There are many reasons why people visit Assisi. As the birthplace of St Francis of Assisi, this is probably the main attraction given his world-wide fame and the fact that he is one of the Patron Saints of Italy. There are Franciscan communities all over the world based on his ideas of how life should be lived. There are also huge numbers of statues with the figure of Francis standing over a bird-bath populating the gardens of the world. He is seen as the Patron Saint of animals, birds in particular, and in 1979 he was declared the Patron Saint of Ecology. He is less famous as the first person to develop and celebrate the feast of Christmas with a ‘crib’. He is also the first person recorded to have developed the stigmata, the wounds that mimic the wounds of Jesus Christ on the cross. The other curiosity about Francis is that he is a figure in history that most people, Catholic or otherwise, take a shine to. The story of the person of Francis passed on by his chroniclers is one that most of us can be impressed by. One example of this is the approach of the English, Anglican writer GK Chesterton who wrote the ‘Father Brown’ stories, the associated TV series currently being shown on Australian television. His view of St Francis as one of history’s millennial figures is caught in this passage…
While it was yet twilight a figure appeared silently and suddenly on a little hill above the city, dark against the fading darkness. For it was the end of a long and stern night, a night of vigil, not unvisited by stars. He stood with his hands lifted, as in so many statues and pictures, and about him was a burst of birds singing; and behind him was the break of day. (Gilbert Keith Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (P.22).
The other reason tourists flock to Assisi, and often revisit, is that its one of the most beautiful hill towns in Italy as well as being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
If as a traveller in Italy you have decided to visit Assisi, book a hotel and stay for a week, better still, rent a villa somewhere in the Vale of Spello and live the dream. Rushing around Assisi does not give you the opportunity to effectively see all that this town has to offer. Staying over a number of nights gives you the opportunity to see this lovely place at dawn and at dusk, preferably at a restaurant with a good view over the valley. Unfortunately life doesn’t always give us the time to take things slowly. The map and ‘arrowed’ itinerary that accompanies this article enables you to see what you can do in one day or highlights the possibilities of a slower inspection over many days.
The thing about a complete trip to Assisi is that it would also involve visiting some of the famous Franciscan sites outside the walls of the town and for this you need more time. Some groups organise their visit by setting out from Rome to reach Assisi by bus in the late afternoon, giving the group time for an evening walk around the medieval town. This leaves a full day on the morrow to stroll Assisi followed by another night with a good wine and a view of the Valley. Much of the next day can be used in visiting the four major sites around the town and then heading back to Rome for the evening. These other sites are discussed in an accompanying article.
As can be seen from the image above, Assisi is built on a hill side and it’s probably best to start the visit at the top right-hand side of the town and so for the next few hours you will be strolling down hill to the St Francis Basilica. From there you can stroll back through the streets of the town to St Claire’s Basilica without too much uphill walking. If travelling by car, when you arrive at the roundabout outside the main gate (Porta Nuova), follow the signs up the road outside the walls to the Matteotti Car park; this is a good spot to start and finish your stroll around Assisi.
The rest of this article will briefly (as possible) discuss the places you will encounter on your walk around Assisi. Of course it is sometimes that things you encounter between stops that will make your day.
- Santa Rufino
Walking down the alleyway from the Matteoti Car Park, you get a great view of the upper walls of Assisi as well as the castle (Rocca Maggiore) that stands guard above the town. If you only have one day to enjoy Assisi, ignore the call of the Rocca. It’s a great place to visit if you like castles and battlements but its perhaps best left for another, unhurried day.
At the end of the alley way you will come out into the lovely piazza in front of what is officially called the Assisi Cathedral, San Rufino church. The church is named after a third century martyr, Saint Rufinus and it is the third church on this site that holds his remains. It was built in the Romanesque style in the 12th century from stones quarried from Mt Subiaso, the mountain that stretches up behind the walled town.
To get the best out of your time in Assisi, you probably have to become aware of its stories, not just of Francis, but his most important follower, St Clare. As a teenager, Clare was to flee home and family to follow Francis and she spent the rest of her life in the vicinity of Assisi as the Prioress of the Poor Clares. Her story of love, devotion and bravery often outshines that of Francis. The home she fled was just near San Rufino and she was not only baptised in this church like Francis, it was in this church in 1209 when she first heard the young charismatic man preaching.
If you spend enough time in Italy wandering around old churches, you will become familiar with the symbol of the griffin. It is not generally held as a Christian symbol but is regularly found taking pride of place outside the doors of early medieval churches. Have a look at the aged griffins that still stand proudly outside Santa Rufino; their best days are long behind them, but they still sit battered, but proud, outside these ancient doors. Griffins are ancient middle eastern symbols that can still be seen barely hanging on to the edges of temples on ancient sites in Turkey (eg. Miletus). They have the body, tail and legs of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle and were the ‘king of creatures’. How they came to be guarding a Christian Churches in central Italy in the twelfth century is a puzzle. Perhaps an ancient symbol linking the heavens and the earth is a reasonable tradition for church builders to continue.
- Piazza Communal
From the San Rufino Piazza its a short stroll down to the Piazza Communale, the central gathering place for the citizens of Assisi for the last 1000 years. The square was originally built over the Roman Forum of the town. The ancient rugged ‘Fountain of Three Lions’ looks like it has been spraying water forever but it was only built in the 16th century.
The main sign of the antiquity of this piazza is that the façade of an old Roman temple still stands on one side of the square. It is called the Temple of Minerva but like the similarly named church in Rome, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, its being named after the Roman Goddess Minerva is probably another error of misnaming; it may have been a temple dedicated to Hercules. Whatever its name, it has lasted since the first century BCE and its Corinthian columns are still standing proud. Giotto painted an image of Temple of Minerva around 1300 when he was decorating the Basilica of St Francis. In this image, Giotto’s ‘temple’ doesn’t appear to have a front door and there are bars over the two windows. This is because the building was used as a prison in the early middle ages. Whether it was to assist keeping this ancient building standing, the Torre del Popolo and the Palazzo del Capitano were built on either side of the temple around the same time as Giotto was doing his painting.
The surprising aspect of a visit to the Temple of Minerva is that once you go inside, you are transported 1500 years ahead in time from when this building was once the centre of the town’s Roman forum. Behind the columns there is a church also called Santa Maria sopra Minerva and was built in 1539 and then renovated in the 17th century in the ornate Baroque style that we see today; it is in contrast to the austere Roman façade of the building.
Depending on what time you started your day, its probably time to look for a café, either in this square or continue along Via S. Paolo and find a café that provides both good coffee and spectacular views over the valley.
Basilica of St Francis
If you stayed for coffee in the Piazza Communale, it will be a slow walk down to the Basilica of St Francis. If you take Via S. Paolo, the view of the Basilica is completely hidden for a long time so it comes as a surprise when you find yourself at St James Gate and you have to turn sharp left down a narrow cobble-stoned alley. Suddenly it appears and the slow approach adds to the mystique of this amazing church. While it is silly to make comparisons with St Peters in Rome, it has one striking similarity; it is a church on three levels with the bottom level being the grave of the Saint.
Francis of Assisi was born around 1181 and after a tumultuous life died in 1226 about 44 years old. He was canonized a saint in 1228 and work on the Basilica began around the same time. The building was pushed forward and supervised by Elias of Cortona with some sharp conflict with Francis’s early followers who knew that Francis himself would struggle with the idea of great wealth being directed to the building of a memorial to a life of deliberately chosen poverty. In the end, despite having created an architectural gem, this internal conflict among the friars forced Elias to be expelled from the order.
I mentioned earlier the three levels of the church. It was originally two levels with St Francis secretly being buried beneath the floor of the lower basilica for fear of his grave being looted for relics. It was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and Pius IX ordered a crypt to be built below the lower basilica so the faithful could visit his grave site as they do in droves today. Rarely left in peace during his life, when his bones were being transferred during the process of his grave being rebuilt, they were inspected and it was unsurprisingly discovered that the saint was quite malnourished at the time of his death.
There are many reasons why this Basilica is world famous and continues to delight visitors of all persuasions. Its site overlooking the sweeping valley of Assisi is just one of these reasons. The other is that it is a store house of great Italian art from the 13th century. Significant figures in the history of world art such as Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti assisted in the internal decorations of this church. Slowly strolling the upper basilica gazing at the frescoes of Giotto is one of the great pleasures of visiting Assisi. Downstairs in the lower Basilica you will encounter a mural where there is an image of St Francis looking slightly uneasy in the company of the Madonna and child and a group of cherubim. It is by Cimabue and is the earliest portrait of the saint; the artist is believed to have been assisted by those who knew what Francis looked like.
The good citizens of Assisi love the story of their saint and his story is part of the fabric of the town and its surrounds. On your stroll around Assisi you will discover life-like statues of events in the life of Francis. Walking towards the Basilica you will encounter the saint looking very disconsolate on horse-back; it tells the story of when Francis tried to join the Crusades as a young man and had to return as a failed knight to his home town.
- Church of Santa Maria Maggiore
After an extended examination of the three levels of the St Francis Basilica its probably time for lunch so heading back towards the centre of Assisi along Via Francesca to find a restaurant for lunch is probably a good idea. If you are not hungry, you can get to our next stop, Santa Maria Maggiore by walking through the piazza that fronts on to the lower basilica and walking down to Porta S.Pietro and taking the road that runs along the bottom of Assisi, Via Borgo S.Pietro. The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore is next door to the Bishop of Assisi’s palace. It is an interesting church but compared with the early two basilicas we have visited, I won’t take as long to check out.
In front of the church you will come across another bronze statue of Francis declaiming to the world while he tries to hold a blanket around himself. The statue recalls a turning point in Francis’s life. In 1206, a 24 year old Francis is a different person from the forlorn Francis represented by the statue on the slope before the basilica. It was here he that had the confrontation with his father about the importance of property and money and returned his clothing to his furious Father, standing naked in front of the townsfolk until the Bishop covered him with a blanket.
- On the left, a tourist checking a map outside Santa Maria Maggiore, apparently querying the direction Francis suggests he should be going.
- From the Upper level of St Francis Basilica, Giotto’s version of the incident where Francis returns his clothing to his father in front of the good citizens of Assisi..
- Chiesa Nuovo
The walk to the next stop on our itinerary is up the hill, back towards the Piazza Communale. We are heading towards the Basilica of Santa Chiara but on the way we pass by the ‘New Church’, a building erected in 1612 over the site of Francis’s parent house. This is the site of the family home of Pietro di Bernardone, the father whose authority and possessions were rejected down the hill at the Bishops palace. A visiting Spanish cleric had been visiting Assisi in the early 17th century and had been saddened by the dilapidated state of the family home and so had provided the money to buy the property and build this memorial church.
A Few thoughts on St Clare
Before visiting St Claire’s basilica, it would be a good idea to get a better sense of the background story of Francis and Claire. It’s a confusing story for modern perceptions of the nature of love and relationships; human love, expressed in other ways than in the physical sense, is very challenging to many. Franco Zefferelli’s 1972 flower power movie ‘Brother Sun Sister Moon’ didn’t do the story much good either.
Clare was 18 in 1212 when she fled her home to join Francis and his brothers. The incident is captured in a modern romanticised image from the gallery underneath Santa Maria D’Angeli, down the hill from Assisi. In the image, Clare seems to be very accepting of Francis shearing her hair to make her look like a monk, while two, no doubt surprised monks hold the candles so he doesn’t botch the job. With modern minds we can assume that Clare was a little surprised by this reception but it didn’t put her off joining Francis’s growing group as her later resistance to all attempts to make her return home illustrates. Another incident reported in the “Little Flowers of St Francis” also shows how fraught was their relationship at the personal level. Adhering to his own rule about meetings with nuns, Francis refused to eat with Clare despite her repeated requests. It is interesting to note that even his friends thought he was being a little harsh…
- FRANCIS, when he abode at Assisi, oft times visited St. Clare and gave her holy admonishments; and she having very great longings to eat once with him, and thereto beseeching him many times, he was never willing to give her this consolation; wherefore his companions perceiving the desire of St. Clare, said to St. Francis: “Father, to us it seems that this severity is not in accordance with Divine charity, in that thou hearkenest not to Sister Clare, a virgin so holy and so beloved of God, in so small a matter as is this of eating with thee; and the more so considering that she through thy preaching abandoned the riches and pomps of the world; and, of surety, if she asked of thee a greater boon than this is, thou oughtest to grant it to thy spiritual offspring”. (From Chapter 15 of the “Fioretti”)
St Clare went on to form a monastic order for women based on St Francis’s approach and lived her life in San Damiano, just down the hill from the walls of Assisi. Clare’s character has a modern cast to it given her unusual life choice and her refusal to give in to her family’s violent attempts to return her to the family home and the married life her father had planned for her. The other stories that indicate her forceful character are those told of her prayerful resistance to the armies of the German King, Fredrick II and his armies of mercenaries who were twice intent on conquering Assisi and the city states of Italy and ultimately overthrowing the Pope.
6. Basilica of Santa Chiara
Clare died in 1253 aged 59 and her basilica was completed 7 years later and her body transferred here. Like St Francis, her body was buried under the high altar but remained hidden until rediscovered in 1850. Her bones were transferred down to the crypt underneath the church.
The original San Damiano cross hangs in this basilica. This was the Byzantine cross that St Francis was praying in front of in the little church of San Damiano down the hill from Assisi where Francis heard the cross telling him to rebuild his church. It was moved to this basilica when it was built.
In 1228, two years after the death of Francis, his official canonisation ceremony took place in the square that existed in front of where Santa Chiara now stands. The Pope who presided over this ceremony was Francis’s old friend and protector, Cardinal Ugolino, who became Pope Gregory IX.
The above view looking down from the Rocca Maggiore shows Santa Rufino just up the hill from the Basilica of Santa Chiara. When finished examining Santa Chiara, you can take some tired steps further down Via Borgo Aretino and examine the ‘Porto Nuova’ Gate that is the main entrance to the town. The crenellations of the gate’s tower can be seen in the image above amongst the trees, a little to the right of Santa Rufino. From here your task may be to get back to your car in the Matteotti Car Park and you do this by following the road outside Porta Nuova up the hill or returning through the town past Santa Rufino.
Post Script: Matteotti Car park was named after the lawyer and political martyr who was assassinated by the orders of Mussolini in 1924 because of his uncovering of financial scandals involving El Duce’s relatives.