The magnificent Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is one of the most visited sacred destinations in the world, a popular pilgrimage site where the very profound sense of peace and quiet has a strong spiritual effect on visitors.
At first sight the simplicity of the Saint's life and views could appear in sharp contrast with the splendid interior but this is not true, while coming closer and entering, the whole structure only gives a sense of endless serenity and joy probably due to the high value of this sacred place where, since 1230, lay the mortal remains of St. Francis. The construction of the basilica began in 1228, only two years after His death, thanks to the activity of friar Elia and upon the desire of Pope Gregory IX who, only a day after the canonization of St Francis, laid the first stone of this impressive gothic structure conceived to host His mortal remains, to welcome the influx of pilgrims coming from all over the world and to be the center of the Franciscan spirituality; the same year Gregory IX, deeply attached to Francis, declared it 'Caput et Mater' of the Order of Friars Minor (Ordine dei Frati Minori), commonly known as the Franciscan Order; works continued until 1253 when it has been consecrated by Pope Innocent IV, in 1754 Pope Benedict XIV declared the patriarchal basilica a papal chapel; this unfortunately didn't prevent bandits from robbing and didn't spare the final suppression of the order; as the basilica returned to be part of the Church and St. Francis was declared Patron Saint of Italy by Pope Pius XII in 1939, the basilica has become National Shrine and since 2000 officially recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Considering the roles mentioned above, the Basilica of St. Francis is made up of two levels, both exalting the Poverello's figure and the importance of the order He founded; His mortal remains lay in the crypt of the Lower Basilica (or Lower Church, Basilica Inferiore), built entirely in the Romanesque style, it appears as low and dark as the Upper Basilica (or Upper Church, Basilica Superiore) in Gothic style is magnificent and bright; the first one is splendidly decorated with frescoes of famous artists (Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti only some example) while the Upper Basilica suffered from natural disasters and badly damaged by the violent earthquake of 1997, was from time to time restored, unfortunately it lost many of its most ancient frescoes but still keeps however a wonderful interior, decorated with the most important medieval artists' works. The entrance of the Lower Basilica is enriched by the ex-oratory of St. Bernardino (half of the 15th century), a richly decorated semicircular apse flanked by Gothic large windows, the papal altar where in a crypy lies St. Francis, in the corners of the wall around the altar lay the mortal remains of the Saint friars Brother Angelo, Brother Leo, Brother Masseo and Brother Rufino, at the entrance of the crypt in an urn the remains of Jacopa dei Settesoli; the Lower Basilica also includes a room where some St. Francis' items are displayed and carefully preserved as religious relics.
The Upper Church has a façade very simple in style only decorated with a central and splendid rose window surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists, the wonderful doorway decorates the lower part, on the left side of the façade is the Benediction Loggia (1754) and the imposing bell tower of Romanesque design, completed in 1239 and made up of 5 large and 2 smaller bells; the interior is a splendid example of Italian Gothic architecture that find its best expression in an aisleless cruciform plan, clustered columns, ribbed cross-vaulting and a series of ornamented side arches encompassing the windows; all decorations have been made at the end of the construction of the basilica, used today to hold official Church liturgies and solemnities reinforced by the papal throne prominently located in the apse.
Next to the basilica is located the Friary built by Pope Gregory IX for the friars who already inhabited it in 1230 although still under construction; this very simple place perfectly reflects the simple life of poverty and renunciation of St. Francis, it has been built around four cloisters, the Cloister of Sixtus IV (Chiostro di Sisto IV), the Cloister of the Dead (Chiostro dei Morti) whose loggia bears the name of Pope Sixtus IV, the Cloister of St. Geronzio and the Cloister of the Virgin (Chiostro dell'Immacolata). The whole complex houses the Domus Gregoriana or Palace of the Popes, originally used as papal residence, and the Museo del Tesoro including a rich collection of sacred objects and important gifts of popes and patrons; moreover other prestigious and splendid areas can be admired such as the Sala del Capitolo or delle Reliquie, the monumental refectory and the Musical Chapel (Cappella Musicale, 1230) that had as its first master Fra' Giuliano da Spira, after him, throughout the centuries other figures have contributed to the Chapel’s fame in the world with a variety of unique compositions. The friary moreover houses a vast library containing about 130.000 volumes, sacred testimonies of the history of the Church and Franciscan Order.