Italy is an interesting country. The cities of Venice and Florence are truly unique cities that have a sense of history and art all around them. The Italian countryside has a beauty about it that is captivating and intriguing. There are wide flat plains as well as deep valleys with little towns scattered among the hills and mountains. Assisi is one of the larger towns which has in recent times stretched down all the way down to take up a part of the plains in front of it.
Assisi is best known for being the home of the Franciscan order of monks, officially the Order of Friars Minor. St. Francis was born to a rich family of cloth merchants and led a carefree early life. According to the legend he was praying in the Church of San Damiano (just outside the actual city) when the icon of Christ spoke to him and instructed to “go and repair My house”. St. Francis at first thought this to mean the actual physical church which had fallen into ruin and only later realized that he had been instructed to rebuild the Church spiritually. He then renounced his family and his inheritance and led a life of poverty and service to the needy and later founded the Order of Friars Minor.
The main attraction of Assisi is unsurprisingly the Basilica of St. Francis which is actually two churches – one on top of the other. St. Francis is buried underneath the lower church and his tomb is open to the public. In fact, the upper church was built because so many pilgrims came to see the tomb that it became impossible to actually conduct services in the lower church. That’s rather sad since there are some exquisite works of art in the lower church, even though the entrance to it is rather dark and much has not survived the passage of time. Still the frescoes on the walls are beautiful and moving and they make use of the curved roof to project images such as the crucified Christ and angels such that they actually appear to be looking down on us. It’s easy to see how pilgrimages can inspire religious experiences.
The upper church is newer and brighter and once again beautifully decorated. Parts of the frescoes especially those of the evangelist on the roof have had to be reconstructed after they were brought down by an earthquake in 1996. The frescoes along the walls depict the life of Christ on one side and the life of St. Francis on the other. St. Francis tried to live his life as Jesus did and is often referred to as “another Christ”. In fact towards the end of his life he made a 40 day pilgrimage and during that it is said that he received the stigmata — the wounds of Christ. But in his modesty he never revealed them and they were only found after he died. The lower church also had similar frescoes but many of them are now in bad condition.
Though the Basilica may be the biggest draw, it is certainly not the only church in the town. Another prominent church is that of St. Claire — a female saint who lived at the same time as St. Francis, was one of his disciples and lived her life in much the same way. Today the church of St. Claire houses the icon of Christ that was in the Church of San Damiano which was said to have spoken to Francis.
Spending so much time learning about Renaissance art and history and being constantly surrounded by the art and architecture of the period it can be easy to forget that Italian history did not stop with the Renaissance. On the way back from the church of St. Claire our guide Marco (who was the most intense tour guide I have ever seen) pointed out a little shop and told us how during World War II that shop had been where fake passports had been made for the Jewish residents of the town so that they could escape out of the country. Being a person born toward the end of the 20th Century World War II seems so far and distant until I see something like that which makes it so much more real.
Like every other city we’ve been to Assisi was a great learning experience. When driving away from the city I happened to turn back and look back up and see the whole town perched on its hill. It seemed almost like something out a fairytale — almost too beautiful and perfect to be true. When people think of small cozy towns nestled into the Italian countryside, they probably think of Assisi.