The Church of San Francesco d’Assisi stands in a prominent position at the end of Via del Corso and the beginning of Via Ridola, at the entrance to the large bright and airy square of the same name. The Baroque façade is wide and even and dates from the C18th, although the building actually originates from the C13th and underwent several re-workings before taking on its present-day appearance.
The façade, which is the work of the architects Vito Valentino and Tommaso Pennetta, ranges harmoniously over two storeys, divided laterally by a corniced string course, with piers surmounted by acroteria which set off and bring both parts together. There are delicate plant scrolls around the five windows and the portal on the ground floor, and on the upper floor there is a central niche containing a statue of the Blessed Virgin, with angels holding up the opulent Baroque hangings. At the top of the string course, there are statues of St. Anthony of Padua on the right and St. Francis on the left.
Four distinct stages in the architectural development of the Church of San Francesco d’Assisi can still be discerned: the initial building phase would have started in around 1200, while the expansion of the Franciscan movement in Basilicata was at its height. This, the first church to be dedicated to S Francis, was erected above the pre-existing monastery of Ss Peter and Paul, little of which has survived the various transformations the building has undergone. Still visible, for example, is the room to the right of the choir where the original cross vault with its protruding ribs can be seen, together with the original entrance door to the east, later walled up and now concealed by a flight of steps, and the remains of the sarcophagus of the Count of Timmari Tovarelli, to the north. The C15th was another crucial period in the the building’s evolution, when the Church was enlarged and the adjacent monastery built, together with the side chapels inside the church. Testament to this period are the somewhat damaged C13th frescoes that came to light when the wooden choir behind the altar was removed. These portray scenes of the Miracles of St. James the Great, the Annunciation, an Enthroned Madonna and the Four Martyrs of Alban.
On the initiative of Archbishop Lanfranchi, the building underwent its first Baroque transformation in 1670, and a century later it was revamped by Carlo Casino and Domenico Preziosi, who swathed the church in precious stucco friezes.
As Verricelli duly noted in his chronicles, popular tradition has it that the church was founded by St Francis himself, armed with a licence from Pope Onofrio III.
The interior now consists of a single nave, with side chapels, some of which are well worth a visit.
The second chapel on the right, for example, contains an extremely elaborate altar with a handsomely decorated and carved wooden stand, commissioned by Archbishop Lanfranchi himself, which contains a wooden statue of St Anthony by the sculptor Stefano da Putignano. In the same chapel, the C14th sarcophagus of Eustachio Paulicelli, known in Matera as “the lawyer to the poor”, is worthy of note.
The second chapel on the left contains a fine canvas of the Immaculate Conception by Antonio Stabile (1580), which shows the Virgin Mary trampling the serpent underfoot, surrounded by a mass of clouds and various symbols and scrolls related to the Marian cult.
In the third chapel on the left, there is a trap door leading to the crypt of Ss Peter and Paul, which contains some of the oldest frescoes in Matera’s collection of iconographic artistic material. It consists of two rooms, both with lenticular cavities in the ceiling designed to represent symbolic cupolas. In the first, with a parabolic arch, there is a fresco depicting St Vincent; at the end of the second, an apse has been hollowed out, which contains a Madonna and Child flanked by Archangels Gabriel and Raphael. The adjacent fresco is of both documentary and artistic worth, and apparently depicts Pope Urban II’s visit to Matera in 1093. Here he is depicted sitting on a throne wearing a sumptuous dalmatic, with St Stephen Abbot at his side carrying the Rule of his Order.
The buildings that stand out against the blue background of the fresco probably represent the Church of Sant’Eustachio, built around the year One Thousand and consecrated in 1082 on the site where the Cathedral Church now stands.
The most important item in the church is undoubtedly the Polyptych that was taken apart (C15th) and moved to the chancel balustrade, in a beautiful C16th frame. It was originally attributed to Bartolomeo Vivarini and later definitively identified as the work of Lazzaro Bastiani, and is divided into nine panels:
At the centre is a Madonna Enthroned with the Christ Child, on her left are Ss Peter, Francis, Catherine and Elisabeth and on her right are Ss Paul, Anthony, Bernardino and Ludovic of Toulouse. The fine brushwork, the delicate features and the rich detail of the precious garments contrive to make this a work of singular merit.
The final jewel in the church’s crown is the extremely ancient and finely sculpted stone holy water stoup (C13th) near the entrance portal, which is probably by the same carvers who worked on the Cathedral and the Churches of San Giovanni and San Domenico, which are all coeval.