When in Umbria: Assisi

Norberto Proietti, Il Ritorno di Francesco

Our initial decision was to give Assisi a miss, for forewarned is forearmed, as they say:

Be warned: this is the third most visited pilgrimage site in Italy (after St. Peter’s in Rome and Padre Pio’s shine in Puglia), meaning often impenetrable crowds in the main visitor hotspots. [Rough Guide to Tuscany & Umbria]

But, after viewing frescoes by Da Volterra in Rome, Fra Filippo Lippi in Spoleto, and Benozzo Gozzoli’s St. Francis cycle in Montefalco,  it seemed preposterous to miss out on Giotto’s* St. Francis cycle in St. Francis’s home town. We’re pleased to report that, while the streets were gently “peopled,” we didn’t encounter crowds.

Exorcism of the demons at Arezzo

Ironically, the 1939 designation of St. Francis as a patron saint of Italy, and accompanying religious and other tourism, appears to have saved Assisi from unending decline. In the 15th century,

A climax of evils came when, in addition to a hundred other ills, the Baglioni of Perugia took upon themselves to interfere. . . . [and] lay siege to Assisi, and perpetual skirmishes took place in the plain, which sapped the life-blood of the citizens and laid waste the Umbrian country for many miles around. The peasants, whose grain had been trampled down by the Baglioni, were driven half-naked into the woods . . .

Once the gates of Assisi were forced open, the Baglioni and their bravi scoured the streets from end to end, killing all they encountered, and dragging from the churches the poor women who sought shelter and protection. . . . “The poor city of Assisi” [a] letter says, “has known only sorrow through the perpetual raids of the Baglioni, whose many crimes would be condemned even by the infidel Turks. . . . They do not shudder to murder men, cook their flesh, and give it to the relations of the slain to eat in their prison dungeons.” [Lady Lucie Duff Gordon, The Story of Assisi, pp. 32-35]

Miracle of the Spring

Walking among the peaceable Giotto frescoes in the Basilica Papale di San Francesco, it was difficult to imagine this history—and difficult, also, to imagine more recent devastation to the church caused by earthquakes in 1997.

Basilica ceiling collapse, 1997 earthquake

Two earthquakes hit central Italy with a one-two punch today, killing at least 10 people and sending parts of the vaulted inner roof of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi crashing to the ground, damaging the 13th-century frescoes on its walls and ceiling. . . .

Two Franciscan friars and two surveyors from the Culture Ministry who were in the basilica assessing damage from the earlier earthquake were killed by the falling rubble, which piled up nearly 10 feet high.

The basilica, many art historians say, is where Italian painting was born. With works by Cimabue, Giotto, Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, it contains the most important and extensive early Renaissance decorative cycles in Italy outside the Sistine Chapel. . . .

The two quakes were the most serious to hit Italy since the devastating earthquake of 1980, which registered 6.8 on the Richter scale and killed 2,570 people near Naples. [cite]

Sermon to the Birds

Photographs aren’t permitted in the Basilica, so I have to make do with some available on line. Be warned: They don’t begin to do justice to the delicate luminosity of the frescoes as we saw them in situ. As small compensation, I can offer street scenes, including discovery of a pastry specific to the area, rocciata di Assisi, that I can attest was delicious.

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Listening List

Franz Liszt, Legende No. 1: St François d’Assise, La prédication aux oiseaux S.175 (1862-63), performed by Stephen Hough


*There has been a dispute in recent times over whether the Giotto frescoes are truly Giotto’s. The “modern consensus” seems to be that most of them are. [Rough Guide]


The sources for quotations may be found at the links in the text. The source for images from the Giotto Assisi cycle is here. The source for the Lorenzetti Crucifixion is here, and for The Last Supper is here. The source of the image of the ceiling collapse is here. The remainder of the photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

8 thoughts on “When in Umbria: Assisi

  1. larrymuffin

    When we visited Assisi in 2010 it must have been a day outside the schedule of the tourist buses. I remember going into the basilica and examining at leisure the restored frescoes. In the lower basilica we were invited by the archeologists to climb the scaffolding to examine the work they were doing on cleaning the frescoes. It was very interesting. They also explained that the tradition of burying people inside a church in the floor was invented in Assisi by Cardinal Cardinal Gentile Partino da Montefiore who wanted to be closer to God and make a statement about his family’s influence in obtaining from the Pope this permission. His parents are also buried in San Martino’s Chapel.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Laurent: There was so much to take in, we barely scratched the surface–and, indeed, if I see correctly from your post, your sojourn to Assisi also included some excellent cooking.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Interesting association. I wonder how many other equestrian statues out there each of these might bring to mind. These two are, I think, a study in contrast: St. Francis is headed home from the wars, whereas El Cid looks like he’s rallying the troops and ready to head into battle.

  2. Perpetua

    Your post brings back memories of following the footsteps of St. Francis. Love the life story of Francis.

  3. David N

    Very few people when we visited one Christmas, long before the earthquake. The valley was shrouded in mist; looking from the blue above was like being in an aeroplane. I shall never forget the walk up to the monastery on Christmas Day – J sat down on a wall halfway up and said ‘you’re trying to kill me’. Gave up smoklng shortly thereafter and can always outdo me on long walks.

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