Halo-haired monks in coffee-colored robes and sandals preserve St. Francis’ legacy as they scurry across the sloping, cobblestone streets of Assisi. Some of them clutch briefcases, small prayer books, or an espresso to go. If we were not in the real birthplace of Italy’s most adored patron saint, I would have thought these purposeful bearded figures wrapped in woolly sackcloth were actors hired to imprint a beatific aura upon this revered, and commercially thriving, religious center.
My husband Joe and I entered Assisi through an imposing arched gateway leading to the rather humble medieval-Romanesque Duomo of San Rufino. Nuns in all manner of habits from around the globe, together with the omnipresent monks, silently wove between big groups of lay pilgrims and darted through narrow alleys ballooning with relic hawkers. At any moment I expected someone to ask us to buy an indulgence. After all, a large part of the Basilica of San Francesco was financed by such tactics, including one plan initiated by Pope Gregory IX that involved making a donation to the new church in exchange for buying oneself out of Purgatory.
The contrasts intrigued and disturbed me. Though mirroring the very work of St. Francis, the countless beggars with outstretched palms simply overwhelmed us. One penitent in a hair shirt asked for alms beneath a bas relief of St. Francis displaying the stigmata – a dramatic juxtaposition bound to win the sympathy of spiritually invigorated tourists. Yet, amid the imploring masses, pilgrims in humble clusters prayed the rosary, and hymns rang out from the simple wood-beamed Church of San Pietro. It’s those inspiring moments of solemnity that make Assisi such a meditative place, regardless of its poverty-commerce contradictions.
Next to a souvenir shop brimming with holy cards and religious medallions, we discovered a mesmerizing little exhibit: an automated Nativity Scene. Drop in a coin, and all the miniature figures come exuberantly to life. Sheep bow their curly heads to lap up real water; dogs wag their tails and yelp. The Blessed Virgin gazes lovingly, with blinking eyes, upon the Christ Child, while St. Joseph shakily rotates from side to side. A medieval village anachronistically intersects this Biblical scenario as peasant women cradle their own babes; the town crier unfurls a gold-leaf scroll; and a potter taps furiously on his clay-topped wheel. I got lost in this mechanical slice of ordinary and divine life. Like a smitten child, I used up all my coins to watch those adorable sheep take one more sip of water or to admire the delicate embroidery on the Magis’ velvet robes.
Essentially Assisi is a bustling ecclesiastical marketplace. Bells clang through its pedestrian-only streets the way horns honk in other parts of Italy. And, overall, it’s impossible not to feel torn between the abundance of beckoning palms and a powerful sense of inner peace. If St. Francis (1181-1226) were to descend upon this scenic Umbrian town, he, too, might be puzzled by the lavish cottage industry into which his life and miracles have been transformed. Then again, he might understand, considering his own personal conflict between worldly goods and poverty. The saint, who rejected his family’s wealth in favor of a humble ascetic life that embraced nature and the less fortunate, served as a genuine threat to the increasing decadence of the papacy. Yet when St. Francis’ values took hold and led to the formation of the Franciscan Order, he was eventually canonized and celebrated by the very Church he took to task.
Assisi’s much-visited Basilica of San Francesco, architecturally, embodies such contrasts: quiet respect and resplendent glory – a shrewd blend of holy reflection and aesthetically driven mass marketing, thanks in great part to Franciscan Brother Elia’s decision for the construction of a dark-hued lower church and an open, Gothic upper church. Work on the basilica began in 1228, only two years after the saint’s death, and was centered on a verdant mound once the site of public executions. It is, without a doubt, a glorious monument.
Joe and I have visited the basilica before and after the massive 1997 earthquake that claimed many lives and severely damaged large portions of the basilica where, underground in a thick stone crypt, lay the fully intact skeleton of St. Francis. Though some frescoes by Cimabue were destroyed and Giotto’s famed Life of St. Francis cycle affected by the quake, years of restoration have imbued the basilica with vibrant new life. Giotto’s frescoes, in particular, never cease to mesmerize, especially the panels that show St. Francis during his metaphoric wedding ceremony – presided over by Jesus Christ – to his bride Poverty, a woman wearing a tattered white dress; and St. Francis preaching to a flock of rapt doves. More transcendent frescoes by Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini carry viewers through the journeys of Christ, the Madonna and saints. Also preserved are the relics of St. Francis, including his worn tunic and sandals.
The soaring Gothic lines of the upper church symbolize the heavenly glory of St. Francis – a style that influenced subsequent Franciscan churches. The façade and its mosaics-covered rose window miraculously survived the quake. The dimly lit lower level imparts contemplation.
We made our way back to the main Piazza del Comune, where we caught a glimpse of Assisi’s ancient Roman past. The Temple of Minerva is a perfectly preserved Roman temple wedged between a white medieval clock tower and a gelateria, whose windows were decorated with images of St. Francis holding a dove. The remains of a Roman forum are accessed via the tomb of St. Nicholas, and a nearby gallery – not far from the drum-like central fountain – houses gold-encrusted altar triptychs by Umbrian artists. The winding streets veer off into mysterious alcoves, where water trickles down misshapen rocks. In one area, a lifelike bronze statue of St. Francis’ parents, clad in fine garments, emits a compassionate gaze (though, in reality, the saint’s cloth-merchant father completely disapproved of his son’s fervent attraction to pauperism).
Turn a corner and discover a geranium-bedecked shrine with a Byzantine mosaic of the Madonna and Child. Cross a street and come face to face with a faded fresco of Christ wearing a crown of thorns, next to a shop selling priestly vestments and votive candles. The pink-and-white-striped Basilica of Santa Chiara is named for St. Clare, a devoted follower of St. Francis and the founder of the cloistered order of nuns known as the Poor Clares. St. Clare is buried here, along with her hair, and one of its chapels contains the crucifix that is said to have bowed its head and ordered St. Francis to “repair God’s church.” In the distance stands Rocca Maggiore, an evocative medieval fortress (with extremely narrow corridors) destroyed and later rebuilt in 1367.
Joe and I strolled through Piazza San Pietro, where another enormous fountain gushed what we believed could only be holy water. And we stopped to admire Matteo da Gualdo’s exquisite frescoes at the Oratorio dei Pellegrini, a Renaissance-era hospice for pilgrims. The clacking of sandals and the rattling of rosary beads echoed behind our every step.
In Barcelona, Spain, architect Antoni Gaudi died before he could complete his striking Sagrada Familia church. Its roofless frame has the sky as its ceiling. Assisi may not have opened up the roofs of its many churches. But it has gone several steps further to turn the entire town into an open-air place of worship. If you listen closely, you may discern the stones humming the Stabat Mater.