“All praise be yours, my Lord, through our Sister Mother Earth, who sustains us and governs us, and produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”
So wrote St. Francis of Assisi, from his deathbed, in the ecstatic poem “Canticle of the Creatures.” Nearly 800 years later, “Mother Earth” herself seems to sing praises to God from this lovely Umbrian hill town.
Visiting Assisi shortly after the 1997 earthquake, I witnessed, alongside the scaffolds and blocked entrances, the anguish of the town's residents. Several people had been killed. Part of the vault in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis had collapsed, destroying precious artwork. Nearly all the major churches and monuments were closed for structural assessment and repair.
As a result of the intensive restoration efforts, most churches were able to open for the Jubilee year, and now even the Basilica of St. Clare has reopened. I returned this summer to visit the sites that were previously closed to me, but I was motivated even more by a desire to revisit the town whose history has haunted me since my first visit.
Assisi is built on a hill in the largest valley of Umbria, the aptly named “green heart of Italy.” The city's center is still surrounded by medieval walls broken at intervals by eight enormous city gates. From a distance, the city literally seems to shine; the St. Francis Basilica, with its long line of arcaded buttresses, is its crown jewel.
Prayer in the Portiuncula
St. Francis died in 1226. He was canonized almost immediately, and plans for the basilica complex were drawn up in 1228. As a result, Assisi's character today is very much the same as it was then. There is not the cultural confusion, the layer upon layer of accretion, which you find in so many other ancient places. Assisi has some Roman remains, but it is essentially a medieval town that discovered its meaning in two people, Francis and Clare. It has honored their spirit with single-mindedness all these centuries.
Despite the inevitable throngs of secular-minded tourists, Assisi is a holy place, a place of pilgrimage. Indeed, many, if not most, visitors are day-trippers there to notch off another must-see stop on their Italian holiday. For that reason it's best to plan more than one day so you can establish your own pace and linger for extended prayer in the holy places. To do that, it's essential to visit some of the sites outside the city walls.
For example: The Portiuncula, the tiny chapel in which St. Francis died singing the praises of “Sister Death,” is a short drive away from the St. Francis Basilica. It's housed inside the enormous Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, a beautiful and historic place of prayer in its own right.
The San Damiano church is also outside the city gates. Here, set among the olive groves, is the chapel that St. Francis restored after he heard Christ's voice, emanating from the crucifix, telling him to “rebuild my church, which, as you see, is falling into ruin.” At first Francis thought the Lord wanted this particular physical structure repaired; later it became clear that it was the entire Church that needed healing and restoration. This is also where St. Clare lived for most of her life, and where Francis wrote the “Canticle of the Creatures.”
One of the holiest places I found was the walk up Mount Subasio to Eremo delle Carceri, or the Hermitage, where St. Francis used to go to pray. Transportation up the mountain is available, but the sense of pilgrimage is heightened if you walk up the mountain along with other like-minded individuals. The group I was with made the trek one sunny January day and there were other people on the path, stopping along the way to pray the rosary. The views are spectacular and, even in the winter, there are wildflowers in bloom and birds singing. The stone bed on which Francis used to sleep is still there, and I had the sense that, here, on this mountain-side, the saint was most at peace.
If all you can get is one day in Assisi, it's still worth the trip. The St. Francis Basilica deserves all the praises art historians heap on it, and then some. Even though I had researched the sites thoroughly, I was unprepared for how densely frescoed both the Upper and Lower Church are, and how impressive a panoply of Christ's life and Francis' biography they present.
Here in this church the Renaissance began, in the transition from Cimabue's work to that of Giotto, both Florentine artists. What such a sight must have meant to late-medieval believers, I can only imagine.
St. Francis is buried in the basilica bearing his name; nearby are some of the brothers minor who were his closest companions. The Chapel of Reliquaries contains extraordinary relics, including his tattered clothing and the early Franciscan rule signed by Pope Honorius III.
The Basilica of St. Clare, on the other side of Assisi, is also astonishing. Built after her death in her honor, this church holds her earthly remains. It also has a chapel for the Crucifix of San Damiano. Sitting on a bench outside this church, I got a good lesson in how cosmopolitan Assisi is. An Italian tour guide was giving a Japanese tour guide a quick course in art history, and they were conversing in English. I learned a lot by eavesdropping.
Assisi is visitor-friendly. An air of kindness and civility prevails. English and a smattering of Italian suffice for most transactions. Assisi is not for the infirm, however. It is a city of winding medieval streets, set on a hilltop, and the primary mode of transportation is walking shoes. Still, it is surprisingly modern in many ways. I saw a sign for an Internet café where I could also get panini (sandwiches) pizza or gelati (Italian ice cream). Good restaurants, some with spectacular views, line the streets. Eating well is not difficult.
Has Assisi recovered from the earthquake? I went there with that question. Yes and No, I would have to answer. The churches have reopened, and the visitors have returned. The intricate restoration work performed on the ceiling in the Upper Basilica is a resounding testament to the good will and skill of the international community.
Cranes still dot the horizon, however, and scaffolding remains on many buildings. While buying a t-shirt at one of the shops, I joined a conversation with the two women clerks about whether I would wear a small or medium. Because we had established some rapport, I decided to ask them if Assisi had gotten back to normal since the earthquake. Their tone changed immediately and they answered, “Oh, no! No!” I felt sorry for having asked.
Yet the spirit of St. Francis is not contained in any brick and mortar structure, nor in any fresco, however beautiful, as he would be the first to remind us. It is in the praise and joy of life that shines through this city of God set high on a hill in central Italy.
Maryanne Hannan writes from Troy, New York.