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Assisi, Italia 9 September 2011

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Our day with San Francesco

After an extremely restful and quiet night at the Hotel Ideale at the top of Assisi, we followed our travel guru Rick Steves's walking tour down through the town, absorbing the village life as we went.

Life here goes as much as it can like everywhere else ...only it is under constant assault from tourists seeking the spirit of the town's famous son, San Francesco. His story can be found elsewhere, but the key is simplicity. Compared to other religious towns -- in their way, Pienza, Siena, and Firenze are all flavored by religion and seekers of inspiration -- this town manages a surprising simplicity (with notable exceptions.)


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The main event, of course, is the Basilica, an imposing two layered structure that extends the town's ridge out toward the valley, thereby creating an imposing and elevated space. The Basilica contains two churches, an impressively dark and meditative lower one with a large and somewhat plain (and expected) one on top.

For pilgrims, the goal of the pilgrimage, I suppose, is to participate in the Saint Francis industry by taking home a few reminders. Here we have a Saint Francis farm, seen in one of the multitudinous shops that litter the otherwise sweet little town. But it is simple to ignore them (and the busloads of tourists in to tick the place off their bucket list) and just enjoy the place.

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There is so much to see in the lower church, including the tomb of the Saint himself, and evocative niches for his four best friends and "Saint Jacopa," his supporter, who visited him at the end. Many of the paintings are by Pinturrichio, the same guy who did the Piccolomini Library in Siena that I love so much. These, however, have spent centuries in a smoky church polluted with so many candles that now only six candles burn at a time, in the tomb below the church. In the lower and upper church, cunningly flickering LEDs have replaced the candles. Do you suppose God knows the difference?

No picture taking is allowed, either, and so I have absolutely no idea how these pictures found their way into my camera -- it's a miracle!

<p>apse ceiling, lower church</p>

apse ceiling, lower church

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In a small side crypt, there are several artifacts said to belong to Saint Francis himself -- his sackcloth overcoat, much mended; his ceremonial white sackcloth vestment, his sandals, a knotty rug he knelt on to mortify his knees; a flowerily lettered and very wordy document from the Pope enabling Francesco to start an order.

Francesco himself is a shadowy fellow, with very few likenesses -- almost as if in his simplicity he took the "no graven images" idea to heart -- what a concept. Here, at the right of the fresco, is what is considered to be his best likeness ... and again, enlarged and enhanced as clearly as can be rendered using modern tools.

In both churches, one struggles to rise above the constant muttering of the guides, and the PA system's repetitive shushing and "silencio". But again, it is the young children who have neither grasp nor motivation to be still that mar the quiet worst.

Even so, there is a stillness, a peace, a presence here that surpasses all the distractions: we all felt it, and treasured it.

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But enough of sacrament and holiness; back to the real world. We are in Umbria, even if in an enclave within Italy ruled by tourists, where dinner is from 6 to 8 (not the civilized 8 to 10) and gift shops go dark and the streets are rolled up by 9pm. 

Outside the enclave, the small farmsteads dot the rolling, tawny hills through which, tomorrow, we will wind our way over to the valley of the Po, and the farmstay experience that we have NO firm notion of what it will be like. At worst, we will have two days to experience what the life of an Italian family living on a farm is like.

Below, one last little bit of Italianate holiness: the Madonna and Infant considered by many to be her "noblest image."

<p>Out the window of the treasure room</p>

Out the window of the treasure room

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<p>Giovanni di Pietro, detto lo "Spagna" : Madonna con Bambino, Santi e angeli</p>

Giovanni di Pietro, detto lo "Spagna" : Madonna con Bambino, Santi e angeli

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