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Church of San Francesco Città di Castello

Church of St Francis in Città di Castello

The Church of St. Francis is located within the historical centre of Città di Castello and represents one of the main – as well as one of the oldest – places of worship, whose works of art and events are intertwined with the political and artistic history of the city.

Built during the second half of the 13th century, this church was consecrated in 1291 and then underwent several renovations and extensions over the centuries that gave it its current appearance and structure. Of the original place of worship, the imposing exterior remains today, except for the bell tower, which was rebuilt after being destroyed in a major earthquake in 1452.

The interior of the church, which seems to mostly show conspicuous Baroque renovations that took place mainly between 1707 and 1727, still retains some historically and artistically valuable parts that belong to the building’s earlier construction phases.

Among these is the famous Vitelli Chapel, built by the art historian and artist Giorgio Vasari on commission of the marquise Gentilina della Staffa, who by marriage had become part of the most important noble family of Città di Castello: the Vitelli. This family gave birth to numerous personalities on the political scene, especially between the 15th and 16th centuries, and took over the seigniory of the city for more than two centuries, enriching it with important architecture. An example of this is Palazzo della Cannoniera, the most majestic of the four palaces commissioned by the family. A patronage, therefore, that also infected Gentilina della Staffa herself, who is remembered as an enlightened supporter of artists: it is no coincidence that in the Vitelli chapel itself there are other charming works of art, such as the Coronation of the Virgin painted by Vasari himself, or the beautiful wooden panelling inlaid with the life of St Francis and the Virgin, real treasures that are guarded in the chapel by another remarkable creation: the iron gate made in the 16th century by Pietro Ercolani from Todi.

To the left of the Vitelli chapel, along the wall of the main nave, is a glazed terracotta from the school of Luca della Robbia, depicting “St Francis receiving the stigmata”. Further along, near the altar of the Albizzini family, is a copy of the painting commissioned in 1504 from Raphael Sanzio, the famous Marriage of the Virgin taken from the city in 1798 by General Giuseppe Lechi of Napoleon’s troops, and since 1805 kept in the Brera Art Gallery in Milan. As is also recalled by an important commemorative inscription on the exterior façade of the church, the “divine painter” Raphael Sanzio worked in Città di Castello in his youth: traces of his early activity remain above all in the five paintings he made for the city, which, grieving, in the inscription precisely recalls the theft of his masterpiece.

Raphael’s painting is not the only one to have been stolen from this church: in front of the Vitelli Chapel, a copy replaces the Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Luca Signorelli in 1496, which has been in the National Gallery in London since 1882.

At the back of the church is the high altar, attributed to the Franciscan monk and sculptor Blessed Giacomo da Città di Castello (1292), which belongs to the earliest and oldest construction phase of the church. Finally, behind the altar, housed in the apse and surmounted by a large mechanical organ from 1763 that is still in use today, is a remarkable wooden choir dating back to the 18th century.

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