Assisi

This is an excerpt from the book “Umbria

Assisi Alley - Photo © Paul Resh
Assisi Alley – Photo © Paul Resh

Assisi is a town in Italy in Perugia province, Italy, in the Umbria region, on the western flank of Mt. Subasio. It is the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in 1208, and St. Clare (Chiara d’Offreducci), the founder of the Poor Clares. Saint Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows of the 19th century was also born in Assisi.

Half day visit to Assisi

ASSISI, an ancient and noble city perched on a spur of Mt. Subasio. We enter by St. Peter’s Gate and go straight to the imposing group of buildings consisting of the church and convent of San Francesco, which loom high over the valley. As soon as St. Francis died (1226), work was started on the building of this vast two -storey basilica which when it was finished, at the end of the 13th century, all the finest painters of the period were called to decorate.

Thus was born one of the most extensive series of fresco-cycles in the history of painting. From Cimabue to the unknown Maestro di S. Francesco, from Pietro Lorenzetti to Simone Martini, from Giotto to his pupil, Maso, known as Giottino throngs of unknown disciples, all the painters of that time in Central Italy worked in these two superimposed churches.

A visit must also be made to the Cloister in order to admire the marvelous Apse, of rare and virile strength.

Taking Via San Francesco, we then go to the Piazza del Comune, dominated above by the medieval Castle, where Frederick II of Swabia lived for much of his boyhood. The post important building in the square is the Roman Temple of Minerva, almost perfectly preserved, the interior having subsequently been converted into a church. Beneath the square are the remains of the Roman Forum. After a short walk we come to San Rufino, the cathedral of Assisi, with its lofty 12th century Romanesque facade.

From here we go down to the church of Santa Chiara, with ifs great rose-window and its delicate white and pink stone exterior (1265); along the side, 14th century buttresses built with a view, to guaranteeing stability of the building. Inside we may see frescoes and panel-paintings by primitive artists. We then pass on to the Romanesque church of San Pietro (13th century), with its three great rosewindows, and from here, through the picturesque medieval streets, back to San Francesco

Main sights

Churches

  • The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi (St Francis) is a World Heritage Site. The Franciscan monastery, il Sacro Convento, and the lower and upper church (Basilica inferiore e superiore) of St Francis were begun immediately after his canonization in 1228, and completed 1253. The lower church has frescos by renowned late-medieval artists Cimabue and Giotto; in the Upper church are frescos of scenes in the life of St Francis by Giotto and his circle. On September 26, 1997 Assisi was struck by an earthquake. The Basilica was badly damaged (part of the vault collapsed, killing four people inside the church and carrying with it a fresco by Cimabue), and was closed for two years for restoration.
  • Santa Maria Maggiore, (St. Mary the Greater) the earliest extant church.
  • The Cathedral of San Rufino (St. Rufinus), with a Romanesque facade with three rose windows and a 16th‑century interior; part of it is built on a Roman cistern.
  • Basilica of Santa Chiara (St Clare) with its massive lateral buttresses, rose window, and simple Gothic interior, begun in 1257, contains the tomb of the saint and 13th‑century frescoes and paintings.
  • Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli (St. Mary of the Angels), which houses the Porziuncola.

Other landmarks

The town is dominated by two medieval castles. The larger, called Rocca Maggiore, is a massive presence meant to intimidate the people of the town: it was built by Cardinal Albornoz (1367) and added to by Popes Pius II and Paul III.

UNESCO collectively designated the major monuments and urban fabric of Assisi as a World Heritage Site.

Culture

Assisi Embroidery is a form of counted-thread embroidery which has been practiced in Assisi since the 13th century.

Today the town has many groups coming to enjoy the simple peace of St. Francis. One such group has restored an 11th century room and added altars to the world’s religions. Pilgrims come from many countries to the Assisi East West Retreat Center in Piazza San Rufino in the spirit of St. Francis to sit and be in peace.

Assisi street
Assisi street – Photo © Fantasy

Get in

By car Take the A1 freeway (Autostrada del Sole) and exit at the SS75. Follow the signs to historical Assisi and park in one of the public lots just outside the city walls.

By train You’ll have to take a local connection at Terontola (coming from Florence) or Foligno (coming from Rome) to Assisi/Santa Maria degli Angeli. The station is at the bottom of the hill, about three miles from the center of town. Bus line “C” will take you the rest of the way.

Get around

Historical Assisi is very small and easily explored on foot. During the hotter summer months take an occasional rest in one of the cool churches or enjoy an icecream break (or two).

Where to stay in Assisi

Hotels, B&Bs, apartments and villas in Assisi: search and reserve here.

See

Definetly take the time to walk among Assisi’s medieval houses and shops. Most of the cobblestone streets and alleys will take you to the basilica of St. Francis. Please be quiet as you visit this multi-level structure as it still is a place of prayer for many. It’s a good idea to rent the audio guide to appreciate the artistic and historical significance of this unique church. The walls and ceilings of the upper church are embellished with frescoes of the Giotto school; the lower sanctuary contains the tomb of St. Francis

Do

Assisi has about 6 cool churches to visit, and then there’s the Basilica of St. Francis. But one of the best things to do is hike up to the top of the hill above Assisi and see the castle overlooking the town and the valley below. Visit the tiny church of St. Stefano, and go up a few stairs, look back downwards for the most picturesque spot of this beautiful little town.

Assisi square - Photo © Wikipedia
Assisi square – Photo © Wikipedia

History

Around 1000 BC a wave of immigrants settled in the upper Tiber valley as far as the Adriatic Sea and also in the neighborhood of Assisi. These were the Umbrians, living in small fortified settlements on high ground. From 450 BC these settlements were gradually taken over by the Etruscans.

The Romans took control of central Italy by the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC. They built the flourishing municipium Asisium on a series of terraces on Mount Subasio. Remains from these Roman times can still be found in Assisi : city walls, the forum (now Piazza del Comune), a theatre, an amphitheatre and the Temple of Minerva (now transformed into the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva).

In 238 AD Assisi was converted to Christianity by bishop Rufino, who was martyred at Costano. According to tradition, his remains rest in the Cathedral Church of San Rufino in Assisi.

The Ostrogoths of king Totila destroyed most of the town in 545. Assisi then came under the rule of the Lombards and later the Frankish Duchy of Spoleto.

The thriving city became an independent Ghibelline commune in the 11th century. Constantly struggling with the Guelph Perugia, it was during one of those battles, the battle at Ponte San Giovanni, that Francesco di Bernardone, (Francis of Assisi), was taken prisoner, setting in motion the events that eventually led him to live as a beggar and renounce the world.

The Rocca Maggiore, the imperial fortress on top of the Mount Subasio, was plundered by the people in 1189, but rebuilt in 1367 on orders of the papal delegate, cardinal Gil de Albornoz.

Assisi Panorama
Assisi – Photo © Fantasy

The city, which had remained within the confines of the Roman walls, began to expand outside these walls in the 13th century. In this period the city was under papal jurisdiction.

In the beginning Assisi fell under the rule of Perugia and later under several despots, such as the soldier of fortune Biordo Michellotti, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, duke of Milan, Francesco I Sforza, another duke of Milan, Jacopo Piccinino and Federico I of Montefeltro, lord of Urbino. The city went into a deep decline through the plague of the Black death in 1348 AD.

The city came again under papal jurisdiction under the rule of Pope Pius II (1458-1464).

In 1569 construction was started of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. During the renaissance and later centuries, the city continued to develop peacefully, attested by the 17th-century palaces of the Bernabei and Giacobetti.

Now the site of many a pilgrimage, Assisi is linked in legend with its native son, St. Francis. The gentle saint founded the Franciscan order and shares honors with St. Catherine of Siena as the patron saint of Italy. He is remembered by many, even non-Christians, as a lover of nature (his preaching to an audience of birds is one of the legends of his life).

Assisi was hit by the devastating twin earthquakes that shook Umbria in 1997, but the recovery and restoration have been remarkable, although much remains to be done. Massive damage was caused to many historical sites, but the major attraction, the Basilica di San Francesco, reopened less than two years later.