt highly fictional event can be found next to the local church of San Francesco.

Church of San Francesco, seen from the left.

History of the church

Interior of the church.

The church of San Francesco in Gubbio is said to have been built on property once owned by the Spadalungas. Some years after Franciscus’ death, they had given a house and a warehouse to the Franciscan friars who settled in the town. Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261) gave them permission to build a proper church there. This church was likely completed by the end of the thirteenth century. A large cloister, the Chiostro della Pace, was erected to the right of the San Francesco in the next century. The aisles of the church were provided with vaults in the fifteenth century. The interior was remodelled in 1724, and on this occasion, the nave was also vaulted.

The church is properly oriented towards the east, but it has a few features that set it apart from other churches in Gubbio. The San Francesco has a nave and side aisles, while most churches in Gubbio (including the Duomo) have a single nave only. The church furthermore has three apses and two main entrances. The largest entrance – a double portal – is in the left aisle (see the image above) and faces the Piazza dei Quaranta Martiri.[2] Above the portal is an original rose window from the fourteenth century featuring the Lamb of God. The facade of the church faces the Via Ortacci and here we find another entrance (see the first image in this post). The facade is very simple and features no decorations apart from a fine Romanesque portal embellished with pink marble and another rose window with another Lamb of God. The rose window is original, but it has only been part of the church for some 60 years, having been placed here as late as 1958 (the object came from Foligno).


Lower part of the right apse.

We entered the church using the western entrance. The San Francesco had been described to us as the most beautiful church in all of Gubbio, which is probably true, but please note that it can be quite dark inside, even on a clear and sunny day. The best art in the church can be found in the three apses at the back. The frescoes in the central apse were painted by an anonymous master in ca. 1275-1280, but unfortunately they are damaged. In spite of the damage, we should still be able to identify Christ in the centre flanked by Saints Peter and Paul and the two most important Franciscan saints, Franciscus himself and his friend and confidant Antonius of Padova (1195-1231). A very good image of this fresco can be found here.

An interesting feature of the right apse is that it is split into two separate parts. The lower part is a chapel with frescoes from the first quarter of the fourteenth century by the Maestro Espressionista di Santa Chiara (perhaps Palmerino di Guido; see the image on the right). Their state of maintenance is rather poor. On the ceiling, we see Christ and what remains of the four evangelists (Matthew is completely gone). On the walls are frescoes of six saints, one of whom looks like he might very well be Saint John the Baptist. The frescoes in the upper part of the apse are older and were likely painted around the same time as those in the central apse, by the same master. Two scenes from the life of Saint Franciscus can be seen and both were inspired by frescoes in the Lower Basilica in Assisi.

Frescoes by Ottaviano Nelli.

Christ with instruments from his passion.

The best frescoes can be found in the left apse, and these are also the youngest. They are attributed – firmly it seems – to Ottaviano Nelli (1375-1444), a painter who was very active in Gubbio (see his works in the churches of Sant’Agostino and San Domenico). His Storie di Maria Vergine or Stories from the Life of the Virgin Mary were painted between ca. 1408 and 1413 (see the two images above). Not all scenes have survived, but those that have are generally in adequate condition, although some have parts missing. For instance, about three quarters of the Dormition scene has survived, but of the Assumption scene only a fragment with the Virgin’s sarcophagus is still visible. I read that the fresco cycle is based on the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), a thirteenth century collection of hagiographies compiled by Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1230-1298), who was both a chronicler and the archbishop of Genoa.

The frescoes on the column to the right of the apse are likely also by Ottaviano Nelli. The most interesting one can be found near the bottom, where we can admire a tormented and wounded Christ in his sarcophagus with elements of his suffering. We for instance see the nails with which he was crucified, the spear that was used to stab him in the side, the sponge soaked in vinegar, a stick, two whips and other instruments of torture, perhaps Mary Magdalene’s jar of ointment and certainly the hands of Pontius Pilatus which are washed in innocence by another hand holding a jug of water.

This post is based on my Dorling Kindersley travel guide, the Umbria Tourism website and the Key to Umbria website.


[1] See Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 65-66.

[2] The square is named after 40 people who were executed by the Germans on 22 June 1944. It also has a monument for the soldiers who fell in World War One, the Monumento ai Caduti.


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