Assisi is circled in yellow in the upper right, and you see its proximity to Todi and Deruta, as well as the capital of Umbria, Perugia.
Assisi has been a destination for travelers for several centuries, initially as a place of pilgrimage to the birthplace of Saint Francis, born there in 1181 or -82. Francis is one of two patron saints of Italy (St. Catherine of Siena is the other), and perhaps one of the most widely-known Catholic saints, even to those outside the religion.
It commands a spectacular hilltop, and the town is memorably picturesque.
As a result of its importance as a religious site, Assisi is replete with churches and shrines, but also boasts structures from the Roman era that include an amphitheater and the Temple of Minerva, and two medieval castles. In addition, it’s a town of about 28,000 people, so there are shops, restaurants and a daily life that extends into the busy surrounding area of farms and factories. You won’t completely “do” Assisi in a day. You’ll have to plan your visit wisely, or decide to spend a couple of days exploring it, which will be well-rewarded.
Like many of my Italian articles, this one will be a mere snapshot of a place, to encourage you extend your knowledge of Italy beyond Rome-Florence-Venice-Milan into the diverse world that Italy encompasses.
I’ll start with the primary attraction, the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. You’ll need several hours to explore the trove of architecture, art and statuary the Basilica contains. It is, to begin with, two churches: the upper (Basilica Superiore) and lower (Basilica Inferiore) church. Here’s a photo of The Counselor standing on the level of the Lower Basilica, immediately behind her, with the Upper Basilica looming above.
That shade of pink on the building, by the way, is local granite, with a distinctive color.
Despite what you might assume, the upper church was not built atop an older, lower one. They were started together after St. Francis was canonized in 1228. In one brief article, I can’t begin to list or show the hoard of murals, frescoes, paintings and statues in the two churches. Read your guidebook and go prepared. You’ll have a lot to see. The lower basilica includes work by Cimabue and Giotto. I’ll travel a long way to add more of Giotto’s work to my repertoire, and I’m pleased to have seen it in Assisi.
Here’s a view of the upper basilica, the 35mm film a bit spoiled by a light leakage in the pre-digital days.
The basilica was badly damaged in a 1997 earthquake, but principal repairs are complete, and the churches are open.
Here’s a note for first-time travelers to old structures like churches anywhere: remember to look down, as well as up. Sometimes the tile or mosaic work in the floors is as spectacular as any other part of the structure. (In Siena, the floor of the cathedral is so remarkable and worth preservation that it’s covered all year except for a limited time, and you have to plan your trip to coincide with the dates for viewing it.)
Another notable church, dating from 1257, is the Basilica di Santa Chiara (St. Clare).
St. Clare was also born in Assisi, in 1194, a dozen years after Francis. There are 13th-Century frescoes and paintings, in addition to Clare’s tomb. I was struck by the massive buttresses dwarfing The Counselor in the photo. Si, more pink granite.
To see a less-visited aspect of Assisi, we walked down from the town, proper, along an easy path through olive groves, with lovely views across the Tiber valley to the mountains that encircle that portion of Umbria.
Our destination was the 12th-Century church of San Damiano.
The story of St. Francis tells that it was there he had his vision of Christ speaking to him, inspiring him to the career that included founding the Franciscan order. Even as a nonbeliever, one can appreciate the significance of a place to its adherents, and San Damiano was a worthwhile visit to a rather simple and rustic building associated with the humble, humane St. Francis. St. Clare founded her order, now called the Poor Clares, there.
As I mentioned, Assisi is also a town, not a museum. That means you can eat there. It’s in Italy, which means you can eat well. You might, as we do, spend a lot of time gazing into shop windows, wondering how much pastry you can justify carrying away with you (answer: never enough).
Assisi was just one of the many places over the years we’ve barely managed to remind ourselves in time to stop for lunch by 2 p.m., the typical hour that restaurants close until dinnertime. Just in time, we found this place, tucked up a narrow medieval alley accessed through an archway, and had pizza that we both still remember fondly a decade later.
Roman, medieval, ancient, modern. Put Assisi on your itinerary. Have you been there? What did you see that I didn’t cover? I welcome your comments.
© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © M. Vincent 2017, all rights reserved.