The church was built in the second half of the 10th century, incorporating an eighth-century oratory that Pope Paul I excavated in the wing of the portico of the Temple of Venus and Roma; it was named Santa Maria Nova ("new St. Mary"), to distinguish it from the other Roman Forum church devoted to St. Mary, Santa Maria Antiqua ("ancient St. Mary"), which had become dilapidated in the 10th century; it was rebuilt by Pope Honorius II in the 13th century, when the campanile was built and the apse was decorated with mosaics of a Maestà, the Madonna enthroned accompanied by saints. The interior has been altered since. Since 1352 the church has been in the care of the Olivetans. In the 16th century the church was rededicated to Frances of Rome (canonized in 1608), whose relics are in the crypt. Its travertine porch and façade is by Carlo Lambardi, and was completed in 1615.
The interior, in a single nave with side chapels, was rebuilt by Lambardi in the years preceding Francesca Buzzi's canonization, beginning in 1595. In the middle of the nave is the rectangular schola cantorum of the old church, covered in Cosmatesque mosaics. Another prominent feature is the confessional designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1638-49), in polychrome marbles with four columns veneered in jasper.
The church houses the precious Madonna Glycophilousa ("our Lady of the tenderness"), an early 5th century icon brought from Santa Maria Antiqua. The twelfth-century Madonna and Child that had been painted over it was meticulously detached in 1950 from the panel and is now kept in the sacristy.
The ancient oratory on which the current church is built was located by Pope Paul I on the place in which Simon Magus died. According to this legend, Simon Magus wanted to prove his powers as stronger than those of the apostles, and started levitating in front of Sts. Peter and Paul. The two apostles fell on their knees preaching, and Simon fell, dying. The basalt stones where the apostles were kept the imprints of their knees, and are embedded in the wall of the south transept.
The tomb of Pope Gregory XI, who returned the papacy to Rome from Avignon, reconstructed to a design by Per Paulo Olivieri (signed and dated 1584) is in the south transept.
The facade of the Church of Holy Cross College, in Clonliffe in Dublin, Ireland, is a replica of Santa Francesca Romana. It was designed by the Gothic Architect J J McCarthy and is the only exception to his list of Gothic works.
- Roma, Touring Club Italiano, 2004.
- "Santa Francesca Romana", by Chris Nyborg