Assisi is the famous birthplace of Italy’s Patron Saint, St Francis. Jane O’Connor recently made the journey to Umbria to retrace his footsteps and discover the town in all its glory.
The traffic belts dangerously up and down the steep, winding, narrow roadway. Those making the climb on foot seem oblivious to what may be around the next corner, as they back against stone walls or hug narrow edges. As the legs strain with the incline, an incredible tapestry is unfolding below – the lush, green hills, a patchwork of crops, views of ancient settlements, and beyond to distant hilltops and a long, wide horizon. Past gnarled olive trees, the ever-present, twittering flocks of birds, dive and rise again as they feed on the airborne insect life. The mini buses and cars seem nothing more than a modern annoyance. These people have a far loftier goal. They have chosen the sometimes hair raising option of walking in the humble footsteps and through the remnants of the natural beauty so beloved by Italy’s Patron Saint. We are heading to the Basilica Di San Francesco half way up the hill at Assisi. It shines in the sun – an arresting sight perching on the hillside and built two years after St Francis’ death.
There are nuns with walking poles, the young, middle aged and older. But, some have already had an awe inspiring experience, starting their journey eight kilometres below on the plain at the looming, baroque Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, one of the most important cathedrals and the seventh largest Christian church. For any visitor to Assisi interested in the entire history, this is the place to begin. St Francis’ faith-changing small chapel in the forest, the Porziuncola, is incorporated into this massive edifice, but still touchable and tangible. The site of his death still sits wonderfully preserved under the bay of the choir. It is here he first preached the virtues of poverty to his disciples. They built small huts around the Porziuncola and the Franciscans were born. St Francis died here on the bare earth, in a rudimentary hut, dressed in a borrowed tunic on 4 October 1226 and was canonised two years later. A humble rope belt, purportedly the one he was wearing at the time, is openly on display.
More and more was added to the shrine until Pope Pius ordered the buildings around the Porziuncola removed – except for the hut where the saint died – and began building the basilica in 1569. It was completed in 1679 because of its reliance on public donations. In March 1832, an earthquake caused considerable damage that has been expertly restored. In 1909, the Basilica of Santa Maria was raised to the status of a patriarchal basilica and a papal chapel. The sheer simplicity of his life and his interactions with the common folk is instantly apparent.
The hulkingly beautiful basilica with its pinkish stone tinge, massive rose window and cavernous inner space is an uncrowded surprise on this late spring day. Inside it is cool and totally peaceful. Its size was necessary to accommodate the sheer number of pilgrims who saw it as the main destination. But, you will also find a living church. You can confess your sins at any time in the rows of confessionals. A simple light tells when they are occupied. Mass is said every 30 minutes. This is, after all, the place people come to receive the “Pardon of Assisi”. The huge main body of the basilica is plain and simple, but the side chapels are awash with magnificent frescoes and statuary.
The woods he so embraced have given way outside to traffic and asphalt plus the contained, but ever-present stalls selling souvenirs.
For some, a considerable amount of time spent at this basilica is enough for one day given the phenomenal amount of history there is to absorb, reserving the higher hillside basilica for a separate visit. Even if religion is not on your agenda, the building itself and phenomenal collection of art is inspiring.
But, St Francis himself had far humbler beginnings. Born in this ancient country in 1181, the son of a French noblewoman and wealthy merchant father, his youth was said to have been troubled until he planned a military future as a knight. However, during a long illness he heard the voice of God asking him to rebuild the church because it had become corrupt and remote from the common people. He renounced the family wealth and began the austere and exemplary life that embraced the simple beauty of man and nature. The rules his first friars adopted of poverty, chastity and obedience were devised here in the crudest of huts. There is still a remnant of the ancient wood where he threw himself onto the rose thorns and went on to preach. This is now the Rose Garden attached to the lower basilica and also the site where St Francis invited the turtle doves to praise the Lord. Today, the doves nest in the hands of his statue that stands on this spot. St Francis travelled to Rome for the Pope’s approval of his new order and in 1224 he was the first saint to receive the stigmata (the same wounds as those Christ received on the cross). When he was canonized two years after his death, the Basilica Di San Francesco on Assisi’s hill was begun as a fitting place for the saint’s tomb. The brave make the journey between the two on foot. The rest drive to designated parking areas.
On reaching the hillside basilica, a stunning courtyard with arched walkways on either side gives way to this building. If you haven’t organised a tour with an expert guide, it is recommended that you get the recorded commentary, hang it around your neck, plug in the earphones and maximise what you are about to see. This is a holy site and a dress code applies with no bare shoulders or knees. Leave the camera off as no photos are allowed inside in order to preserve the delicate art. Eagle eyed priests will swoop on you if you attempt to break this rule. Those flocks of birds flit endlessly around the walls and near the entrance. The sheer cleanliness of the site and crispness of the air is mesmerising. Stone streets lead off into the rest of the quiet town. To cover this site and the pristinely preserved medieval town that goes with it requires time and patience. A rushed job is not an option.
There is an almost indescribable sense of peace that pervades this high place. Groups and individuals, some in wheelchairs or being carried by loved ones, quietly pray, while others respectfully explore a treasure trove. There are actually two churches here – the first is the “lower” Romanesque church that was begun in 1228. Lit by candles and with low ceilings, you will find St Francis’ tomb here. Take a breath when entering and allow your eyes to adjust to the very low light. The frescoes were painted by candlelight. If art is your thing, you have come to the right place. Stunning frescoes depict the life of St Francis and his followers – St Martin and St John – with some of the artists unknown, but others credited to Giotto and his assistants. Here you will see Giotto’s introduction of “perspective” that made subjects appear human rather than the fixed, flat styles used until then. This is where what became known as Italian painting or the Italian manner was essentially born. When you get to the painting of Madonna and Child With St Francis, by Pietro Lorenzetti, wait a while. If it’s a sunny day it sparkles as the sun hits it.
Among all this and up stone stairs, a stone coffin atop the altar holds the saint’s remains.
Half a century later, the upper church was built and was designed to be the most important in Christianity. There are 28 major frescoes that encircle the church and an argument still rages today as to whether they are the work of the great renaissance painter, Giotto. Whatever the answer, they are a detailed record of the saint’s life. The contrast in this church is palpable. It has the soaring arches you’d expect in a major basilica, with Italy’s first ever stained glass windows making it well lit. The choir was built by Franciscan monks in the 16th century, with its beautifully inlaid wood. A papal throne takes pride of place. Signs of ongoing repairs are evident following a 1997 earthquake causing parts of the ceiling above the entrance and altar to collapse. The artworks were spared.
The effect this magical place has calls for a leisurely time of reflection when you emerge again into the daylight. A stroll through the visually gorgeous medieval town will have an impact, so a quiet coffee or meander through the peaceful streets is an excellent way to unwind before setting off again.
It is as though a veil of calm has been thrown across this location. Fascinating little shops and eateries abound, as do the ubiquitous souvenir sellers, but they are not overtly touting their wares. Look at your leisure. The fabulous views below come into focus across the stone walls. No matter what your creed, a visit to such sacred places will leave an indelible impression.
The basilicas are open daily. During major religious events such as Easter and high tourist traffic months, expect the crowds to be larger as this is a major pilgrimage site. Tourist organisations in Perugia and other Umbrian towns will arrange guided tours or provide full details for an individual visit.