Palermo: San Francesco d’Assisi

San Francesco d’Assisi.

The church of San Francesco turned out to be a pleasant surprise. In many churches in Palermo visitors have to buy a ticket. The money you pay is then used for maintenance of the church building. The church of San Francesco d’Assisi, however, does not have an admission charge, which led me to the completely unjustified conclusion that the church would probably not be that interesting. Au contraire! In the church we find works by famous artists such as Francesco Laurana (ca. 1430-1502), Domenico Gagini (ca. 1420-1492) and of course Giacomo Serpotta (1656-1732). The downside to the absence of an admission charge is, on the other hand, that visitors cannot seriously expect excellent light in the church. It can in fact be pretty dark inside, and much against my own habit I used flash every now and then when taking pictures.


The Franciscans arrived in Palermo in 1224, at a time when their founder Franciscus of Assisi was still alive. They did not get a cordial welcome. On the contrary, the local clergy and the Muslim population of Palermo united forces and chased the brothers from their convent. In those days there was great unrest on Sicily. Part of the unrest was a rebellion in 1222-1226 among the Muslims inhabiting the western regions of the island. In response the Emperor Frederick II forcibly moved several thousands of them to Lucera in Apulia, where their community survived for a few more decades. The tide turned for the Franciscans when in 1227 Ugolino di Conti was elected Pope Gregorius IX (1227-1241). He was the one who canonised Franciscus of Assisi on 16 July 1228, less than two years after his death in 1226. Gregorius also decreed that the Franciscans should be allowed to return to Palermo. In 1235 they once again settled in the city.

Rose window of the church, with in the centre the Lamb of God.

Interior of the church.

Unfortunately for the Franciscans the Emperor Frederick II and Pope Gregorius IX were anything but friends. The Pope excommunicated the Emperor on multiple occasions, lastly in 1239. In the same year Frederick took revenge by having the convent of the Franciscans demolished. The Emperor, one of the most important monarchs of the Middle Ages, died in 1250. Five years after his death the construction of the new church of San Francesco d’Assisi and its adjacent convent started. Work was finished in 1277 and in 1302 the Gothic façade was added. Originally the San Francesco d’Assisi was just a small church. However, between 1458 and 1471 the building was greatly expanded. The length of the nave was almost doubled and the church was provided with a deep central apse. From the fifteenth century onward many powerful Sicilian families had their own chapels built inside the San Francesco d’Assisi, where members of these families often found their final resting places. Many of these families were originally not from Sicily. They for instance had their roots in Florence, Pisa, Genoa, Naples or Aragon.

In 1823 the church was struck by an earthquake, which caused a lot of damage. 120 years later Palermo was heavily bombarded by the Allies during the Second World War. The result of these bombardments was severe damage to especially the rear of the church. Fortunately the building has always been restored competently. In the nineteenth century the architect Giuseppe Patricolo (1834-1905) was active here, in the first half of the twentieth century his colleague Francesco Valenti (1868-1953). The damage of 1943 is no longer visible either.

Things to see

The Gothic façade of the church is charming in its simplicity (see the images above). The central portal has been nicely restored and so has the rose window. In the rose window the Lamb of God takes up a central position. It is surrounded by twelve columns, no doubt symbolising the twelve apostles. Below the rose window, in the upper part of the portal, we can still see faded frescoes of the Madonna and Child, Franciscus of Assisi and Clare of Assisi.

The treasures of the San Francesco d’Assisi are mainly to be found in the many chapels. On the left side we for instance find the Cappella Mastrantonio. The beautifully sculpted portal of the chapel, from ca. 1468-1469, is sometimes seen as the first example of Sicilian Renaissance architecture. It was made by Francesco Laurana (an Italian Croat) and Pietro de Bonitate. On the portal we see, among other things, reliefs featuring the four Church Fathers, Jerome and Gregory the Great (left) and Augustine and Ambrose (right). Jerome and Gregory return in the next chapel, where traces of fourteenth-century frescoes in the style of Giotto have been preserved.

At the end of the left aisle we find the Cappella della Madonna del Rosario with the remains of the tomb of Antonello Speciale from 1464 (image below). Antonello Speciale was presumably a son of Pietro Speciale (1405-1497), lord of Alcamo and Calatafimi, praetor of Palermo and founder of the current Palazzo Pretorio in the city. Pietro Speciale moreover played an important role in the enlargement of the San Francesco d’Assisi that was already mentioned above. The tomb of Antonello Speciale was a work by Domenico Gagini, who arrived in Palermo in 1463. He was originally from Bissone in present-day Switzerland. The tomb was heavily damaged in 1943 by the aforementioned Allied bombardment. Only the effigy of the deceased and the epitaph have survived.

Tomb of Antonello Speciale – Domenico Gagini.

The chapel in the right apse is the Cappella dell’Immacolata, which has an interior that dates from the seventeenth and eighteenth century. This chapel is an excellent example of Sicilian Baroque. In the chapel we find, among other things, sculptures by Giovanni Battista Ragusa (died 1727) and Ignazio Marabitti (1719-1797). The altarpiece is not a painting but a mosaic, designed by Vito D’Anna (1718-1769). The decorations of the vault were made by Pietro Novelli (1603-1647).

Justice – Giacomo Serpotta.

An interesting chapel on the right side of the church is the Cappella del Sacro Cuore or Cappella Amodei, built in 1386. In the chapel stands the tomb of Blessed Elisabetta Amodei (1435-1498), a Franciscan tertiary. The sarcophagus is attributed to Domenico Gagini, but perhaps it is a studio work as Gagini was already dead in 1498. Apparently the Madonna and Child behind the tomb are not by Gagini. Above the Madonna, in the niche, we can still see a fairly well conserved fresco of Christ in a mandorla flanked by two angels. Domenico Gagini’s son Antonello Gagini (1478-1536) was responsible for the altar in the Cappella di San Giorgio. The portal of the chapel is a work by Gabriele di Battista (died 1505).

Lastly I would like to say a few words about the statues that Giacomo Serpotta made for the church. There are ten statues in total, and they symbolise Franciscan virtues. The statues date from 1723. Among the virtues represented are Meekness, Justice, Charity and Humility.


One Comment:

  1. Pingback:Palermo: Oratorio di San Lorenzo – – Corvinus –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.