One of my favourite places on any of The Chain Gang tours is Assisi. Leaving Bevagna on Thursday morning we visit Spello, and then we follow a brilliant, tiny back-road that brings us to Assisi, perched on the foothills of Mount Subasio. It is a striking looking place – from the direction of Perugia the walls of the giant Basilica of St Francis looks to me like something out of Lord of the Rings. It’s entirely built in bright white stone, and looks exactly what it is – a fortified medieval City.
Assisi is mostly known as the home of St Francis and St Clare. Francis is revered for his devotion and commitment to a simple way of life. Following a lively early life, including spells in the army of Assisi and a prison in Perugia, Francis spent several years living the life of a beggar, wandering the hills behind Assisi.
A message from God, delivered through a crucifix, that ‘His house’ needed support led him to sell the entire stock of his Dad’s cloth trading business. You can imagine this led to pretty big family rift, and in the years that followed he began his trademark preaching, focusing on the worship of God through the glory of His creation. Which is religious code for talking to animals, and famously on one occasion preaching to a flock of birds.
It was Francis who gave us the familiar Nativity scene. One December in Greccio he set up the scene which we would now be familiar with, complete with sheep, donkeys and baby, and invited local shepherds to celebrate Christmas with him. This glorification of God’s creation was celebrated in ‘The Canticle Of The Sun’ , a beautiful and moving celebration of ‘brother sun’ and ‘sister moon’.
He died aged only 44. He was made a saint only 2 years later, and remains with St Catherine of Siena the patron saint of Italy.
Can you imagine how that behaviour would be interpreted today? His death was the subject of some juicy intrigue. The senior monk in the Franciscan order asked the Pope for an armed escort to accompany Francis’ body from Siena, lest the body be attacked and stolen by the pesky Perugians. When they arrived at the Basilica, he asked for permission to enter the Basilica alone with the body. Then he promptly locked the door and spent the next several hours hiding the body. The body of St Francis was undiscovered for 600 years, but it can be seen today and is a very, very popular shrine.
The Basilica is actually 2 Duomos built one on top of the other. Seriously. You have to see it to believe it. These aren’t small Cathedrals, each of them is enormous, and when you’ve explored one you descend into a courtyard and then down into another enormous Cathedral. Inside a pillar which can be viewed from the lower Duomo, lies the tomb of St Francis which you can just about see.
Assisi and Perugia were fierce rivals, like all neighbouring cities in medieval Italy. Assisi was staunchly Ghibelline, Perugia was Guelph. This rivalry seems stupid now, the idea that tiny little Assisi could rival the huge city of Perugia just 20 Km away, but I guess things were different ‘back in the day’.
Now, more than 20% of the residents of Assisi are either monks or nuns, and it’s quite a spectacle to see them wandering around their city going about their lives so naturally.
I’ve missed out lots of stuff about Assisi, the huge fortress looming over the town for one, but the most impressive thing for me is the Basilica. It contains a fresco series depicting episodes from the life of St Francis, and some of these are quite stunning – it’s well worth having a guide book to explain what the frescoes are depicting.
The Basilica was badly damaged in a series of earthquakes in 1997. It’s difficult to imagine now, but the whole edifice was close to destruction. Many of the frescoes were destroyed or damaged, and four people died inside the Basilica when a 2nd ‘quake struck while they were assessing the previous damage.
Assisi lost a year of tourist income, which was a disaster for the local economy, but now you wouldn’t know if the guide books didn’t tell you.
The frescoes are restored enough to thrill, but I never saw them before 1997, and the Basilica has been restored using a clever series of wire ties that have elastic qualities. The roof and walls are pinned together using these wire ties, and can move independently. These ties, believe it or not, are based on the same metal as you find in those unbreakable spectacles. Interesting eh?
The irony is that the Basilica was untouched by earthquake for 700 hundred years, and as soon as it was damaged by an earthquake, they made it ‘earthquake-proof’. There’s currently a widespread dispute in Italy about whether to protect the huge number of old sites in advance of damage, or rebuild and protect them after the event. Apparently it costs a fortune, and the policy is ‘we’ll fix it when it breaks’.
I can’t imagine an earthquake in Assisi, but the Basilica is an amazing place that I never get tired of visiting.