It is clear that the church of San Francesco, which adjoins the eponymous square in Prato, wants to welcome foreign tourists: most of the information panels in the building are in both Italian and English. The church furthermore has an excellent and well-structured website, which contains a lot of information about the history of the church. The San Francesco is situated in one of the oldest parts of the city and its history goes back to the beginning of the thirteenth century. According to tradition Saint Franciscus of Assisi visited Prato in the year 1212 to see the Sacra Cintola, the Sacred Belt of the Virgin Mary, in the Duomo of the city. The visit was the start of Franciscan activities in Prato and the brothers probably made use of a small existing church. Franciscus died in October of 1226 and less than two years later, on 16 July 1228, he was canonised by Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241). And a mere eight days after the canonisation, presumably shortly after the news from Rome had reached Prato, the authorities of this Tuscan city granted a piece of land to the Franciscans and allowed them to build a larger church and adjacent convent there.
History of the present church
The small church of the Franciscans in Prato is said to have been dedicated to Franciscus of Assisi since 1228. This makes the church one of the oldest churches dedicated to Franciscus in the world, at least according to the San Francesco website. However this may be, it took a while before construction of the current church commenced, as the foundation stone for the new building was laid as late as 1280. In 1281 the municipal authorities made extra funds available for the project and three years later the first mass could be celebrated in the new church. So to sum up, by 1284 the church of San Francesco must have been nearing completion. The church was the first building in Prato entirely executed in brick rather than stone. From the Castello dell’Imperatore behind the church one has an excellent view of the building. Visitors will also see a small part of the old city walls (from the twelfth century) and also the bell-tower of the San Francesco, which does not match well with the rest of the church. Construction of the tower started in 1798 and the name of the architect was either Angelo or Antonio Benini, depending on the source. The fact that there is apparently no consensus about the architect’s Christian name is a hint that the man can hardly be considered a legend.
When the church was first used in 1284, its conspicuous Romanesque-Gothic façade had not yet been completed. This would take another two centuries. It was not until 1490 that the architect Giuliano da Sangallo (1445-1516) made the large rose window. He was also responsible for the triangular pediment in which we can read the text DEVS SVP[ER] OMNIA, ‘God above everything’. The pediment has an oculus with a relief sculpted by Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525). The relief features Saint Franciscus receiving the stigmata, an event which is said to have taken place in 1224. The relief was made around 1490 and the stucco was once painted. Unfortunately all the paint seems to have disintegrated. The completion of the façade may have been the reason to finally consecrate the building, for the consecration only took place on 15 January 1508. At the time Prato did not have its own bishop – it did not get one until 1954 – and therefore the solemnities were led by the bishop of L’Aquila in the Abruzzi. This Giovanni da Prato (died in 1515) was of course, as his name indicates, a native of Prato. He also happened to be a Franciscan friar.
Things to see
The façade of the church is splendid, but unfortunately the building was partly covered in scaffolds when we visited Prato in August of 2020. The façade is made of alternating bands of green marble and pietra alberese. What is so special about the latter type of stone is that its colour can change over time. Pietra alberese is white when it is quarried, but a natural process causes it to turn brown. This has clearly happened to the façade of the church of San Francesco and it creates an intriguing play of colours. Far from being ugly, it is rather typical for Prato.
If we go into the church, we enter a narrow and rather empty space. Between 1902 and 1904 an attempt was made to give the building and the adjacent convent back their original medieval appearance. The project resulted in, well, this. On the walls we find two altarpieces in pseudo-medieval style. They were made in 1905 by the local painter Giuseppe Catani Chiti (1866-1945), and although they are not bad, I certainly do not want to count them among the highlights of the church. In terms of painting a curious icon from the fifteenth century is for instance far more interesting. The icon features the letters IHS, a reference to the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek: Iota, Eta Sigma. The Franciscan preacher Saint Bernardinus of Siena (1380-1444) was very dedicated to Jesus’ name. In 1424 he visited Prato and preached there during Lent, and on that occasion he donated the icon to this church. The icon is attributed to the painter Bicci di Lorenzo (1373-1452). What is special is that the letter H doubles as the cross on which Jesus has been crucified. The text along the edges is from Philippians 2:10.
The church furthermore has a nice collection of sculptural works. A first example is the semicircular pulpit on the right wall from ca. 1490-1510. We do not know who made it, but the sculptor worked in the style of Benedetto da Maiano. The pulpit features the letters IHS again. Quite special is the funerary monument for Geminiano Inghirami (1370-1460), the provost of Santo Stefano (i.e. the Duomo). As provost he managed to lure great artists such as Michelozzo, Donatello and Filippo Lippi to Prato. When he died, he was almost ninety years old. The sculptor Pasquino da Montepulciano (ca. 1425-1485) was responsible for Inghirami’s beautiful tomb. The tomb features the effigy of the deceased on his deathbed, a Bible firmly clutched against his chest. The rich decorations of the pillow and the bedsheets are very impressive. The monument was originally set up in the cloister, but was moved to the left side of the church in 1941. In the cloister it was surrounded by frescoes painted by the aforementioned Filippo Lippi (ca. 1406-1469). These have unfortunately not been preserved, but we know they included four lunettes depicting the Madonna and Child, Saint Franciscus with the stigmata and Saints Jerome, Stephen and Lawrence.
Just before we reach the steps leading to the high altar we bump into the tombstone of one of the most famous inhabitants of Prato: Francesco di Marco Datini (1335-1410). As a merchant he ran a trading company with offices in Avignon, Florence, Pisa, Genoa, Barcelona, Valencia and Palma de Mallorca. Hundreds of ledgers and 150,000 letters from the company administration have been preserved. Given his Christian name, it was to be expected that, upon his death on 16 August 1410, Datini would be buried in the church of San Francesco. The merchant left his entire fortune, with a value of about 100,000 florins, to a charity named the Ceppo dei poveri di Francesco di Marco (charity of the poor of Francesco di Marco). The church where the merchant was buried profited as well. The beautiful tombstone is the work of Niccolò di Piero Lamberti (ca. 1370-1451). Datini was furthermore honoured with a statue on the Piazza del Comune and was the subject of the book The Merchant of Prato that English writer Iris Origo (1902-1988) published in 1957.
Unfortunately it was not possible to visit the Cappella Migliorati. This chapel was built at the start of the fourteenth century. Its entrance is in the cloister south of the church, but the cloister was closed to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We were therefore regretfully unable to admire the beautiful frescoes that Niccolò di Pietro Gerini from Florence painted at the end of the fourteenth century (ca. 1395-1400). Apart from a large Crucifixion scene these frescoes depict episodes from the lives of Saints Matthew the Evangelist and Anthony of Egypt. Wikimedia Commons has a nice collection of pictures of the frescoes and people who are interested may also take a look at the interior of the chapel using Google Street View. If you use Street View, you will immediately understand why the website of the city of Prato has a text regarding the bell-tower of the San Francesco that states that the tower is “infelicemente fondata sulla Cappella Migliorati”. The base of the tower literally takes a bite out of the chapel. As a consequence, part of the frescoes has been lost forever.
 “That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (NIV)
 When he was still alive, Datini donated the crucifix on the high altar to the church.