Basilica of San Francesco


In a country and city that has been through turbulent times, the Basilica of San Francesco has a history that is maybe more troubled than most.

After the death of Saint Francis of Assisi a group of Franciscan monks arrived in Sienna and a short while later in 1228 started building the first church on the site. This was followed by another church, consecrated in 1326 and possibly to the design of Francesco di Giorgio. Destroyed by fire in 1655, it was rebuilt and an elegant bell tower added in 1765, the work of Paolo Posi. The Basilica that visitors see today was refashioned between 1885 and 1892 to a design by Giuseppe Partini. His Purist architecture was given a fake Gothic facelift between the late 19th and early 20th centuries but overall it still retains the austere simplicity so typical of the Franciscan order.

The spacious Gothic-style interior is in the shape of an Egyptian cross with one nave and several transept chapels. Like many of Siena's buildings, contrasting black and white stripes feature strongly on the lateral walls. These walls support the portal-framed ceiling and are pierced by large biforate windows and an apsidal quadriform window that is typical of 14th-century Franciscan architecture.

One of the strangest events in the Basilica's history took place in the 18th-century. On the 14th August 1730, thieves broke into the Basilica and stole a silver pyx which held 351 Hosts. These had been consecrated for mass and in the days of Catholic fervor, their theft was a devastating event. Fortunately, the Hosts were recovered just three days later. They had been left in an alms box in the Church of Santa Maria di Provenzano.

From here, they were returned to their rightful home in a solemn religious procession. Since then, the Hosts have been kept as relics and despite the passage of nearly three centuries, regular tests show that they remain as whole and fresh as the day they were consecrated.

For the last century, the Basilica has had a more peaceful existence and welcomes visitors who come to admire its frescoes and art collection from the Sienese school. These include the Coronation of the Virgin by Sassetta and Sano di Pietro, the Crucifixion by Pietro Lorenzetti, the Nativity of Christ by Sodoma, and two frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. At the end of the right-hand transept is a 14th-century statue of Saint Francis while a chapel to the right of the choir contains the tomb of Cristoforo Felici worked by Urbano da Cortona in 1462.

The Franciscan convent still sits to the right of the Basilica along with a Renaissance cloister. These are occupied by the Law Faculty and the Department Library of the University of Siena. Part of the library is also housed in the Basilica's crypt.