Gubbio, the “Second City of St. Francis”
St. Francis is inextricably linked to Gubbio – apart from the famed episode of the wolf – and the town has more than one church dedicated to San Francesco di Assisi.
As soon as you arrive in Gubbio, you’ll note one of the first churches in Italy dedicated to the Saint, the Church of St. Francis.
The eugubini began work on the church in 1256 on site of the home of the Spadalonga family. After the renunciation of his earthly patrimony before Bishop Guido of Assisi in 1206 (depicted in the late 13th-c fresco in Assisi)….….Francis set out for Gubbio about 30 kilometer north of Assisi, taking a few days for the walks and not without some misadventures. Francesco was headed to a Gubbio friend, Giacomello Spadalunga, who, like Francis, had been interned in a dungeon in Perugia after the battle between Assisi and Perugia at Collestrada in 1202.
It is said that the Spadalonga family sheltered Francis and also gave him his first tunic – of un-dyed wool – which would become the habit of St. Francis and his followers, i frati minori.
The father of Giacomello, Bernardo Spadalonga, was a cloth merchant like Pietro of Bernardone, the father of St. Francis and in 1214, Spadalonga and family donated a house and a warehouse to the Franciscan friars who had formed a community in the town – and later contributed funds for the building of the church honoring the Saint.
And in 1256 – just thirty years after the death of Francis – Pope Alexander IV (1254-1261) authorized construction of a church dedicated to St. Francis on site of the Spadalonga property.
Work went on rapidly as devotion to Francis was intense in Gubbio.
The first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, was eager to see this church honoring the Founder of his Order rapidly completed and thus conceded indulgences to all those participating in the work on the church. The church was completed by the end of the 13th-century.
A large cloister, the Chiostro della Pace (the Cloister of Peace), was erected to the right of the San Francesco church in the following century:
The three naves of the church were vaulted in the fifteenth century and the interior was restored in the 18th-century.
The left apse is adorned with early 15th-century frescoes depicting 14 scenes of the life of the Blessed Virgin by Gubbio artist Ottaviano Nelli, born in Gubbio and son of a painter.
The walls of the church were originally completely covered with fresco cycles but fresco adornment was either painted over or canceled during the radical 18th-century transformation.
The surviving medieval frescoes brought to light in restoration in 1938 testify to the medieval fresco splendor of the church:
But the most significant place is the current sacristy, considered a veritable “cella memoriae,” for the Gubbio tradition – and archaeological explorations – indicate the space as location of the Spadalonga home where the Saint first adopted the humble tunic in the winter of 1206.
Between the church and the hospital of Gubbio – and right at the edge of the friars’ vegetable garden – a statues of St. Francis and the wolf was placed in 1997. The sculpture of artist Roberto Bellucci had been commissioned by a community group, the City of Gubbio and the medieval guilds of the stonemasons, blacksmiths, carpenters, shoemakers, and tailors.
And yet another church of Gubbio is dedicated to St. Francis – and directly links to the story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio.
The story is recounted in the Fioretti, delightful 14th-century stories about Francis – though not his biography. The story recounts that a wolf was harassing Gubbio, devouring the herds of sheep (and Gubbio has always been known for its wool) – and eventually terrifying all with attacks on the populace as well. According to the Fioretti, Francis met with the wolf, blessed him and asked him to desist in his aggressive attacks. The wolf placed his paw in the hand of Francis, meekly bowing his head. Peace was made.
The ending of the story of Francis and the wolf in the Fioretti indirectly tells us about the origin of this second St. Francis church in Gubbio:
“The wolf lived two years in Gubbio; he went familiarly from door-to-door without harming anyone, and all the people received him courteously, feeding him with great pleasure…..
At last after two years, he died of old age and the people of Gubbio mourned his loss greatly; for when they saw him going about so gently amongst them all, he reminded them of the virtue and sanctity of Saint. Francis.”
That second Gubbio church dedicated to the Saint refers to the peace created by Francis between Gubbio and the wolf and is called, in fact, San Francesco della Pace (“St Francis of Peace”):
Above the main entrance, an inscription is incised in the travertine architrave: Deo pace largitori Francisco dictum (“dedicated to God and Francis, giver of peace”). According to tradition, the tiny church was built over the grotto where the tamed wolf lived peacefully in the midst to the eugubini. The altar table is the stone on which Francis prayed after making the peace pact with the wolf – and when it was trasfered here in 1584, the name “St. Francis of Peace” was bestowed on the church.
Belonging to the Guild of Masons, Stonecutters and Congener Arts, this Church of S. Francesco della Pace is almost a sacred temple for the eugubini. Here, the election of the capitani for Gubbio’s beloved Corsa dei Ceri festival takes place and the three saints crowning the Ceri on the May 15th race – San Giorgio, Sant’Ubaldo and Sant’Antonio – are kept here in a niche to the left of the altar:
In the crypt of the church, a medieval stone incised with a cross – said to be that which had covered the tomb of the wolf – takes center stage:
The stone had been found 1873, not far from the site of the church, and was covering a tomb containing an animal skeleton. A noted Gubbio veterinarian of the time confirmed it to be the skeleton of a wolf.
Many meanings have been given to the story of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. The wolf has been interpreted as representing avidity and aggression, ferocity. Some historians theorize that the wolf represents the aggression of another city-state attacking Gubbio in the 13th-century.
In any case, the story of Francis and the wolf inextricably links Francis to Gubbio, proudly declaring itself “the second city of St.Francis.”
Read here about Gubbio’s Palazzo dei Consoli
Read about Gubbio’s pre-Roman archeological treasures