If you go to Umbria, you have to follow in the footsteps of St. Francis. Next to Hannibal and his elephants, he’s the most famous person to walk through the province. And, of course, Assisi, his hometown, is Ground Zero for all things Francis. Assisi was our first day’s itinerary in Umbria, after an obligatory wine tasting at a famous local winery and a “light Italian lunch” which included masses of cheese, cured meats, salads, pizza and more. It’s probably the best way to approach a San Franciscan experience. You see Francis started his life as the son of a rich silk merchant with every luxury money could buy. It was only after he joined the army and caught a near fatal fever that he had a religious conversion, threw his father’s best silks out of the window to the poor, stripped off his clothes and walked naked into the Umbrian countryside to obey a call he’d heard from God to “rebuild my house.” Or at least that’s the Franco Zeffirelli version of the tale. If you haven’t seen Brother Son, Sister Moon, I highly recommend it. Not because it’s a good movie. It isn’t. Like most Zeffirelli movies, it’s gorgeously photographed nonsense with actors chosen only for their beauty not their talent. In fact, Zeffirelli’s Saint Francis is more about sixties anti-war hippy sentiment than it really is about the life of the saint. But as you walk around Assisi, you won’t be able to stop humming the trippy Donovan soundtrack. Believe me, it adds to the experience.
So here we were in Assisi, stuffed with great Italian food and wine, but ready to move toward a more contemplative, ascetic experience. Because Assisi, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is essentially unchanged from its late Medieval version, you can literally walk the same streets St. Francis walked, see his boyhood home, and even the cell his father threw him in when he was trying to bring the boy to his senses. Another aspect of St. Francis that must be unique, is that he was canonized a Saint not more than two years after he died. That means the incredible frescoes in the church dedicated to him would
have been painted by artists who had access to people who had known and talked with Frances. Lucky for us, the main artist who did those frescoes was the great Giotto, a seminal figure that many art historians see as the turning point from Gothic to the beginning of the Renaissance. Even better, some of the frescoes were by Giotto’s teacher and mentor, Cimabue, still others are by Giotto’s followers and pupils in the school of Giotto. So what you see, as you progress around the Basilica, is Art moving from the late Medieval/Gothic to the Early Renaissance in barely more than the span of one man’s adult life. Outside of a museum, I can’t think of a place where that juxtaposition is possible. (Photography is not permitted, so I’ll give you this link to some of the St. Francis cycle.) I should also mention that Assisi gives you a two-for-one saint experience. Because St. Francis’s childhood friend was St. Claire, who founded the female version of the Franciscans, the Poor Clares. In fact, the church dedicated to her, in which she’s entombed, has a number of relics, including a collection of her golden hair. I will pause here and say that Central Italians seem to be less inventive — or maybe slightly less macabre — than their Roman or Venetian counterparts. I can remember wandering through Venetian churches seeing relics of the saints that included severed fingers, skulls and even the jewel-encrusted mummified body of Santa Lucia. By contrast, Assisi relics are very restrained, consisting mostly of clothing and items that the saints used.
Continuing our pilgrimage through Assisi, the weather broke, the rain pelted down and a spectacular thunderstorm began. Sure we were drenched and cold, but that gave us more solidarity with the aesthetic Francis. At least that’s what we told ourselves as we sloshed after our guide, dutifully seeing the sites while dreaming of steaming cups of espresso. However, for those in the party who lived for decades in San Francisco and now reside within one mile of Mission Santa Clara, this journey felt obligatory. Which isn’t to say that a trip to Assisi was in any way a chore. If you are traveling anywhere in the vicinity of Assisi, this is the one stop you should make to get a broad spectrum bang of beautiful churches, important artwork, walking in the footsteps of saints and charming Medieval Italian goodness.
You may even find yourself having a near religious experience. We had two. The first occurred when Andy, a very confident English driver, decided the way to get around a small Italian town was to zip around confidently, ignoring things that he deemed “suggestions”. Like stop signs and Do Not Enter signs. After a series of hair-raising careening turns around tiny Umbrian streets, we found ourselves hurtling down a steep bumpy road that was rapidly narrowing. We’d actually gone off the road and were going down a pedestrian staircase a la The Italian Job. A few locals were watching us with amusement, I suppose wondering if we’d eventually get the car wedged between two Medieval buildings. But they weren’t laughing when Andy realized our impending disaster, slammed the car into Reverse and drove back up the stairway backwards. I assume the power of prayer was made manifest because we were all praying. As I said, a religious experience.
Thankfully, our other near religious experience was much calmer. Assisi is a town built of beautiful warm rose and tan stone. It is situated in such a way that the sunset seems to illuminate the town. After a day of rainstorms, the clouds parted just at exactly the right moment for the day’s last rays to light up Assisi. Magnifico.
And, again, I recommend the hippy dippy Zeffirelli version of the conversion of Francis, if only for the Umbrian countryside and the trippy Donovan song that will stick in your head like bubblegum.
Oh, and if you want to experience what it’s like when Andy drives through a Medieval Italian town…