Both St Francis and his horse had their heads bowed. The metal of the statue felt cool beneath my hand. In the square below tourists arrived by the busload outside the Basilica Of St Francis, and the Franciscan friars charged with guiding the tours struggled to keep their herds together.
The grass around me shivered. Although St Francis was hearing the voice of God telling him to leave the Saracen war and return home, the sculpture could easily reflect the saint’s thoughts on seeing the chaos below him, so far removed from the Franciscan ideal.
I turned my back on the Basilica and headed uphill. Despite the crowds below me, the streets proved remarkably empty. With the town perched so high above the valley, every road winds uphill, and every turn offers a vista over terracotta rooftops to a countryside so classically beautiful as to be breathtaking. In the narrow alleyways where geraniums tumbled from the stone houses, the chaos fell away and the words of St Francis become tangible: pax et bonum, peace and goodwill.
The window of a local alimentari beckoned. The rich soils of Umbria produce many delicacies, from the liquid gold of its olive oil, to wild mushrooms, cured meats, cheeses, and the famed black truffles. Armed with a bag of goodies, I continued up the Via Maria delle Rose to the Rocca Maggiore. Said to date back to Charlemagne, it was frequently occupied by conquering generals to intimidate the town. A bitter wind ate
through my clothes, and as I sipped on my coffee I tried to imagine how it must have been for the soldiers
in the depths of winter. Narrow slits of windows let only a little light through the thick stone walls, yet the roof offers sweeping – if windswept – views down onto Assisi and over the countryside.
Signposts mark the way from the Porta Cappuccini to the Eremodelle Carceri, a small hermitage nestled amongst the trees of Mt Subasio. My walk along steep country roads was filled with birdsong. St. Francis often withdrew here to meditate, making use of cells cut into the bare stone centuries earlier. Franciscan monks still live here, entirely dependent upon the alms of visitors and benefactors. The cell where St Francis prayed (complete with rocky bed) remains, as does the crevice where he tossed a demon back down to hell. The 1000 year-old tree once filled with birds as he preached his sermon is now carefully supported by iron crutches.
A fifteen minute walk from the Porte Nuova lead me to the Santuario di San Damiano. Here St Francis, deep in prayer before a crucifix, heard the voice of Christ speaking to him: rebuild my church. (This crucifix is now in the Basilica di Santa Chiara, along with St Clare’s tomb.) Interpreting the words literally, St Francis rebuilt the crumbling church stone by stone. After founding her order of The Poor Clares here, St Clare remained as Abbess until she died, at one point turning back a Saracen army by holding aloft the Eucharist from a balcony above the entrance.
Hidden amongst groves of olives and wild flowers, the place continues unspoiled and tranquil, truly in keeping with the teachings of St Francis. Indeed, with the rising popularity of his order St. Francis often fled the town to a place of retreat, and even resigned as head of the Franciscans in order to pursue spiritual solitude. This is where he composed The Canticle of the Sun, and his body also rested here for a short time after his death.
Pax et Bonum
Yet always I was pulled back to The Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. I returned late in the afternoon, as the wind filled the sky with grey clouds. Barely a handful of tourists wandered the aisles – few visitors,
it seems, choose to stay in Assisi overnight, especially as the days of autumn lengthen.
Even with a storm brewing both the Upper and Lower Basilicas remain light and spacious buildings. The
beauty and serenity of the frescoes decorating the walls lie beyond description. The noise of the Basilica is muted; there is none of the cacophony so prevalent in other Italian icons, such as the Duomo, St Marco’s or St Peter’s.
In a crypt below the Lower Basilica is the tomb of St Francis, and this is the heart of Assisi. A simple coffin lies entombed above a bare stone altar, which rises as a pillar in the center of the crypt. Surrounded by incense and flickering candles, there is always someone praying here: nuns, monks, priests, schoolchildren, tourists. Dimly lit and quiet, the spirituality of the crypt is palpable.
Next morning, I unlatched my window and pushed it open. Outside, the world lay hidden by mist. A sonata of morning bells called the faithful to mass, barely audible through the heavy blanket. Spires appeared and disappeared as a breeze gently stirred the mist like a thick soup.
As the world slept I made my way towards the Basilica. A few people passed by, more grey shadows than
reality. The Upper Basilica was closed – in the Lower Basilica, an early Mass was in progress around the main altar, with the stall behind it filled with priests. A few tardy nuns hurried to their seats.
Sitting in the Basilica at that hour cocooned me in a world of tranquility, far removed from the real world. Assisi feels as if it floats even above the hilltops. It is a town of steep streets and quiet corners, of bustling piazzas with dancing fountains and cafés adjacent to forgotten ruins. Yet from the first sighting of the Basilica when arriving in the valley far below, the words of St Francis become relevant even in today’s world tangible: pax et bonum, peace and goodwill.
(c) A. Harrison