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Chiesa Nuova

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Not far from Piazza del Comune, there once was an old house that belonged to an Assisan, Giambattista Bini. Starting from the end of the XIV Century it was the destination of pilgrimages since certain documents maintained that the property had been inherited by a nephew of Francis’ Piccardo D’Angelo. This evidence suggested that it was the same house where the rich textile merchant Pietro di Bernardone had spent his childhood and where he received the inspiration for his future holy missions. Bini did not seem particularly interested in the place’s history, therefore, by the beginning of the XVII Century, the building was partially abandoned. The then General Minister of the Friars Minor, the Spanish Antonio de Trejo, recognised its importance, but the Order at the time was not very sensitive to the splendour of the previous centuries and there was no money to restore and bring Francis’ childhood home back to life. The friar was not one to give up easily though and he begun writing lengthy strings of letters appealing to the generosity of rich and devoted benefactors. The cult of Francis was very popular at the time in the largely Christian Kingdom of Spain, but Antonio de Trejo could not even imagine that none other than than the king in person, Philip III, would respond. On the 27th of November 1614, the Spanish ambassador of the Holy See sent the Minister General’s request  – of an extraordinary donation of 6,000 ducats to buy the house and turn it into a sanctuary – directly to the king. The king accepted and wrote back personally: “Como os parece” (as you wish).

The church built upon Giambattista Bini‘s house was named  “S. Francesco Converso” (Saint Frances Converted), but no one ever called it that way. Since the beginning it has always been called “Chiesa Nuova”, the New Church.

The building and decoration style is Baroque and it is another element that makes it “new” when compared with the other Romanic and Gothic churches that are mainly found in Assisi. The pink bricks composing the facade, the decorative pilaster strips and the portal in white travertine are all clear examples. Another difference lies in the floor plan ‒ Greek Cross as opposed to Latin Cross ‒ and the sumptuous internal gold decorations, mostly paintings, which are the work of some of the most important local artists of the time such as Cesare Sermei and Giacomo Giorgetti. In a corner by the entrance a detail echoes the memory of this place: a small recess, closed by a wrought iron grid, encloses a statue of a praying Francis, and it marks the spot where Pietro di Bernardone locked up the rebel son, guilty of selling all the father’s precious fabrics to renovate the sanctuary of S. Damiano.

Just out of the Sanctuary one can visit what is left of the places where Francis spent his childhood and his relationship with the father irretrievably deteriorated. Only a few stairs below, the ground floor of the old house, where the family worked and sold their fabrics. If you glance at your feet, you will see the old road the office once looked at, still perfectly preserved.

Attached to the cloister of the church, there is also a library where precious rarities about Francis and his legacy are kept: miniated codices, parchments, incunables, bulls, and other ancient documents. A total of 16,000 volumes for a fascinating journey backwards in time.

In his relentless search for the Saint’s places, in the XVI Century, Piccardo D’Angelo converted a room of the house into a small oratory and maintained that it was ‒ as stated in the inscription above the entrance ‒ “the shed of an ox and donkey where Saint Francis, mirror of the world, was born”. Actually the notion that birth to Francis was given in a shed after a mysterious mendicant suggested his mother to do so is just an ancient myth not backed by any historical sources and never mentioned in the first biographies of the Saint, like the ones written by Tommaso da Celano or Bonaventura da Bagnoregio. But this does not strip the Oratorio di S. Francesco Piccolo of the mystical and spiritual aura that years of pilgrimages have bestowed upon it.

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