Three naves, separated by 12 columns, and a square bell tower from the ninth century: this was the favourite church of the da Polenta family, who, also for this reason, chose it to celebrate the funeral of their distinguished guest, Dante Alighieri. The remains of the Supreme Poet, who died of malaria at the age of 56, were also temporarily buried in this church, inside a beautiful fifth-century sarcophagus located in the da Polenta family chapel. This chapel is arranged along the left-hand nave and enclosed by a fourteenth-century ogive.
Dante’s funeral was celebrated with pomp and circumstance, and to this day, thirteen bell strokes every day commemorate the night of his death, 13 September 1321.
The original building was erected in the fifth century as the Basilica degli Apostoli, commissioned by Bishop Neon, then later named after St Peter the Greater, and then from 1261 to 1810, and again between 1949 and today, the Franciscans chose it as their seat with the current name of St Francis.
However, little or nothing remains of the old church, although the Baroque superstructures were removed during the restoration of 1921 to restore its austere linearity, characteristic of the fourteenth century and more in keeping with the sensibilities of the Franciscan order.
Of particular beauty is the semicircular apse on the inside, and heptagonal on the outside, which due to subsidence appears today to be 3.5 metres lower than the most recent floor. Particularly striking is the tenth-century crypt, with its cross vault, mosaic and epigraph recalling the memory of Neon, whose bones are preserved in the basilica. Today the mosaic carpet is flooded and there are fish swimming in the pool.
The basilica also has three beautiful chapels dating back to the mid-1500s, along the right-hand nave: the first by the sculptor Tullio Lombardo, which also housed the statue of Guidarello now on display at the Museo d’Arte di Ravenna; a central chapel dedicated to St Anthony and the third dedicated to St Rocco, with a dome frescoed by Andrea Barbiani (1755) and a painting on canvas by Gaspare Sacchi (1517-1536).