An essential stop for anyone visiting Arezzo, the Basilica of San Francesco in the square of the same name is universally known for the “Legend of the True Cross” by Piero della Francesca, one of the most important fresco cycles of the Renaissance and a masterpiece of art of all time.
The Franciscan friars settled between 1211 and 1217 on the outlying hill of Maccagnolo, and by 1232 they were established on Poggio del Sole, at the time still outside the city walls. In 1290, they were invited by the municipality to move within the city walls, and this was done thanks to the donation of a house and its land to build a church and convent.
Based on a design by Fra’ Giovanni da Pistoia, construction continued until the 1370s. A pious woman, Monna Tessa, also left a sum for the cladding of the façade, but the meagre sum stopped at the plinth. Between the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, the bell tower was built and during the 17th century the church took on a Baroque appearance. In the mid-19th century, it was restored, removing the 17th-century superstructures.
The single-nave interior is still rich in chapels and frescoes dating from the 14th to the 16th century, although in many cases they are incomplete and deteriorated. Below are the most important ones.
On the counter façade, visitors can observe the “Enthroned Madonna and Child” by Domenico Pecori, dating back to the early 16th century, and some frescoes from the first half of the 15th century with “The Supper in the House of the Pharisee”, “St. Francis in Glory” and “Ecce Homo” attributed to Giovanni d’Agnolo di Balduccio, and the “Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine and St. Christopher” by Scheggia, Masaccio’s younger brother. Looking up, visitors can feast their eyes on “The Pardon of the Portiuncula” by Guillaume de Marcillat, a splendid stained-glass window from 1524.
Beyond the stairs leading to the three-nave lower church, used as an exhibition venue, is the Chapel of the Fallen with the “Deposition of the Fallen” by Giuseppe Cassiolidating back to 1926. This is followed by the Chapel of St. Anthony with the “Stories of St. Anthony of Padua” and above it the “Visitation of the Madonna to St. Elizabeth” by Lorentino d’Andrea from around 1280. Leaving the chapel, visitors can admire “Pentecost” by Spinello Aretino, a late 14th-century fresco detached from the now defunct Hospital of the Holy Spirit.
In the Catenacci Chapel, one can observe early 15th-century frescoes of the Spinello school with “Glorious St. Francis” and “St. Michael the Archangel” and a domestic tabernacle from a house in Corso Italia with the “Crucifix among the Sorrowful”.
Spinello Aretino is also present with the “St. Elizabeth of Hungary” in a dividing pillar, which leads to the Muratori Chapel, where “St. Francis in Ecstasy” by Bernardino Santini from the first half of the 17th century and the “Adoration of the Magi” by Giovanni Antonio Lappoli dating back to 1529, based on a drawing by Rosso Fiorentino, are located.
The Chapel of Pagno di Maffeo is the last on the left and houses the terracotta funeral monument to the jurisconsult Francesco Rosselli, an admirable work of 1439 by Michele da Firenze. The Tarlati Chapel, in the apse area on the left, houses the “Annunciation” on panel by Neri di Bicci dating back to 1470 and the detached fresco with the “Annunciation” by Matteo Lappoli from the early 16th century.
The Bacci Chapel, the major one, is the magical heart of the basilica with the “Legend of the True Cross” by Piero della Francesca a cycle of frescoes begun by Bicci di Lorenzo in 1447 and continued between 1452 and 1466 by the genius from Biturgia, which tells the story of the wood used for the cross on which Jesus was crucified. The scenes are based on the 13th century “Legenda Aurea” by Jacopo da Varagine and are developed on three levels, embracing the side walls of the chapel and the back wall. In front of the frescoes, the large “Crucifix” by the Master of St. Francis dating back to 1270-80 is suspended on the altar.
The Guasconi Chapel, in the right apse area, houses the early 15th-century triptych with the “Madonna Handing the Girdle to St Thomas and Saints” by Niccolò di Pietro Gerini. The chapel is frescoed with “The Stories of St Egidio and St Michael”, completed in 1404 by Spinello Aretino. From there, visitors continue along the right-hand wall. Returning towards the entrance, one can admire in sequence “Mary and St. Francis comforting St. John Damascene in prison”, the “Annunciation”, the “Baptism of Christ”, the “Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine”, “St. Michael the Archangel” and “St. Francis receiving the stigmata”, all frescoes attributed to Spinello Aretino or in some cases to Andrea di Nerio, painted in the second half of the 14th century.
In the Gozzari Chapel, a Roman sarcophagus from the Imperial age houses the remains of Blessed Benedetto Sinigardi, one of the first followers of Francis of Assisi, who died in 1282. This is followed by a fresco by Parri di Spinello withSts. Donnino and Nicholas” from the early 15th century.
The Chapel of the Fraternita dei Laici presents the “Madonna Enthroned with Four Crowned Saints” by Parri di Spinellofrom the first half of the 15th century and the statue of the “Immaculate Mary” by Mario Moschi from 1962.
This is followed by the Catenacci Chapel with a 14th-century “Crucifix” of the Tuscan school, and the mid-15th-century Lambardi Chapel with frescoes by Antonio d’Anghiari, featuring a “Crucifixion with St Francis” and “Two Knight Saints guarding the Porta Clausa in Rome”.
The Tavanti Chapel shows the “Stories of St Bartholomew” by Lorentino d’Andrea from the second half of the 15th century and precedes the fresco with the “Madonna and Child between Sts. John the Baptist, Bernard, Anthony and Francis” by Niccolò Soggi from the first half of the 16th century.
The Carbonati Chapel concludes the right side with “Stories of St Bernardine of Siena” and a “Madonna of Mercy” dating back to 1463 by Lorentino d’Andrea.
The Bacci Chapel with frescoes by Piero della Francesca, Legend of the True Cross
The Dream of Constantine by Piero della Francesca (1452-66), one of the most famous nocturnal scenes in painting
Meeting between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba by Piero della Francesca (1452-66) detail of the fresco
Finding the Three Crosses and Verification of the Cross by Piero della Francesca (1452-66). Above, a view of Arezzo
Crucifix by the Master of St. Francis (1270-80), from the convent of Poggio del Sole
Detail of the Guasconi Chapel, to the right of the Main Chapel of the Basilica of St. Francis
Entrance to the Chapel of the Fallen, built to commemorate the dead of the First World War
Deposition of the Fallen by Giuseppe Cassioli (1926), with the soldier wrapped in the flag of the Kingdom of Italy
Chapel of the Fraternita dei Laici with the statue of the Madonna Immacolata (Immaculate Mary) by Mario Moschi (1962)
Catenacci Chapel and Lambardi Chapel with frescoes by Antonio d’Anghiari (mid-15th century)
The Pardon of the Portiuncula by Guillaume de Marcillat, stained glass window dated back to 1524 in the church façade
Pentecost by Spinello Aretino, late 14th-century fresco detached from the Hospital of the Holy Spirit
Frescoes on the right wall attributed to Spinello Aretino and Andrea di Nerio (second half of the 14th century)
St. Francis in Glory and Supper in the House of the Pharisee by Giovanni d’Agnolo di Balduccio (first half 15th cent.)
Piero della Francesca’s largest work, one of the most important masterpieces of the Renaissance. One of the most refined fresco cycles of the fifteenth century, showcasing virtuosity, such as the luminism of the Dream of Constantine, among the earliest nocturnal scenes in Italian art history, or the battle scenes.