Assisi's cathedral is off a quiet walled piazza that receives some historians' votes as the true site of Assisi's Roman forum. The first church on this spot may have been raised as early as the 5th century. In 1028, the town's bishop witnessed an unrecorded miraculous event and had the old church torn down and a Romanesque one built to replace it, accompanied by a fat bell tower built over a Roman cistern. In 1134, however, another bishop had an even greater miraculous vision, and the poor church was flattened to make way for the present structure, saving only the bell tower. Alas, in the more than 100 years it took to build the church, the Romanesque styling of the lower two-thirds of the facade -- including highly decorative friezes, Lombard lions, and griffins at the doors, stone-spoked rose windows, and a classical dividing arcade of thin columns -- gave way to Gothic fashion. The top third was finished with a jarring pointed blind arch set in the tympanum.
The interior was remodeled in 1571, following structural damage, and deserves your attention only if you're interested in the font in which St. Francis, St. Clare, and Emperor Frederick II were baptized (to the right as you enter), and the newer memorials to Pope John Paul II. A small shrine to the late Pope lies to the left as you enter, and in a special gallery on the right side of the nave is an exhibition of paintings of the now beatified John Paul by Italian artist Giuseppe Afrune. At the altar are two canvases by Dono Doni -- a Deposition on the right and Crucifixion on the left. You can enter the Museo Diocesano e Cripta di San Rufino (tel. 075-812-712), from the entrance outside the church; the crypt's rough vaulting and Ionic columns are, along with the bell tower, the only surviving bits of the 11th-century cathedral. The beautifully-presented museum section preserves detached frescoes by Puccio Capanna, more works by Dono Doni, and triptychs by L'Alunno and Matteo da Gualdo.