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Assisi is already too well known for its own good, thanks to St Francis, Italy’s premier saint and founder of the Franciscan order, which, with its various splinter groups, forms the world’s biggest religious order. Had the man not been born here in 1182 the town wouldn’t be thronged with visitors and pilgrims for ten months of the year, but then neither would it have the Basilica of St Francis, one of the greatest monuments to thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Italian art. You’ll probably feel it’s worth putting up with the crowds and increasingly overwhelming commercialism, but you may not want to hang around once you’ve seen all there is to see – something which can easily be done in a day. That said, Assisi quietens down in the evening, and it does retain considerable medieval hill-town charm.
Pilgrims and art lovers alike usually make straight for the Basilica di San Francesco, justifiably famed as Umbria’s single greatest glory, and one of the most overwhelming collections of art outside a gallery anywhere in the world. Started in 1228, two years after the saint’s death, and financed by donations that flooded in from all over Europe, it’s not as grandiose as some religious shrines, though it still strikes you as being a long way from the embodiment of Franciscan principles. If you don’t mind compromised ideals, the two churches making up the basilica – one built on top of the other – are a treat.
The sombre Lower Church – down the steps to the left – comes earlier, both structurally and artistically. The complicated floor plan and claustrophobic low-lit vaults were intended to create a mood of calm and meditative introspection – an effect added to by brown-robed monks, a ban on photography and a rule of silence. Francis lies under the floor in a crypt (entrance midway down the nave) that was only brought to light in 1818 after 52 days of digging. He was hidden after his funeral for safekeeping, and nowadays endures almost continuous Masses in dozens of languages.
Frescoes cover almost every available space and span a century of continuous artistic development. Stilted early works by anonymous painters influenced by the Byzantines sit alongside Roman painters such as Cavallini, who with Cimabue pioneered the move from mosaic to naturalism and the “new” medium of fresco. They were followed by the best of the Sienese School, Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, whose paintings are the ones to make a real point of seeing.
Martini’s frescoes are in the Cappella di San Martino (1322–26), the first chapel on the left as you enter the nave. He was given free rein in the chapel, and every detail, right down to the floor and stained glass, follows his drawings, adding up to a unified scheme unique in Italy. Lorenzetti’s works, dominated by a powerful Crucifixion, are in the transept to the left of the main altar. Vaults above the altar itself contain four magnificent frescoes, complicated but colourful allegories of the virtues on which Francis founded his order: Poverty, Chastity and Obedience. Once thought to have been the work of Giotto, they’re now attributed to one of the church’s army of unknown artists. The big feature in the right transept is Cimabue’s over-restored Madonna, Child and Angels with St Francis, a painting Ruskin described as “the noblest depiction of the Virgin in Christendom”. Look out for the famous portrait of Francis and for the much-reproduced fresco of St Clare on the wall to its left.
If time allows check out the cloisters, accessible from the rear right-hand side of the Lower Church, and the Treasury, or Museo del Tesoro e Collezione F.M. Perkins, reached via the apse of the Lower Church. The latter, often passed by, contains a rich collection of paintings – including works by Pietro Lorenzetti and Masolino da Panicale.
The Upper Church, built to a light and airy Gothic plan – which was to be followed for countless Franciscan churches – is more straightforward than the Lower Church and a completely different experience. It’s less a church than an excuse to show off Giotto’s dazzling frescoes on the life of St Francis. Francis Preaching to the Birds and Driving the Devils from Arezzo are just two of the famous scenes reproduced worldwide on cards and posters. The cycle starts on the right-hand wall up by the main altar and continues clockwise. Giotto was still in his 20s when he accepted the commission, having been recommended for the job by Cimabue, whose own frescoes – almost ruined now by the oxidation of badly chosen pigments and further damaged in the 1997 earthquake – fill large parts of the apse and transepts. In the vaults, several harsh areas of bare plaster stand as graphic monuments to the collapse of that year.
The most extraordinary individual the Italian Church has produced, St Francis was a revolutionary figure who took Christianity back to basics. The impact he had on the evolution of the Catholic Church stands without parallel, and everything he accomplished in his short life was achieved by nothing more persuasive than the power of preaching and personal example. Dante placed him alongside another messianic figure, John the Baptist, and his appeal has remained undiminished – Mussolini called him “il piu santo dei santi” (the most saintly of the saints).
The events of his life, though doubtless embellished by myth, are well chronicled. He was born in Assisi in 1182, the son of a wealthy merchant and a Provençal woman – which is why he replaced his baptismal name, Giovanni, with Francesco (Little Frenchman). The Occitan literature of Provence, with its troubadour songs and courtly love poems, was later to be the making of Francis as a poet and speaker. One of the earliest writers in the vernacular, Francis laid the foundation of a great Franciscan literary tradition – his Fioretti and famous Canticle to the Sun (“brother sun ... sister moon”) stand comparison with the best of medieval verse.
In line with the early life of most male saints, his formative years were full of drinking and womanizing; he was, says one chronicler, “the first instigator of evil, and behind none in foolishness”. Illness and imprisonment in a Perugian jail incubated the first seeds of contemplation. Abstinence and solitary wanderings soon followed. The call from God, the culmination of several visions, came in Assisi in 1209, when the crucifix in San Damiano bowed to him and told him to repair God’s Church. Francis took the injunction literally, sold his father’s stock of cloth and gave the money to Damiano’s priest, who refused it.
Francis subsequently renounced his inheritance in the Piazza del Comune: before a large crowd and his outraged father, he stripped naked in a symbolic rejection of wealth and worldly shackles. Adopting the peasant’s grey sackcloth (the brown Franciscan habit came later), he began to beg, preach and mix with lepers, a deliberate embodiment of Christ’s invocation to the Apostles “to heal the sick, and carry neither purse, nor scrip [money], nor shoes”. His message was disarmingly simple: throw out the materialistic trappings of daily life and return to a love of God rooted in poverty, chastity and obedience.
In time Francis gathered his own twelve apostles and, after some difficulty, obtained permission from Pope Innocent III to found the Franciscan Order, which espoused no dogma and maintained no rule. Francis himself never became a priest. In 1212 he was instrumental in the creation of a second order for women, the Poor Clares, and continued the vast travels that took him as far as the Holy Land with the armies of the Crusades. In Egypt he confronted the sultan, Melek el-Kamel, offering to undergo a trial by fire to prove his faith. In 1224 Francis received the stigmata on the mountaintop at La Verna. Two years later he died on the mud floor of his hovel in Assisi, having scorned the offer of grander accommodation at the bishop’s palace. His canonization followed swiftly, in 1228, in a service conducted by Pope Gregory.
However, a split in the Franciscan Order was inevitable. Francis’s message and movement had few sympathizers in the wealthy and morally bankrupt papacy of the time, and while his popularity had obliged the Vatican to applaud while he was alive, the papacy quickly moved in after his death to quash the purist elements and encourage more “moderate” tendencies. Gradually it shaped the movement to its own designs, institutionalizing Francis’s message in the process. Despite this, Francis’s achievement as the first man to fracture the rigid orthodoxy of the hierarchical Church remains beyond question. Moreover, the Franciscans have not lost their ideological edge, and their views on the primacy of poverty are thought by many to be out of favour with the present Vatican administration.
Top image: Ancient town of Assisi with dramatic cloudscape in golden evening light, Umbria, Italy © canadastock/Shutterstock