Francesco truly speaks to the soul in every way and in every glimpse of the landscape that can be seen between a house and another; still, in the great Basilica that bears his name, it is hard to savour the original simplicity and sweetness of the Cantor of all creatures: The commissioner, Friar Elia (first Vicar General of the Order) wished it to be similar to a fortress with an architectural complex resembling to a stronghold, including the churches and the convent of the Friars Minor. Instead, as soon as you enter the Basilica – with its vast churchyard resembling a parade ground, you feel enveloped by a living and eternal silence that is already music of Heaven. The wonder of S. Francesco, a fertile inspirer of art, is depicted on every wall with fine pictorial concreteness by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti.
The foundation stone of the Basilica was laid by Pope Gregorio IX (then recently ascended to the papal throne) on July 17, 1228. The popular fervour was such that in less than two years the first Basilica was completed. At the time, it probably consisted of a simple trussed-roof church, and the remains of the Saint were moved there. It is also possible that the original project already envisaged two superimposed buildings: in fact, the continuation of the grandiose complex of two superimposed churches was implemented between 1232 and 1239. The lower church was enlarged with a transept, an apse and a cross vaulted ceiling – to undertake the function of tomb church; the superior church, instead, was conceived as a preaching, monastic space. The work came to life as the promoter, creator and architect Elia dreamed it: “Magna” (i.e. Big, Huge) both in terms of size, spiritual value and universal appeal for all the people in the world. It consists of two superimposed churches with a sharing apse (in total the churches are three, if we also consider the crypt where the remains of the Poor Man of Assisi are preserved). We can admire two structures, ten meters above each other: the lower one is relatively dark and low, influenced by Romanesque style. Its austerity is however attenuated by rich pictorial decorations, which, even though are less renowned than the ones of the upper basilica, are certainly more representative of the Italian art of the time (considering the quantity and the quality of the artists who worked there); the upper structure is slender and luminous, inspired by transalpine Gothic models. It is structured by pictorial decorations, and it is substantially divided into two main blocks: the frescoes of the apse, the transept and the cross-vaulted ceiling (decorated by Cimabue and his followers), and those of the nave and the vaults, where the life of Francesco is related to some episodes from the Old and New Testaments. Giotto’s frescoes recount the life of S. Francesco with typical Franciscan simplicity, subdividing it into thirty-two episodes: this set of frescoes is one of the greatest masterpieces of all time.
On the 26th of September 1997 a strong earthquake caused serious damage to the Basilica. The vault collapsed in two points, crumbling frescoes by Cimabue and others attributed to young Giotto, and also causing injuries to the transept. An exceptional work of reconstruction, consolidation and restoration started two years after the earthquake permitted the reopening of the Basilica for visits and worship.
«And amongst other things, there is a beautiful story where a thirsty man – in whom is tangible his desire for water – drinks bowing down to a spring, [portrayed] with such a great and marvellous effect to the extent that he is almost a living person drinking water».
In this passage from Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects from Cimabue to Our Times, Giorgio Vasari translates the allegorical meaning of the scene, enhancing the admirable art of Giotto. Perhaps without realizing it, he also managed to capture the point of contact between the genius of the painter Giotto and of Francesco’s mysticism, two notable figures which are known for their passionate contemplation of nature – even though they took different life paths.