The church of San Francesco is an immense basilica in the centre of Bologna that stands about 500 metres west of the famous Piazza Maggiore. The apse of the edifice is a rather conspicuous part of the building, with huge flying buttresses that can be seen very well from Asinelli tower, which has a height of 97 metres. Behind the apse we also find three impressive tombs with distinctive pyramidal roofs. These are the tombs of the glossators, jurists that worked for the University of Bologna, founded in 1088.
Medieval Bologna was an important centre of learning and religion. It is therefore hardly surprising that the nascent Order of the Friars Minor or Franciscans decided to settle in the city at an early stage. Brother Elias Bombarone (ca. 1180-1253), also known as Elias of Cortona, was an early follower of Franciscus of Assisi. He was said to have worked in Bologna as a notary and later served as the – somewhat controversial – Vicar General and Minister General of the Order (see Assisi: Basilica di San Francesco). Bernard of Quintavalle (died ca. 1241) was another early follower of Franciscus. Like Franciscus, he was from Assisi, but he had studied law in Bologna. In about 1211 Franciscus sent him back to the city, where he arranged for the Franciscans to be given a modest accommodation at the church of Santa Maria delle Pugliole. Franciscus himself visited Bologna as late as 1222. Young Thomas of Spalato (ca. 1200-1268), the future archbishop of Split, was a witness to that visit. He was deeply impressed with Franciscus, a man who – despite his ragged appearance – spoke so beautifully.
History of the church
In 1236, ten years after Franciscus’ death, the Bologna city council granted the Friars Minor a piece of land just outside the city walls. The friars subsequently built their new church opposite the Porta Nuova, of which the remains can still be seen. Construction started immediately under the guidance of an unknown architect. In 1251 the high altar was consecrated by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254) and in 1263 the church of San Francesco was completed. The large freestanding bell-tower and radial chapels were built over a century later. The tower is a work of the architect Antonio di Vincenzo (ca. 1350-1402). It was constructed between 1397 and 1402, and the aforementioned Asinelli tower offers an excellent view of it. It should be noted that the transept of the church features a second tower, albeit a far less impressive one.
The end of the eighteenth century was a harsh time for the church. French troops looted the building in 1796 and used it as a barracks. In 1842 the building was once again consecrated as a church, but not much later it was deconsecrated and used as a depot for the army. It was not until 1886 that the tide was finally turned. The San Francesco was converted back to a church, and one Alfonso Rubbiani (1848-1913) led a thorough restoration of the building. This explains why many of the (radial) chapels in the church have an appearance that is typically nineteenth-century. In 1943 disaster struck once again when the church was heavily damaged by an Allied aerial bombardment. New restorations took place after the war, and these were completed in 1949.
Tombs of the glossators and exterior of the church
The jurists working for the University of Bologna studied the so-called Corpus Iuris Civilis, the law code – actually more of a collection of legal texts and commentaries – that had been composed under the Eastern Roman emperor Justinianus (527-565). The Digest (also known as the Pandects) may have been the most important part of the whole Corpus, as it comprised the commentaries of Roman lawyers such as Papinianus, Domitius Ulpianus and Julius Paulus, who all lived in the late second and early third century. The glossators added annotations or ‘glosses’ to the Corpus Iuris, elucidating certain passages or linking these to other parts of the Digest. In this way the glossators also tried to solve contradictions, as obviously the Roman lawyers sometimes disagreed. The Austrian legal historian Paul Koschaker (1879-1951) saw the work of the glossators as the birth of European legal science.
The reason the three tombs of the glossators are behind the apse of the church is that there used to be a cemetery here. It is highly likely that in the past there were much more of these impressive monuments in the area. In any case, the remaining three have been thoroughly restored by the aforementioned Alfonso Rubbiani and others. The southernmost tomb is the Tomba degli Accursii, which dates from 1293. The monument was built for the jurist Francesco d’Accursio (1225-1293), while later his father Accursio (1184-1263) was also entombed in it. Accursio was famous for his landmark commentary on the Corpus Iuris, known as the glossa ordinaria. Slightly more to the north, right behind the apse, we find the tomb of the jurist Odofredo Denari (ca. 1200-1265) from 1265. This is the oldest surviving tomb on site. The last and northernmost tomb is that of the jurist Rolandino de’ Romanzi (ca. 1220-1284) from 1285. One can admire two more tombs of glossators at the church of San Domenico elsewhere in Bologna.
The church has a gabled façade, a facciata a capanna as they say in Italian. Its size alone makes the façade an impressive part of the church, but do not expect an abundance of decorations. Among the very few embellishments are the reliefs on either side of the marble portal. The Venetian-style decorations date from the end of the twelfth or beginning of the thirteenth century. As the church had yet to be built at the time, they must have once been part of another building. Some sources claim the reliefs are even older and date back to the eighth century. The façade features several high windows with Gothic pointed arches and three round oculi. If you look closely, you will notice that there is nothing but thin air behind the two oculi at the sides. The façade is clearly much higher and wider than the aisles of the basilica.
Interior – general remarks
Upon entering, the visitor will find himself in a huge open space that is divided into a central nave and two aisles. This is somewhat notable, as many Franciscan churches have a single nave only. For reasons that have already been addressed, the church is a bit of a let-down in terms of art. However, at the end of the nave is a splendid altarpiece made in 1388-1393. It was designed and crafted by Jacobello and Pierpaolo dalle Masegne, two brothers from Venice. Right down at the bottom we see scenes from the life of Franciscus of Assisi and above these a series of saints on either side of a Coronation of the Virgin. Above the Coronation are God the Father giving his blessing and yet more saints. The figures topping the eight pinnacles of the altarpiece are prophets. The Madonna and Child (centre), the archangel Gabriel (left) and the Madonna of the Annunciation (right) were only added in 1884. The central spire topping the altarpiece features a Crucifixion which is also a later addition. The altarpiece has been restored multiple times by experts, including (in 1901) Alfonso Rubbiani.
There are a couple of tombs in the church that warrant closer inspection. First of all, there is the tomb of a certain Pietro Fieschi, made in 1492 by one Francesco di Simone da Fiesole (1437-1493). One of the radial chapels of the choir has a beautiful crucifix by Pietro di Giovanni Lianori (died ca. 1453). An image of the crucifix can be found here. In another chapel we find an altarpiece made in ca. 1485 by the relatively obscure painter Jacopo Forti. As was already noted above, many of the chapels were fitted out in a style typical of the nineteenth century. The decorations we find here are certainly not ugly. Among the highlights are objects made of glazed terracotta. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Della Robbia and Buglioni families of Tuscany were masters of the technique of glazing terracotta, but the style later lost its popularity. Apparently there was a revival in the nineteenth century, as I found several examples of nineteenth-century works in this style in some of the chapels, including a depiction of Franciscus receiving the stigmata, made in 1895.
Interior – tomb of antipope Alexander V
The most interesting work of art in the church is the tomb of antipope Alexander V in the left aisle. Although he was pope for less than a year (1409-1410), his name remains connected to a notorious chapter in the history of the Church of Rome: the Great Western Schism. Alexander had been born in about 1339 just outside Candia, the most important city on Venetian Crete (present-day Heraklion). Pietro Filargo, as he was originally called, decided to join the Franciscans. At the time of his birth the popes resided in Avignon, the result of a decision by the French pope Clemens V (1305-1314) to move the papal seat to that city. Popes Innocentius VI (1352-1362) and Urbanus V (1362-1370) desired to return to Rome, but that was easier said than done. Much of Italy, including the Eternal City, was no longer under papal control. The problem was solved by Innocentius’ war-horse, the Spanish cardinal Gil Álvarez Carrillo de Albornoz (1310-1367). Among his many conquests was the city of Bologna, taken in 1362. Innocentius did not live to enjoy this victory, dying the same year.
In 1366, Pope Urbanus V publicly expressed his desire to return the papacy to Rome. In spring of the next year, he began the journey back to the Eternal City, arriving at the port of Corneto (Tarquinia) in June of 1367. On 16 October of the same year, he entered Rome at the head of his troops. By that time, his trusted servant cardinal Albornoz was already dead and many Italian cities began to rebel against papal rule. The Pope was urgently needed in France because of developments in the Hundred Years’ War between France and England. Perhaps more importantly, the move back to Rome had been very unpopular with the French cardinals, who by now dominated the College. There was probably a sigh of relief when, on 4 September 1370, Urbanus V moved back to Avignon. By the end of the year he was dead. It was not until 1377 that the papacy was returned to the Eternal City for good under Pope Gregorius XI (1370-1378).
The return did not lead to an end of the strife. After Gregorius’ death in 1378 the Italian and French cardinals began to quarrel. The Italians elected their own favourite Bartolomeo Prignano as Pope Urbanus VI, while the French made Robert of Geneva Pope (now antipope) Clemens VII. The election of two popes, who immediately excommunicated each other, heralded in the so-called Great Western Schism, with one pope ruling from Rome and another from Avignon. In 1409 the Oecumenical Council of Pisa was convened to end the conflict. The results of the council were close to catastrophic: Western-Europe now had three popes instead of one. The third pope was Pietro Filargo, who took the name Alexander V. Although he got support from the largest part of Christian Europe, his reign was cut short by his untimely death. Alexander was buried in the church of San Francesco in Bologna, the city where he had passed away. His tomb in the church was made of painted terracotta. Apparently it was constructed in two phases. Niccolò di Piero Lamberti (ca. 1370-1451) was responsible for the first phase (in 1424) and Sperandio Savelli (1425-1504) for the second (in 1482).
It was not until the twentieth century that Alexander V was declared an antipope. By then there had already been a sixth, seventh and eighth pope named Alexander, so there is no legitimate Pope Alexander V in the Vatican lists. Fortunately there was no such problem with Alexander’s successor in Pisa, antipope John XXIII (1410-1415). As a consequence, there was another (and now legitimate) Pope John XXIII in the twentieth century (1958-1963). The choice of the name John XXIII was a risky one, as the antipope of the same name had an extremely dubious reputation. Nevertheless, like his predecessor Alexander, he was honoured with a beautiful tomb, which can be found in the Baptistery of Florence.
Sources: website of the church, Italian Wikipedia, Paul Koschaker, Europa und das Römische Recht (for the glossators), Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint (for Bernard of Quintavalle) and John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapters XV en XVI.