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Assisi

WINE TASTING
A carriage ride in the vineyards

A fantastic tour through the vineyards on a horse-drawn carriage, with a final tasting

38€ 32€ Per person
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WINE TASTING
A delicious picnic in the vineyard

Let yourself be enticed by wine and the beauty of Mother Nature in the rolling hills of Montefalco, choose this picnic in the vineyard

80€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED ROADBIKE TOUR
A real, hard-core workout on the Valnerina passes

Test your true mettle in the magnificent landscapes of the Valnerina

from 80€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED ROADBIKE TOUR
Age-old villages between Todi and the Martani mountain range

A route through the Martani mountains, on the trail of hamlets and villages

from 60€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED TREKKING TOUR
Along the old Spoleto-Norcia railway

Along the ancient Spoleto-Norcia railway, amongst bridges, old rails and untamed nature

from 65€ Per person
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Along the river Clitunno

From Trevi towards the river deemed sacred by the Romans

from 75€ Per person
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WELLNESS AND BEAUTY TREATMENT
Beauty therapy with wine in Umbria

Treat yourself to some deep relaxation and indulge in some well-deserved pampering with this beauty therapy with wine in Umbria.

65€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED ROADBIKE TOUR
Between Trevi and Spoleto on the Valle Umbra cycle path

A quiet cycle ride, protected by the hills of the Umbria valley

from 55€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED ROADBIKE TOUR
Bevagna – Montefalco, passing through Spello and Santamaria degli Angeli

Explore the central hills of the Umbrian valley by bike, cycling up some of them to discover the mysteries they hide

from 90€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED ROADBIKE TOUR
Bevagna, Spello and Santa Maria degli Angeli

The shortest version of its twin tour, but with the same exhilaration guaranteed

from 75€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED ROADBIKE TOUR
Bike trail in Umbria, from Trevi to Giano, via Montefalco

Cycling down in this bike trail in the Umbria valley, then up to Giano with some hard-core pedal power

from 90€ Per person
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PRIVATE GUIDED MTB TOUR
Biking on the Plains of Bevagna

Biking around Bevagna, on the Umbrian countryside, immense beauty and very little effort

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What to see and what to do in Assisi

Whether your are traveling by train or car, the little majestic Seraphic City, sheltering on the summit of its hill at the foot of green Mount Subasio will catch your eye from a distance. The colossal Holy Friary (Sacro Convento), appearing to push the rest of the village upwards and raising almost to the peak where the castle of Rocca Maggiore sits majestically, marks the south border of the city and can already be spotted from the beautiful valley, spangled with wheat and sunflower fields. The castle is circumscribed by a belt of trees and, once the night descends, the artificial illumination replacing the light of the day makes it look like it is floating in the air. That is the most popular image of Assisi, which you will find in any gift-shop and everywhere on the Web; unfortunately they will never be able to capture the feeling that one experiences when witnessing the scene in person, from that perfect viewpoint, surrounded by sunflowers.

But Assisi needs no celebratory introduction, being it the most famous Umbrian city in the World. It is the city that gave birth to Saint Francis (San Francesco), one of the greatest revolutionaries of the Catholic Church, and to Saint Clare (Santa Chiara), his faithful disciple. Temple of sacredness and spirituality since ancient times, it is also known as “the City of Peace”.

But beware! Let that not mislead you. Despite its redeeming and celestial aura, the city went through very perilous and hairy times. For centuries it endured wars, domestic struggles and plundering. Many great leaders wanted to get their hands on it, including Charles the Great, Frederick Barbarossa, Cesare Borgia and many others. These continuous invasions decimated the population, causing famine and epidemics. But also locals were no less than foreign invaders. The rivalry between the Guelphs, supporting the Pope, and Ghibellines, supporting the Empire, was extremely fierce. Homicides and reprisals amongst the various militant families were the order of the day. As paradoxical as it may sound, in the XIV Century, the Pope interdicted the city from religious sacraments and excommunicated the best part of its population! Walking around the city without bearing a weapon was pure folly! Adding insult to injury, earthquakes were very frequent. Just between the XIV and the XIX Century, forty earthquakes – that left the centre in ruins bringing citizens to their knees – had been recorded.

Like all cities, also Assisi has a dark side, and while visiting it, one can fantasise about what might have happened on its white paved streets and seraphic squares, and in front of its magnificent churches throughout the course of history. The beauty and importance of this place will catch your eye immediately.

Discover Assisi

Assisi was included in the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites in 2000 due the key role played by S. Francescis‘ places in our history. This wonderful journey cannot but begin from the Franciscan site par excellence, the Basilica of Saint Francis, gracefully laid on an upland east of the city called Colle Paradiso, literally meaning Paradise Hill.  A monumental colossus including three churches, one above the other, and the Holy Friary (Sacro Convento), with its 53 majestic bearing arches.  Its little sister, the Basilica of Saint Clare, is a must-see if you wish to learn about the history of Saint Francis’ holy protégée. The journey towards the discovery of arguably the two most important characters of Christianity continues in the numerous churches and holy sites across the city. The Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, where tradition dictates that Saint Francis gave up all his belonging in public, Chiesa Nuova, meaning new church, which was built over the house where the Saint spent his childhood, the Assisi Cathedral (also known as Cattedrale di San Rufino), one of the oldest religious buildings in the city together with the Abbey of St. Peter (Abbazia di San Pietro).

If you wish to retrace the steps of Communal Assisi and its interminable belligerent past, the Castles of Rocca Maggiore and Rocca Minore are going to provide you with a glimpse into those turbulent days and the incredible defence techniques that were developed to protect the city from its enemies. The City Square (Piazza del Comune) together with Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo,  Torre Civica,  Palazzo dei Priori, and the Temple of Minerva, is one of the most beautiful and historical sites in the city. Below the square, the most ancestral part of Assisi begins. At the Roman Forum and the archaeological collection you can admire the remains of the pre-Roman period of the city and the secrets of the mysterious Umbrian civilisation. If you’re still longing for more, you can visit the Domus del Lararium and Domus di Sesto Properzio to immerse yourself into the daily and domestic life of the ancient inhabitants.

Also, don’t forget to indulge in an aimless walk through down-town’s paved streets and alleys, you might get lost in some wonderful spots. We suggest the evocative Via Fontebella, Via Bernardo da Quintavalle, which seems to have frozen at the time of the domestic struggles of the Middle Ages, and of course Via S. Francesco – the street that leads to the Basilica – walked for eight centuries by pilgrims from all over the world, overlooked by the exquisite Palazzo del Monte Frumentario.

You could carry on walking outside of the city walls, where the natural and anthropic landscapes create marvellous and unique atmospheres. Going up towards Mount Subasio, you cannot refrain from visiting the Eremo delle Carceri – the temple of Franciscan mysticism –, the centuries-old Abbey of S. Benedetto al Subasio, and the Church of S. Angelo in Panzo. Going downhill you will find the Sanctuary of S. Damiano – where the stories of Francis and Clare cross inextricably   and, proceeding farther down (we suggest taking a bus), you will encounter the majestic Basilica di S. Maria degli Angeli.

Summer of 1228. Less than two years from his death, Francis of Assisi is canonised and is about to become one of the most famous men and saints in the world. Elia of Cortona, friar of the monastic order founded by the Saint, was in open disagreement with his brothers. He maintained that the death of Francis left an unfillable void in the Church. The memory of his values and deeds had to be passed on from generation to generation until Judgement Day, and not one bit of his glory was to be forgotten. Elia knew very well that every memory fades away eventually, therefore it was necessary to break the Rule – Francis’ own will – which imposed humbleness and poverty to the order as well as rejecting any sum of money unless it was for “the needs of the ill or to clothe other friars”. Elia knew that in order to keep Francis’ extraordinary message intact through the centuries, it had to be conveyed through the beauty and grandiosity of his mausoleum, the very same features that allowed the temples, tombs, and memory of the greatest figures in history to be here today. Despite betraying the Rule was a source of great sorrow to Elia, he was convinced that it was the only way. And so it was. When you admire the Basilica of Saint Francis in all its glory, its marvellous decorations, you shall take a second to think that they are the result of the spiritual labour and resilience of a man with huge responsibilities, going through a never-ending struggle with himself and others.

 

Two years later, the construction of the lower Basilica was probably well under way, because the body of the saint – which until then was kept in the Church of S. Giorgio, now replaced by the Basilica of Saint Clare – was moved inside it. It is not certain when the works for the upper Basilica began, but we know that the finishing touches were completed in 1267. The complex, consisting of two different churches, one above the other, and the Sacro Convento, is built according to Francis’ wishes – at least this one was observed ‒ on a prominence known as Hill of Hell. This name was given because, before the Basilica was built, the hill was a lugubrious peripheral area of the city used for capital punishment. Since the first stone was laid, its name changed to Paradise Hill.

The Basilica attracted artists and master builders from all over the world for its construction. Elia of Cortona chose the finest and most modern materials available at the time for his master project. He commissioned the Comacine Masters, who moved in large numbers from the North of Italy, to work exclusively on the Basilica. They brought along innovative techniques never seen before. They imported the use of the Gothic Style from Europe, for instance. The Basilica is one of the very first buildings in Central-Southern Italy that blends Gothic architecture with the then predominant Romanic style. But how can the Gothic influence be recognised?

Take the Milan Cathedral, a perfect example of Gothic architecture, if you compare it with the Basilica of Saint Francis you will certainly not find many similarities. In fact the “Gothicness” of the Basilica is not to be found in its structure, short, squat and mighty as most Roman churches, but in its architectural details. For example the arches of the pointed vaults and windows; the ribs, which are elements that serve both a decorative and structural purpose splitting the vaults equally; the presence of rose windows on the façade and the enormous and luminous stained glass windows, amongst the oldest in the world. These are evidences of an unmistakable Gothic influence. The The Comacine Masters, who had come to Assisi for their long-term assignment at the Basilica, must have liked the city, since some of them decided to stay permanently and worked on other buildings, leaving their mark across the city. Walking through the streets of Assisi, on the façades and epistyles of certain buildings, you can spot the coat of arms of their corporation, depicting an open compass on top of a flower, such as the one on the Loggia dei Comacini in Via S. Francesco, the street that connects the Basilica to the City Square.

In the XV century, the cult of Saint Francis was peaking and the current square was built to replace the courtyard in front of the Basilica, at that point too small to contain the multitude of pilgrims pouring into the city to celebrate the saint. This immense mass of people attracted an equally huge crowd of merchants and peddlers who were going as far as occupying the space inside the Basilica with their stands. The Pope ordered to also fix the square in front of the lower Basilica, so the merchants could place their stands, in an orderly fashion, under the arches.

The remains of Francis were buried in a very deep and secret spot to protect them from marauders and relic collectors, so secret that it was eventually forgotten. In 1818 the Pope gave order to probe the terrain under the altar of the lower Basilica and, after 52 nights of digging, when all hope seemed lost and doubt was starting to creep in, one worker hit a hard block of granite with his pick. The sepulchre of the saint was finally found.

The following year Assisi was swarmed by pilgrims like never before and later, the crypt below the lower Basilica was built to give an appropriate home to the saint’s body, adding another level to the complex.

 

When visiting the two Basilicas, their different auras can be clearly perceived: the lower Basilica, with its underground crypt, is darker and more secluded; the upper Basilica is more luminous, graceful, and celebratory. There is of course a reason. The lower Basilica was dedicated to the saint’s life on earth, a life of sacrifice and deprivation; the upper basilica should represent the sanctity and glory of Francis’ celestial afterlife. This was Elia’s idea: in order to perpetuate Francis’ greatness the Basilica itself had to be part of the narration. The life and values of Francis, through the emotions sparked by the architecture as well ass the messages conveyed through paintings, decorations, and colours, had to be immediately understandable to any devotee, even the illiterate.

But there was more: moving from the lower Basilica to the upper one, another transition can be clearly noticed, and it concerns the paintings. You can experience an epochal shift through art, from the Greek-Byzantine approach – and its oriental influences and flavours – to a typically Italian style, which will accompany the geniuses of this world in conceiving one of the most important cultural movements in history: The Renaissance.

Therefore, following the plan Elia had for us, we are going to start our visit from the lower Basilica, or Basilica Inferiore. The only nave is decorated with the oldest frescoes of the church, the Bizantine influence is evident and can be recognised by their static nature and less realistic figures, which serve a symbolic purpose. Many of the frescoes on the vaults have a dark blue background dotted with golden stars, while the ribs are decorated with geometrical motifs. The right part of the transept features one of Cimabue‘s oldest and finest works: Madonna in trono con S. Francesco (Madonna on the Throne with Saint Francis). It is said that it was so beautiful that the painter who was hired to redo the vault a few decades later refused to touch it. Luckily! Because this is the most faithful portrait of Francis ever painted. It corresponds perfectly to how his aspect was described by his contemporaries. The scenes of the back wall include some frescoes depicting the miracles of Saint Francis. One of them portrays the Death of the boy in Sessa, died under the ruins of a collapsed building and resurrected by Francis after the mother prayed for his help. The fresco, painted by Giotto’s Workshop, is said to feature portraits of Dante and Giotto himself, who appears on the left side of the grieving crowd crying with a hand on his chin. On the left part of the transepts there are some frescoes by other prominent artists such as Pietro Lorenzetti with his Crucifixion. On the left side of the nave sits one of the most beautiful chapels of the church, the Chapel of Saint Martin, frescoed by Simone Martini, painter of the Sienese School and one of the very few contemporaries who could compete with Giotto. In his frescoes we can find a refined and faithful reproduction of the aristocratic and chivalric styles and costumes of the XIV Century. The reliquary on the High Altar contains a rib belonging to John the Baptist. It was placed there by the will of Pope Innocent IV. The left transept leads to the sacristy and then to the secret sacristy, where are kept – among other relics – the original bill of approval of the Rule promulgated by Pope Honorius III in 1223 and some of Francis’ personal belongings. The stairs on the left of the nave bring to the majestic Cloister of Sisto IV, where exhibitions and events are frequently held.

From the middle of the nave, we take the small flight of steps on the right and descend into the crypt.

The chapel of the crypt as we see it today was built between 1925 and 1932. The tomb still contains the original urn where Francis’ remains were placed by Elia. Four of the saint’s faithful disciples are also buried here: the Blessed Rufino, Leone, Masseo and Angelo. No words can describe the atmosphere and sensations one feels in the presence of the Saint’s grave, whether your are religious or not.

 

In the Basilica Superiore you will have a chance to enjoy Cimabue‘s finest frescoes, including the Crucifixion, on the left part of the transept. Unfortunately the white lead paint darkened due to oxidation, giving the artwork a sort of photo-negative look.  Despite this, the great evocative force of the subject is unaffected. Giorgio Vasari, one of the leading art historians in Italy, give us a very accurate picture of how these frescoes must have looked like before: “I do believe that such work, truly grandiose, and rich, and impeccably executed, must have left the world in awe at the time […] and I, seeing it again in 1563, thought it was magnificent, wondering how in such darkness could Cimabue see so much light”.

One of the pupils who helped Cimabue work in his fresco was a certain Giotto di Bondone; yes, that Giotto! How about the student becoming the master? He’s considered by many one of the fathers of Renaissance. His mastery and innovative style are clearly evident in the Basilica’s frescoes, especially in the Stories of Saint Francis series, which cover the lower part of the nave. We recommend taking a few moments to fully appreciate the famous “Sermon to the birds”; then move to the “Pope Innocent III Confirms the Franciscan Rule”, depicting Francis and his order kneeling before the Pope as the Saint hands him the list of precepts. In the original work Francis was standing, but the Curia forced the Florentine artist to change his painting at the last minute. Regardless of how revolutionary Francis’ ideas were, he still had to submit to the power of the Church. Then again the “Greccio Nativity Scene”, telling the story of the first nativity scene in the world, wanted by Francis. Observe the friars singing in the choir: for the first time in the history of painting, a person’s teeth are shown. Then move to the upper part of the nave’s left wall, where Giotto painted the “Deposition of the Cross”. Look at the expressiveness of the incredulous and desperate faces who stare at Christ’s helpless body and compare them with the faces painted by Cimabue. Let’s say that for a XIV Century person, walking into the Basilica and seeing Giotto‘s painting would be a similar experience to standing in a church with 3D and holographic paintings for us today. That was the closest reproduction of reality that they had ever seen.

 

Form inside the Basilica you can gain access to the Sacro Convento (Holy Friary), which is contemporary to the Basilica and housed the papal residence. The structure doubled as fortress and is heavy and sturdy. Due to the continuous expansion works carried-out throughout the years, additional external supports were required. So the 52 majestic bearing arches were added, their construction began in 1300 and lasted for over a century, they can be seen from miles away. The papal residence is also home to the Museum of the Treasure, an important collection of sacred medieval art and jewellery started in the middle of the XIII Century by the will of Gregory IX. Some of the most beautiful and precious objects donated to the Franciscan Order throughout the Centuries are kept here, including the Guccio di Mannaia’s Chalice, sacred missals and breviaries, and the Perkins collection, given in the 1950’s by the art historian Frederick M. Perkins, which include beautiful tables painted byPietro Lorenzetti, Lorenzo Monaco, and Sassetta.

Clare was lying or her death bed; tired, weak, happy… She knew it was time to leave her life on earth and she was excited. Her heart was pounding with joy because she would soon meet the Eternal, but then all of a sudden she started feeling sad, thinking about how many people – knowing that they led a turbulent and sinful life – live their final moments in fear. She regretted not being able to console and help them find faith.

Her sisters were surrounding her like in a trance, in a small cell of the Monastery of S. Damiano, without speaking a word.   During that warm summer day, the Monastery was shrouded in a surreal silence. Birds, dogs, and animals in the courtyards were silent, even the wind seemed to have stopped howling in respect. From her bed Clare was reliving all her quests, first with Francis to establish the Order of Friars Minor, then alone – after mentor’s death – with the female order. She still had one regret, though: despite all her efforts, she would not live to see the Franciscan Rule approved for female cloisters. She begged the Pope many times, but he never listened. A thought that tormented her, upsetting her joyful passing. It made her feel incomplete.

But suddenly the surreal silence of her cell was broken by a faraway rumble. As the sound was approaching, it was clear it was the galloping of steeds and the woody noise of a carriage running towards S. Damiano. Once it reached the Cloister there was a lot of yelling which lasted for a few minutes and then it abruptly stopped. The door to Clare’s cell opened to reveal on its threshold Pope Innocent IV in person, holding a parchment with two dangling lead seals. It was the Solet Annuere Sedet seal, with which the Pontiff recognised and ratified in full her Rule for the cloister. He was in the City on a pastoral visit and wanted to notify the nun in person. He gave her the parchment and inquired about her health. He rejoiced that he made it on time and he left, giving everybody his blessing. It was august 1253. Clare passed away soon afterwards. Her body was carried in procession and buried under the Church of Saint George, closer the city walls.

in 1893 the abbess Matilde Rossi, found that very seal on the body of the Saint which had been exhumed a few decades earlier. The document was then placed in the crypt of the Basilica of Saint Clare as a relic.

 

Construction of the Basilica began in 1257, two years after the canonisation of Clare, and it was designed to incorporate the Church of Saint George, where – besides Clare’s – the remains of Francis where kept. In 1263 the female Franciscan order of the Poor Clares was universally recognised and in 1265, after the solemn inauguration ceremony officiated by Pope Clement IV, Clare’s sisters moved in, after living for 40 years in the cloister of S. Damiano.

The architectural style is very similar to the Basilica of Saint Francis‘, built in the same period. The most evident differences with the “sister” Basilica built at the opposite end of the old city, lie in the external decorations – in the typical white and pink Monte Subasio Stone – and the lateral flying buttresses. These lateral arches, added at a later stage to improve stability, give the church its unmistakable look. It also boats the highest belfry in Assisi

Inside the church you can admire the Chapel of Saint Agnes, who was Clare’s blood and spiritual sister, and the Chapel of Saint George, which is what is left of the small church where the remains of the two Saints of Assisi were kept. Above the altar, the San Damiano Cross, whose history is inextricably linked with the lives of saints. The cross was brought from the Church of S. Damiano to the Basilica of Saint Clare when the nuns moved in because of its very special value. It was the first cross to talk to the young Francis when he asked God what to do with his life. “Vade Francisce, repara domum meam!”; “Go Francis, repair my home” was the answer which the youth did not understand completely. He sold some belongings to renovate the small crumbling church. Only later he realised that the “home” of the Lord that he was asked to repair was not a building, but Christianity in its entirety.

The cross dates back to the XII Century, before Giotto and Cimabue‘s realism. What the artist wanted to convey with the gaze and posture of Christ are not so much the pain and suffering of a deity that became human, but rather the glory and grandiosity of the gesture that he made for his “sons”. It is said that the cross was painted on a flat board before the Revelation. When he spoke to Francis, the head of Christ “detached” from the table and stretched towards him, obtaining the “three-dimensional”, embossed look that we see today. Actually, we know that painting faces on relief was a rather common technique at the time.

In the left transept we can find one of the most significant works in the Basilica: la Table of Saint Clare, painted a few years after her death, where she is represented in Byzantine style surrounded by eight scenes representing her spiritual life, including the ones mentioned in the introduction. Can you spot them?

Along with the “sister” table Madonna della Cortina, displayed in the right side of the transept, the two works are recognised as painted by a mysterious anonymous artist called the Master of Santa Chiara.

In 1850, after finding Saint Francis’ tomb, the pope ordered to search for Saint Clare’s remains also. A “sixteen spans deep” tunnel was dug and her tomb was found. A rough travertine sarcophagus tied with an iron strap. Today the tunnel and the crypt that was built around the sepulchre can be visited. Besides the tomb – consisting in a crystal and Subasio stone urn on which the relic body lays, dressed in the original tunic and containing the remains of the Saint – it is possible to visit another area with many more relics on display, including the famous Papal Bill. The paper document has been replaced with a faithful copy to avoid deterioration, but the original frame and seals remain.

 

The small Chapel of Saint Mary of the Angels in Porziuncola, which is still intact inside the Basilica, according to tradition was erected by four Holy War veterans who brought back a fragment of Virgin Mary’s tomb, in the valley below Assisi, called Cerreto della Porziuncola. During certain autumn days, the wind clears the sky from all clouds and, blowing through the fronds of the trees, makes a sound that is believed to resemble angels singing. The chapel has been managed by the monks of S. Benedetto al Subasio since the X Century. This place would have probably been forgotten if it wasn’t for Francis and Clare. Thanks to them, today we can see the Porziuncola intact, almost like it was one thousand years ago. But instead of the noisy woods there is a huge Basilica, built between the XVI and XVII Century, that embraces and protects it like a caring mother.

The church was donated to the Saint by the Benedictine monks themselves so the Franciscan Order that was being constituted could have a base. When Francis came here for the first time the church was in a state of abandonment and his hagiography narrates that he spent the whole third year after his conversion to restore the small chapel. Here, when reading the Gospel he realises that his mission was not to renovate crumbling religious buildings, but to renovate and preach God’s Kingdom, living in poverty, penance and simplicity. From here, Francis and his brothers would leave to spread their message and in here they would always return. On one night of 1211, someone knocked at the Porziuncola’s door, it was a desperate and frightened Chiara d’Offreduccio, who had run away from her home and aristocratic family. A few days later, in this chapel, she took her vows and repented to be consecrated to God and began her spiritual journey – which led her to establish the female order of the Poor Clares – and later become Saint Clare.

It is also here where, in 1216, the “Forgiveness of Assisi” was practice for the first time. It was a plenary indulgence ritual that granted immediate absolution upon confession to anyone who entered the church genuinely repenting for their sins. Indulgences were rather frequent within the Christian Church during the Middle Ages but, until then, in order to obtain it it was required to pay a “mite” – a money offering that only the rich could afford – or embark on an extremely long pilgrimage through the most important sites of Christianity such as a Holy City, or again undergo certain corporal mortification practices, like forced abstinence from food or sleeping on a bed of nettles. Francis managed to obtain this extraordinary “waiver” by appearing in person before Pope Honorius III and persuading him of the sanctity of such request. Once back in Assisi, from a pulpit arranged for the occasion in front of the Porziuncola, he gave the glorious announcement to a jubilant crowd of thousands. The “Forgiveness of Assisi” would spark a lot of controversy and opposition within the Church for many centuries to come. The rule was modified many times throughout history. At first it was extended to all Franciscan Churches, then to all the churches of the parish, but it was limited to only two days per year: the 1st and the 2nd of August. In 1988 the Apostolic Penitentiary ruled that in the Porziuncola the indulgence could be received any day of the year, confirming the extraordinary importance this place has for Christianity.

A few steps from the Porziuncola you will find the place where Francis wanted to be taken to spend his last moments and write the final lines to his Canticle of the Sun: the Cappella del Transito. It is in this narrow space that Francis was accompanied to his death, on the night of the third of October 1226. The chapel contains some frescoes painted by an apprentice of Perugino, called the Spagna. Behind the altar there is a magnificent and touching statue of Francis sculpted by Andrea della Robbia, one of the most distinctive ceramists of the Renaissance. In the Chapel is also kept the cord that Francis tied around his habit.

Word of the Forgiveness of Assisi travelled fast all around Italy and Europe and, only a few days after Francis’ announcement, the Porziuncola was already a favourite destination for pilgrims. By the second half of the XVI Century pilgrimages are so frequent that the church is expanded and new reception and accommodation facilities are built. Designed by Galeazzo Alessi, the majestic Papal Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels, was 126 metres (413 feet) long and 65 metres (213 feet) large and capable of receiving the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that visited it every year. The project was so ambitious that it took more than a century to be completed.

Unfortunately today we can only see a small portion of the Perugian architect’s original masterpiece. The 1800’s was a very dark century for the Basilica: first the raids perpetrated by Napoleon’s Army, then the violent earthquake of 1832 devastated great part of the building. The dome designed by Alessi collapsed on the Porziuncola, but it was miraculously intact. The restoration works changed the conformation of the church quite drastically. The façade, culminating with the characteristic golden bronze statue of the Virgin Mary, was completed in 1930. The only two remaining parts of the original project are the apsis and the dome, which was rebuilt only 8 years after its collapse. Sitting outside, on the left side of the Basilica: the Fountain of the Twenty-six Cannelle. A fountain extending for nearly the whole length of the side wall built by the Medici family in 1610 as a tribute to Saint Francis. A shield with six embossed spheres stands-out amongst the beautiful decorations adorning the water nozzles. This was the emblem under which the Florentine family was famous in all Europe.

The interior, as opposed to the Basilica of Saint Francis’, is simple and bare, with few decorations, in full observation of the Franciscan Rule. It has three naves with five chapels on each lateral nave, which are the only areas of the Basilica that sport frescoes and decorations, commissioned throughout the years by aristocratic devotees or communal institutions.

The Porziuncola was placed exactly in the middle of the Basilica, as it is the core from which everything else was created. Inside, on the wall behind the altar, there is a table painted by Ilario da Viterbo in 1393 recounting the tales of the Forgiveness of Assisi. The story, that as we know ends with a glorious speech in front of thousands of people, actually begins a few metres from the church, in a rose garden near the Basilica. According to his hagiography, the vision that led Francis to ask the Pope to approve the Indulgence is anticipated by a strong and mysterious temptation that the friar had to face during his prayers. To run from it, he threw himself into the roses, which immediately lost all their thorns. To this day the “Rosa Canina Assisiensis” growing in that part of the monastery are thornless. The beams allegedly forming the pulpit from which Francis announced the Forgiveness, are kept in a chapel near the rose garden and built to celebrate the “thorn miracle”.

Despite not having any particularly famous works of art, the Basilica and Porziuncola provide a unique experience that one can live even only imagining the stories and characters that alternated in these places for over a millennium. From the outside to the inside of the Basilica, with a little bit of imagination, you can picture crowds flocking the Chapel for the celebration of Forgiveness; in the Chapel of Porziuncula you can relive the intimacy of the consecration of Clare, just eighteen, undressed and completely abandoned to God, while Francis is cutting her hair in the feeble light of the trembling flame of oil lamps.

But there is even more to experience at the Museum of Porziuncola. In the museum there are some masterpieces of Christian and Franciscan art, starting from the ancient crucifix of Giunta da Pisano,1236, one of the first depicting the Christ patiens – humanise and suffering – as opposed to the dominant style of the time ‒ as per Greek-Byzantine tradition ‒ of Christ Triumphans glorious and triumphant even during crucifixion. Giunta da Pisano can be considered, together with Cimabue and Giotto, one of the main innovators of Medieval art, one of the first to lay the basis of Renaissance art. Amongst the many works of art and precious objects, the museum’s collection includes two painted tables portraying Saint Francis, whose history once again blends with legend. The fist was by the Maester of Saint Francis – the mysterious brush that also produced many frescoes inside the Basilica of Saint Francis – and it is the oldest images of Francis ever found, dating back to the middle of the XII Century. Initially placed in the Cappella del Transito, it is said that the work was painted on the same plank on which Francis used to lay and where he drew his last breath. The second one is believed to be by Cimabue due to the extraordinary resemblance with the portrait of the Saint that the Florentine Master painted in the lower Basilica of Saint Francis, the most faithful existing portrait of the Saint. Also in this case it is believed that the plank on which the painting was executed used to be the lid of the casket in which Francis’ remains were first deposed. The museum also hosts an exquisite piece by Andrea della Robbia: a reredos of shining transparent terracotta, circa 1475, depicting sacred scenes and stories of the life of Francis, including a scene of Francis receiving his stigmata in the Sanctuary of La Verna. History, art, and spirituality, the ideal recipe for a unique experience.

The Assisi Cathedral, dedicated to San Rufino (Rufinus of Assisi), sits in the homonymous square, almost hidden amongst the buildings that surround it as if they were its spectators. As one gets closer, descending from Piazza Matteotti, the cathedral starts revealing itself in all its beauty; its facade ‒ considered by many one of the most beautiful of the period ‒ radiates candid limestone splendour in a breathtaking perspective effect of dynamic geometries that keep mutating as the observer reaches the end of the slope. The effect is even more evocative on a late autumn afternoon, when the ivory stone soaks in the fiery orange of dusk that the evening will slowly extinguish.

Rufinus of Assis is the patron saint and was the first bishop of the city. He died as a martyr in the III Century A.D. and lived under the Roman Empire. His hagiography narrates his long trip to preach the Gospel leaving from modern Turkey to reach Italy in the Aburzzi – the land of the Marsi people – and finally settle in Assisi where he becomes a Bishop. The Christian religion was not tolerated by the Imperial Institutions of the time and Consul Aspasius relentlessly persecuted him until his capture, when he made the man confess his faith. Rufinus was then sentenced to death and, according to legend, that’s during his execution ‒ his firs execution ‒ that he proved his sanctity. He had managed to survive without a scratch the stake he was sentenced to and only died when he was thrown in the river Chiascio with a millstone tied around his neck. His devotees found the body downstream, where now rises the village of Costano in the municipality of Bastia Umbra. The Santuario del Crocifisso (Sanctuary of the Cross) located within the old city walls of the small village celebrates this event. The rough stone that forms the surface of the altar is believed to be same that drowned the Saint. After it was found, the body was moved to the same location as the Cathedral we see today.

The current church is the third, in order of time, that was built on that sacred land. The works for the final version of the Church were started in 1100 by the architect Giovanni da Gubbio, but the previous version that dates back to the year 1000 is linked to a fascinating popular legend. Bishop Ugo wanted to disinter the sarcophagus that was believed to contain Rufin’s sacred remains and move it to the main church of S. Maria Maggiore, which at the time was the episcopal seat. Although the people – not willing to lose a relic of such spiritual significance – harshly protested against the decision until they clashed with the Church Militias. According to the myth, it was the Saint’s miraculous intervention that solved the issue. Miltias prevailed, luckily without any bloodshed, but when they tried to move the sarcophagus they could not believe their eyes. The marble casket was inexplicably stuck to the ground. Sixty men tried with all their force and they could not move it by an inch, but only seven common people were enough to lift it. The miracle was such that Bishop Ugo soon gave up and changed his mind. He ordered to embellish and expand the Cathedral, and in 1035 he moved his seat there.

 

The interior of the current cathedral was designed in 1500 by the great Umbrian Architect Galeazzo Alessi. It was divided in three naves separated by majestic arches supported by square-base columns. On the right nave there is a very ancient marble baptismal font where, according to the tradition, all the protagonists of Assisi’s history had their heads wetted: from Saint Francis, to Saint Clare, to Frederick II. In proximity of the third nave, you will find the sumptuous Cappella del Santissimo Sacramento, the finest specimen of baroque art in the city.

The left nave reveals the antiquity of this place. The latest restoration works unveiled the most recondite soul of the cathedral. There lies the base of a Roman cistern on which the building rests. Inscribed on it are the names of the people who ordered its construction, the Marones, the local magistrates who were appointed by the Republic to govern the city.

Descending into the crypt is a journey back to the year 1000 and the harsh diatribe between Bishop Ugo and the Assisian People. The sarcophagus kept here is the same described in the legend, unbearably heavy for the evil and incredibly light for the just. The crypt was one of Francis’ places of choice for his solitary prayers, as well as the a small subterranean spot under the sacristy called the oratory of Saint Francis.   The crypt is part of the Diocesan Museum‘s itinerary; inaugurated in 1941, which also includes the exhibitions of Palazzo dei Canonici, its cellar and the cloister of the adjacent cathedral. The museum collects very rare specimens of medieval painting left in the city and it is the best place, together with the Roman Forum and the archaeological collection, to discover the traces of the old Roman and pre-Roman city, including capitals, epigraphs, and other objects. Some rooms also contain precious Renaissance and pre-Renaissance artworks including the frescoes of the Master of Saint Clare and a beautiful piece by Niccolò Liberatore known as l’Alunno, one of the protagonists of the Umbrian Renaissance together with Perugino and Pinturicchio: The Saint Rufinus Altarpiece, where the painter depicts the story of the Patron Saint and his martyrdom.

The Church of S. Maria Maggiore is an ancient and precious testimony of the historical significance of the city. In few other places one can experience so much history – especially in such fine state of preservation – in just seven metres of eight. This place, which is yet to be fully explored and studied, was a house, belonging to a wealthy local personality, likely a poet; it probably was a pagan temple and then became a paleochristian church which, according to the tradition, was founded by the Bishop Savinio in the IV Century, and kept morphing until the XII Century, when it assumed its current aspect. Evidence is given by the inscription on the only rose window on the façade: “ANNO DOMINI 1162 IOHANNES FECIT”. The Iohannes mentioned in the inscription is probably the same Giovanni da Gubbio who a few years earlier designed the Assisi Cathedral, named after Saint Rufinus.

Here, where ‒ like in many other places in Assisi‒ history and legend intertwine inextricably, one of the main events in Francis’ life occurred: the “Renunciation”, when Francis gives up his wordly goods and converts to the Christian Mission. Bishop Guido, friend of Francis and rampant aristocrat, who also would symbolically and physically renounce all his belongings, is one of the protagonists of the story. The Renunciation happened during a trial held in the episcopal seat – which at the time was S. Maria Maggiore – that saw Francis as a defendant. Pietro di Bernardone publicly accused the son for squandering, without his permission, a considerable portion of the family’s wealth to give it to the poor, hoping that the judgement of the public square could make the young man come back to his senses. In all response Francis took off his clothes, all of them, gave them to his father as a token of his final belongings and gave his life to God with the following phrase: «Up until now I called you, my father on earth; from now on I can say without a doubt: Our Father who art in heaven, because to him I gave all my treasures and in him I have placed all my trust and hope». As bishop Guido hastened to cover him with his cape and the crowd was cheering him, Pietro di Bernardone realised that his accusations could not stand as Francis was no longer his son. Many have narrated the Renunciation throughout the centuries, but Giotto is probably the one who did it best when he painted the scene in his series in the Basilica Superiore of Saint Francis. The exact spot where the process took place is unknown. There are three hypothesis: in the Bishop’s Palace Throne Room, today Renunciation Room, in the cloister or right outside, in the square in front of the church. All three spaces are open to the public, so you chan make your own guess.

The the only decorative elements on the Romanic façade are the rose window and two lines of vertical rib vaults, which divide the three naves inside. Two small portals – one in the middle, bigger, and a smaller one on the left – are the only entrances. Santa Maria Maggiore has an extremely plain construction style and is probably the closest specimen to the idea of Franciscan Church in Assisi. A stone in the back of the building, behind the absis, reveals that restoration works were carried out in 1216, when Francis was still alive and, given his friendship with bishop Guido, he might have played a role in how they were executed.

Inside we find three naves and what is left of its frescoes. Many of the artworks covering the walls and columns of the church peeled off during the centuries and their remains seem to be arranged casually on the white stucco alternating to bare bricks, like the last autumn leaves grasping to tree branches in winter. Some of the painted subjects, dated starting from the XIV Century, are still clear and recognisable, others are simply crusts of colour that time has spared. Descending into the crypt we can embark on our journey into the past that takes us to the paleochristian basilica. Under the low brick vaults we encounter some Roman capitals and a IX Century Longobard stone sarcophagus. Let’s keep walking down towards the crypt to reach further back in history.

Found in the middle of the XIX Century during some excavation works, the ruins of a domus, a Roman house, more precisely a Cryptoporticus: a covered or half-inground corridor used to connect the various rooms of a building. This Cryptoporticus was determined to belong to the childhood home of Sextus Propertius, one of the greatest poets of Imperial Rome.  He worked at the court of Augustus and went down in history thanks to his elegies, a poetic style derived from Ancient Greece, rediscovered in the Middle Ages then reinvented by prominent authors such as Carducci, Leopardi, D’Annunzio, and Goethe. But the theory that ascribes the house to the elegiac poet is shrouded in mystery.  Such hypothesis is supported by the analysis of a graffiti found on one of the domus’ walls, left by a visitor two centuries after the building is believed to be erected to leave a mark of his or her presence. What today would be considered vandalism, has paradoxically become an invaluable evidence some seventeen centuries later. The graffiti is not perfectly readable and some parts are missing, but this is how it was interpreted: “On February 22 of year 367, under the consuls Giovino and Lupicino, I’ve kissed the home of the muse”. Margherita Guarducci, who found the graffiti and managed the relevant studies and excavations, maintained that the word “muse” symbolised the spirit of poetry and could therefore metaphorically translate to “poet”. The idea is that the house was already considered in the IV Century a place for enthusiasts and tourists to visit and celebrate the great poet born in Assisi. Maybe an “ante litteram” museum, or a temple; a public place anyway. Moreover, during the excavation works, fragments of a memorial stone were found; they mentioned a man named “Sex. Propertius” (Sextus?) as commissioner of the city theatre.

In order to know precisely what or whose these places were we still have to wait, but that will not prevent us from enjoying their extraordinary beauty. The part of the Domus that resurfaced, the one near the old Roman and Medieval walls, is constituted of four main environments, three rooms and a long corridor. Decorations on the floors and walls are extremely well preserved and easily distinguishable. The precious marble tiles on the ground are arranged according to the opus sectile technique, forming colourful geometrical patterns. Also the frescoes, which probably covered the ceiling too, still maintain very vibrant colours. A special mention shall be made for the viridarium: a fresco covering a recess in the corridor representing a bucolic garden formed by trees with small heart-shaped red flowers, where 96 chirping birds sit. Two of the subjects are clearly recognisable: the first, a mythological depiction of Apollo, provides further evidence to the theory that this once was an oracular temple; the second proved to be rather tricky for researchers and shows two human figures, outlining their faces as in a close-up: a very unusual technique which was never observed in any other case.

If you feel overwhelmed by all these mysteries, you can take a walk in the gardens in front of the church, look at the ruins of the old city wall and enjoy the landscape.

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.

When you get tired of walking Assisi’s busy streets, there is a place, far from the city centre, where “visiting” does not only mean “observing” and learning new information. Visiting this place, thanks to its history, position, and atmosphere means “living” a unique experience. Life here passes much more slowly than outside. The smells and the sounds that you are going to experience are the same that have been permeating it for 800 years. You are going to realise that at the Eremo della Carceri – about five kilometres (3 miles) from the city centre in the direction of Mount Subasio – the peace, contemplation, and spirituality that pervaded the Franciscan environments in the Middle Ages can be felt here like nowhere else.

In this case, the Latin word carceres refers to a place of retirement, penitence, and solitude. This is what Francis and his fellow friars did when they reached the tiny Chapel of Saint Mary and retreated in the caves and ravines that the mount offered to pray and meditate.  Initially only the chapel marked that place, given to Francis ‒ as well as the Porziuncola ‒ by the Benedictine Monks of Subasio. Later, the friars built a small Oratory nearby and in the XV Century, by the will of the Vicar General S. Bernardino da Siena, the tiny Chapel was transformed into a tiny Church (although a lot more structured) and the triangular cloister facing the valley was added. More facilities were added by the Friars Minor – who have always been guarding the hermitage – until it took its final form in the XIX Century. On one hand the Rule that required friars to design small and frugal buildings, on the other their ingeniosity and creativity allowed them create this extraordinary complex that at times seems to merge with the cliff on which it was built.

Today one can visit the Chapel, the Oratory, and the caves where Francis and his companions spent their moments of solitude and meditation. The Cave of Francis, the first on the path from the Chapel to the Woods, only has two pieces of “furniture”, obviously made of stone: a flat bed and a rock that probably served as a seat. A small puncture on the floor marks the place where, according to the myth, the Devil had sunk after trying to tempt the Saint repeatedly. Outside the cave, a trail runs through the secular holly oaks where lie the historical caves where Leone, Egidio, Silvestro, Bernardo da Quintavalle, and Andrea da Spello would retire in prayer. One of the oldest trees of the wood – a sign promises it dates back to Francis’ time – was identified in the past as one the trees where Francis gave one of his famous sermons to the birds which, along with the Canticle of the Sun, made Francis the first environmentalist in history.     Farther down the trail a bridge joins the two ribs of the mountain separated by a deep pit. According to the myth, there once was a creek running through the pit, but Francis had it drained by divine intervention, because it was disturbing his meditation. In fact, some studies hypothesised that – due to the carsic formation of the mountain – the spring only activates intermittently once every twenty or thirty years. Popular tradition links those events with some disgraces that occurred in the past, so the reactivation of the spring is regarded as a bad omen. Beyond the bridge we find the Chapel of Santa Maddalena. In 1477, Barnaba Manassei – the Franciscan friar that established the Mounts of Pity, the first credit institutions for the poor – was buried under it.

The Eremo delle Carceri offers a unique experience. Here history and myth intertwine, nature embraces spirituality, and the past merges with the present.   By observing the life lead by a contemporary monk in the hermitage you will have a chance to experience one of the rare and precious testimonies of the Franciscan past and understand how the saint conceived the Rule. In his own words:

 

[136] Those who want to remain in hermitages to lead a religious life should be three brothers, or four at most; of these, let two be “mothers” and have two “sons,” or one at least.  The two that are “mothers” should maintain the life of Martha and the two “sons” the life of Mary, and have a single enclosure, in which each may have his cell to pray and sleep in.

[137] And they are always to say Compline of the day immediately after sunset. And they should make sure to keep the silence. And they are to recite their Hours. And they are to get up for Matins. And let the first thing they seek be the kingdom of God and his justice.  And let them say Prime at the appropriate hour and, after Terce, conclude the silence so that they can speak and go to their “mothers,” from whom, when they want to, they can beg an alms, like little paupers, for love of the Lord God.

[138] The “sons,” nonetheless, should now and then take over the duty of the “mothers,” according to what arrangement they have come to about taking turns at intervals. […]

(Franciscan Sources – St. Francis of Assisi’s Rule for Hermitages)

 

 

Our advice? Buy a map of the trails of Mount Subasio and take one of the many hikes that lead to the Hermitage. Everything is going to feel more authentic.

Rocca Maggiore can be seen from anywhere in the valley, at any distance. It overlooks the Assisi hill, surrounded by trees that at night, in contrast with the city lights, form a dark strip around it, making the Rocca look like it is floating in the air. As we get closer its austere and severe magnitude reminds us that Assisi, the city of peace and spirituality, has a dark past made of wars, popular uprisings, famine, and pestilence.

The first evidence dates back to the XII Century, when the Archbishop of Magonza realised the strategical value of such location and there he built Federico Barbarossa’s fortress to consolidate the power of the emperor against the autonomous communes that were sprouting everywhere in Central Italy. The Rocca was also home to Frederick II – the greatest and most enlightened Emperor of the Germanic race – during his infancy. Frederick was only four years old when the Assisians, urged by Pope Innocent III, revolted to free city from the “foreign” dominator.

For almost a century the blood and memory of those events stained the ruins of the Rocca, partly destroyed and abandoned. The communal administrative power moved downhill, where today we have the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo  (Palace of the People’s Captain) and Torre Civica (Civic Tower), until a new threat suddenly appeared. This time the peril was coming from East, in the person of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, with his Ghibelline allies that included an Assisian, Muzio Brancaleoni, whose fellow citizens would remember as one of the shrewdest and most ruthless warlords of Assisi. Muzio joined the Gihibelline alliance along with the Montefeltro, Visconti, the lords of Milan, and the Scaligeri, lords of Verona that wanted Assisi to be a stronghold to counter the powerful and Guelph Perugia. It is the beginning of the XIV century and the old rivalry between Assisi and Perugia reaches its peak of violence. In order to carry on his expensive struggle with the Perugians, Muzio performs the most unspeakable acts, such as pillaging and executions and – above all – he sells the treasure of the Basilica of Saint Francis that gets him excommunicated and forever hated by his fellow citizens.

Muzio surrenders to the Pope, but the Rocca and Assisi in general are in ruins. After a few decades of peace, just enough time to rebuild, the tensions between Guelphs and Ghibellines grow again and the Spanish Cardinal and Warlord Egidio Albornoz, who – like almost all men of Church at the time – was a much finer connoisseur of war rather than peace, included the Rocca in his gargantuan work of fortification of the papal territories.  Next to the fortresses that were built from scratch, including the imposing Rocca Albornoziana in Spoleto, he ordered that the old fortresses had to be renovated. The Assisi city walls were fortified and, not far from the Rocca, a second fortification was erected, the Rocca Minore or Rocchicciola. Apparently it was connected to her big sister through a long tunnel inside the walls.

Thanks to these works Assisi became an even more strategical and sought-after destination for mercenaries and warlords. The Albornoziano defence system collapsed a century later under the bludgeonings of Niccolò Piccinino, the Perugian butcher who became one of the greatest Captains of Fortune of his time. His exploits were even praised by Lonardo da Vinci. Also thanks to the help of a treasonous friar, who pointed him to a secret passage through the walls via the old Roman aqueduct, in 1442 Piccinino laid siege to Assisi, which in the meantime had become Ghibelline again under the protection of Alessandro Sforza lord of Pesaro. The records say that Niccolò, whose finest quality sure weren’t benevolence and compassion, was so besotted with the city’s beauty that he refused 15,000 Florins by the Commune of Perugia to raze it to the ground and put an end to the rivalry once and for all. Struggles and sieges continued rather regularly, throughout the following century, to then gradually diminish as the Church consolidated its power on the peninsula and Assisi lost its strategical position on the territory. The last restyling of the Rocca was ordered by Pope Paul III in 1535, another prelate with a penchant for conquering. As he did not trust the unruly Umbrian citizens, Paul III reinforced the existing towers and built the circular keep that we see from the top of the slope running from Porta Perlici: only a prelude to his grandiose work of defensive architecture in Umbria: the Rocca Paolina.

In later years the Rocca gradually lost its protective function. At first it was the residence of the castellans appointed to supervise the territory; later it became a prison and then a warehouse.

The inside of the Rocca can be visited. There are very few objects, but through its bare walls, embrasures and narrow passages, it is still possible to imagine all the pain and suffering that this place of war had seen.

Sitting among the terraced olive groves just below the town center, the Sanctuary of San Damiano is probably the place of all the holy places in Assisi that best represents the virtues and values that St Francis left as a legacy to the world. St Damiano sanctuary conserves the spirituality of an entire city because it was, beyond legend, the most important place in the lives of the two most famous saints of Assisi. Here one day Francis, still an upper class ambitious youth, after wandering around the countryside found himself with confused ideas and a strange feeling of inner emptiness. He was rich, strong and launched on a military career, but he felt that this was not enough. He entered the small church, empty and in ruins; the warm cozy atmosphere immediately gave him a little peace. He sat down on one of the pews in front of the altar and saw above it a crucifix. A shaped wooden board, masterfully painted but flat. At the head there was only a semi-circle of wood that protruded from the surface giving a sense of three-dimensions to the face of Jesus. Francis, looking up, observed that the face seemed to lean down towards him when suddenly Christ’s eyes seemed to look at him and his mouth opened: “Vade Francisce, repara domum meam!” (Go, Francis, repair my house). The crucifix, painted in the twelfth century by an unknown artist, is still there where Francis saw it, although it is a copy. The original was taken away by the Clarisse nuns when they moved from the convent of St. Damiano to that of the Basilica of St. Chiara in 1257, where the crucifix can still be seen today.

Jesus had told Francis to go and repair His house. He was given an important mission and his heart was light. At first, Francis wasn’t aware of the significance, and as legend has it, he went to work repairing the St Damiano church, thinking that it was the one Christ was referring to. Sometime later, the boy from Assisi realized that the ‘house’ in question was that of all souls – the Church as an institution, which at that time was going through a serious crisis. With this in mind, he rushed to Foligno, sold his horse and some fabric he had taken from his father’s shop and took the earnings to the priest of San Damiano. The money was refused but Francis was not discouraged. He firmly decided to carry out his mission, and when no one was looking, he threw the money in through a window. You can still see the window inside the church on the right-hand wall, recognizable by the 14th century frescos that frame it in pictures reminiscent of the incident.

St Clare (Santa Chiara) lived in San Damiano for 41 years until her death. Here, thanks to her efforts and to those of her mentor Francis, the nuns order of the Clarisses or the Franciscan Clarist Order was founded. From the aisle you can climb a staircase to the upper floor where you can visit the oratory and the dormitory where the saint drew her last breath.

Like all Franciscan sanctuaries, the external parts are simple and austere. There is a portico on the lower part of the façade composed of three round arches on brick pillars surmounted by a circular rose window. You will realize how very old this structure is as soon as you enter, when you see that the modest aisle is not as wide as the façade. In fact, the front of the church encompasses other buildings and spaces adjacent to the church, a result of continuous modifications, restructuring and modern remodeling that went on over centuries from its beginning in the 8th-9th century, the time it was built.  The interior of the church is not much different from the time when St Francis and St Clare prayed there, especially the apse or oldest part, with a lower vaulted ceiling than over the pews, and containing 16th century wooden choir stalls. Behind it is a small barred window from which St Clare and her sister nuns could hear Mass, hidden from public view since they were cloister nuns. Francis’ body was laid before this alter for a final farewell.  Halfway along the right-hand wall is a rectangular chapel with an invaluable wooden crucifix carved by Innocenza da Petralia in 1637.

Here in San Damiano, the almost blind Francis towards the end of his life wrote the Cantico delle Creature, his first collection of poems in vernacular – that is, in Italian- ever known. Inside the sanctuary there is a small display dedicated to this fact called Galleria del Cantico. Most of the collection is made up of a series of engravings inspired by the Cantico etched by a group of Umbrian master craftsmen, disciples of Father Diego Donati, one of the best lithographers of the 1900s. There is a room dedicated to Diego Donati in the Monteripido Convent in Perugia, where there are over 200 graphic works of the Franciscan master.

On the morning of October 26, 1786, a carriage galloped at full speed through the doors of Assisi. Its destination: the heart of the city, towards the square known today as Piazza del Comune. The carriage made a narrow turn on the dusty cobbles and halted abruptly. The screeching of the wheels resonated along with the neighing of the horses and the bell of the S. Maria sopra Minerva church tolled, as if it was announcing such notable arrival to the peaceful square. Alighting from the carriage a well-dressed man, whose round eyes bulged from beneath an ample forehead protected by the wide brim of the hat that covered his gray mane tamed in a tail. He had come to Assisi to admire one and one thing only. He discovered it in his readings and, since that day, he had been longing for it for years; finally, time had come: standing before his eyes was the Temple of Minerva. One of the most impeccably preserved wonders of the ancient world.

Legend has it that the temple was erected eight centuries before the birth of Rome by Dardanus, a mythological hybrid of Etruscan and Greek culture, predecessor of the founders of Troy. Unfortunately, although any respectable myth always conceals a kernel of truth, this was only a fable narrated by the townsfolk, never supported by historical evidence.  The elegant man was aware that the temple, in the configuration that somehow managed to make its journey through the centuries almost intact, was only built around the First Century A.D., but he also knew the reason why that very spot, which had eluded the meticulousness of historians, was equally important. The temple had indeed been erected there by the Romans because, further in the past, that was already considered a sacred place, maybe due to the presence of certain hot springs, establishing itself throughout the centuries as the cornerstone of the ancestral spirituality that always permeated Assisi, regardless of the peoples and cultures who inhabited it.

One of the secrets to the temple’s preservation was that it never stopped serving a purpose: after the fall of the Empire, it became property of Mount Subasio’s Benedictine monks; during the XIII Century the Municipality turned it into a prison; it was converted into a church again in the XVI Century, named after Saint Donato, before finally becoming, in the course of the following century, the Church of S. Maria sopra Minerva as we know it today.

The man gazed at the temple basking in the warm morning sun. The drawings that he had been studying on Palladio’s books at the Weimar Library did no justice at all to the façade and  prominence of the building. Sixteen metres (52 feet) tall, plus the height of the three statues placed on top of the gable; female sculptures, identical to another one discovered in the Middle Ages during some excavations. The temple was named after Minerva due to that finding, even though, as a votive stone found centuries later would reveal, the temple was in fact dedicated to Hercules. Palladio did not even bother drawing all those holes sprinkled across the gable and the epistyle, above the columns. What were they? The man was initially puzzled but then he immediately realised: they were mounting holes for the bronze letters that formed the inscription in honour of those who built the temple: two brothers,  Gneo Cesio Tirone and Tito Cesio Prisco.

He contemplated that view for hours, standing out there, not feeling any pressure to go inside because he knew exactly what to expect: the nave of a simple and modern baroque church which had been completed a few years before; he was not particularly interested. Nonetheless he decided to venture indoors and his reaction was opposite to the one he had been forecasting. Amongst the golden stuccoes, Francesco Appiani‘s frescoes adorning the vault, and the shining altar that echoed the classical motif of the façade, the man experienced an extraordinary sense of spirituality. Such eternal spirituality which, in this rather unique case, never ceased pervading the structure since the day it was built. Maybe even before that. All of a sudden, he realised that he was standing in what was maybe the longest-living sacred place in the world. The power of its               sacredness kept it safe from invasions, civil wars, famine, and natural catastrophes throughout the millennia. The Crucifix, the angels, and the saints depicted in that space seemed to be permeating, if possible, with an even deeper meaning than the one they were already bearing.

He realised that he had forgotten to take off his hat and he felt ashamed, despite being the only presence in the church in that moment, and quickly rectified his negligence. The wide brim moved the air around it and the light inside the church, mostly coming from a group of candles nearby, flickered for a moment, as if it was trying to divert the attention from an embarrassing circumstance.

Once he was back out in the sun, overwhelmed by the light and his intense contemplative experience, four men, attracted by the splendor of the brand new carriage parked in the middle of the square, were waiting for him.

«Professor!» they urged him «Don’t you want to come see the Cathedral of our beloved Saint Francis? You’ll be amazed by all the art». The man barely acknowledged them:  «Uh? Ehm… no, thanks».

The four were dumbfounded, almost incredulous; their crafty smiles turned immediately turned into suspicious grins. «How come? Not even a small offering for the poor man? That is not gentlemanly at all, Sir».

Johann Wolfgang Goethe gave them a good gaze, he hastily produced a handful of silver scudi from his pocket, handed it to them and quickly jumped back on his carriage which left as fast as it came, wheels screeching and horses neighing.

[Loosely based on J. W. Goethe’s Italian Journey, 1786-87 (1787)]

Of the Roman Temple remain to this day preserved the marble pronaos and other elements recently discovered during the latest excavation works, such as the side walls and the retaining wall of the embankment. The edifice is of the in antis Corinthian Prostilo Temple kind, namely with a pronaos delimited by the walls of the cell on the sides, with six fluted columns resting on tall quadrangular plinths, trabeation and fronton. Giotto portrayed it in the first fresco of the Franciscan series of Basilica Superiore of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the painting called “S. Francesco e l’uomo semplice” (Saint Francis and the simple prayer). The interior of the cell was lost during the first restoration works of the XVI Century. The fresco on the vault of the only nave portrays Saint Filippo Neri in Glory “S. Filippo Neri in Gloria” by Francesco Appiani. The works adorning the lateral altars were painted in the second half of the XVII Century and depict the Death of Saint Andrew of Avellino, “Morte di S. Andrea di Avellino” by Anton Maria Garbi and the Death of Saint Jospeh, “Morte di S. Giuseppe” by the Austrian artist Martin Knoeller. The high altar, decorated as most of the church with golden stucco representations of angels and cherubs, still preserves the painting “Dio con gli angeli” (God with the Angels) by the Assisi painter and architect Giacomo Giorgetti, who also was the Chief of the last renovation works of the interior of the church, which had been completed about twenty years before Goethe’s arrival.

Towards the end of the 13th century, the young town of Assisi purchased three buildings standing on the south side of Piazza Maggiore – known today as Piazza del Comune – to join them together to form one large public building destined to house municipal offices for those who governed the city.

Today Palazzo dei Priori is an elegant complex of white brick buildings built in the characteristic medieval Assisian architectural style – split in the middle by an arch under which one of the main streets of the old town center passes, Via dell’Arco dei Priori. This street descends from the square towards the valley and leads to the Porta del Mojano city gate on the old road to Bettona. The building takes its name from the family that occupied it in the 1330s. The Prioris were representatives to the government of arts and crafts guilds, the equivalent of what are today various associations of workers in different sectors, but they were more powerful, having their judiciary offices on the main floor of the building. As you can understand today when looking at the building, the ground floor had a loggia and was used for shops and studios rented out to artisans and merchants. Rent was necessary due to the high costs of maintenance and costs to accommodate its tenants, who stopped at nothing to find the money for rent. At the back of the building on the ground floor, in the supporting structure that reinforces the building, there are other arched doors similar to those on the front, but smaller and less evident. It was here, in this hidden part of shop backrooms  that a town brothel was ‘opened’ in 1341; twenty years later it was moved to Palazzo Nuovo under the pretty Volta Pinta arch, decorated with refined ‘grotesque’ figures in the 16th century.

In 1442, Niccolò Piccinino, paid by the enemy town Perugia, attacked Assisi with twenty thousand men through an opening in the town’s aqueduct wreaking havoc on the town and slaughtering everyone including women and children. Not even Palazzo Priori escaped and it was seriously damaged; soon, however, Pope Sixtus IV and the cardinals Orsini and Savelli ordered reconstruction of the building. A plaque high on the wall over the Arco dei Priori arch testifies to this fact. In that same period, the palazzo was enlarged and incorporated the Monte di Pietà (a pawn shop) on its right and the residence of the apostolic governor sent directly by the pope to keep better control of the territory – a constant point of contention between the rival towns of Assisi and Perugia, notoriously quarrelsome and unruly.

The Guelph battlements that you see at the top of one of the buildings, like those of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo and Torre Civica (tower) that stand directly opposite it, were added much later and were not present in the medieval period of the palazzo. In fact, they were added during the Fascist period, part of an ambitious project to renovate the square in commemoration of seven hundred years since the death of St Frances.

Inside the building are city administration offices but the palazzo preserves the splendid decorations and family crests in the city council meeting room (Sala del Consiglio e degli Stemmi) painted in the late 1800s when Assisi was annexed to the Realm of Italy; the rooms were frescoed and furnished by Alessandro and Carlo Venanzi, renowned local artists.

The most historically dense part of Assisi you will find is the Piazza del Comune (main square). The many streets of the historical old town center lead out from this ‘intersection,’ where you will see things from all the centuries over time from the early Roman civilization up to today.

On the north side of the square facing the green Assisi valley, you can find alternating in random chronological order the Tempio di Minerva (Minerva’s Temple), the Torre Civica or Torre del Popolo (civic tower or People’s Tower), and the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (Palazzo of the People’s Captain). The latter two are more or less from the same period – late 13th century- when an institutional figure arrived in the young community of Assisi for the first time, a spreading custom in medieval Italy, called the People’s Captain. This person was usually a representative of the new social class known as the popolares, who were mostly citizens of the lower classes who had gained wealth and status through their work – merchants, lawyers, judges, and doctors. The People’s Captain was a counterweight between the common people and the political authorities, people in town government that represented the noble class who had long enjoyed feudal and chivalrous privileges. Along with these in the town council were representatives from the arts and crafts guilds later known as priori, and the gonfalconiers, military leaders from the town’s various parishes.

Next to the Palazzo stands the tall tower at 47 meters (140 feet), which was built originally as a residence for the People’s Captain’s family. Angelo di Latero from Perugia, who was Captain in the mid-1300s, had a stone put in the base of the tower that served as a reference for all the weights and measurements that builders and merchants had to use at that time. Today you can still see the size of bricks, the thickness of floor tiles and roof tiles that were used in town. Next to these are three iron rods that gave the measurements for the equivalents of a ‘yardstick’, a ‘foot’ and a ‘palm width’ used mainly to measure fabric in commercial business.

In the 16th century, the tower was given up to become a hearing room for the Board of Notaries Public, who were another powerful group in municipal government. Evidence of this is visible on the large door, carved especially for the occasion, where you can see at the top some instruments used by the notaries: a book, inkwell and quill. Later a wooden door was commissioned in the same model as that in Perugia at the Exchange Office.

Over time, the rooms in the tower and palazzo have served many different purposes. Today, a portion of these rooms are used as a carabinieri police office, a reminder that after eight centuries the building still has an important institutional role in city administration. On entering the Piazza del Comune, the sight that will attract your attention immediately is precisely the tower –because of its height and medieval appearance, but also because of the impressive Ghibelline battlements that decorate the roofs of the two adjacent buildings. The irony is that what characterizes the antiquity of these buildings is actually the most recent addition. In fact, the crenellations were part of a rash restoration project coordinated by the architect Ruggero Antonelli in 1926 to commemorate 700 years since the death of St Frances; the Palazzo dei Priori opposite the tower was also involved in the project. Originally, contrary to what one may think, these roofs were not adorned with battlements, considered architectural elements most suited to fortresses or defense structures, not civic administration buildings; the original roofs were normal peaked roofs. These projects were, let’s say, clever ways to exploit our interest in and imagination of the Middle Ages; the works actually altered the authenticity but they enhanced the impact that the beauty and charm of these sites hold for visitors. Many people might prefer an authentic peaked roof to the charming recent battlements; but now you know, so decide for yourself – that’s the important thing.

The road that winds through the woods leading up to the Eremo delle Carceri (Carceri Hermitage) passes by one of the oldest and most obscure buildings on Mount Subasio, hidden among the dense vegetation. The St Benedict Abbey (Abbazia di S. Benedetto) peeks out unexpectedly from the dense brush just beyond a curve in the road and appears suddenly in all its grandeur. Its position, though out of sight, still dominates the valley below, revealing its strategic importance and the fundamental role it played in the past in having control over this territory.

Its origins are lost in the course of the early Middle Ages, too unclear and undocumented to be able to date it exactly. The only elements available to help give an age to the structure are from stories written by 17th century authors like Vitale and Iacobilli, who claim – with perhaps a bit too much optimism – that the abbey existed at the time of St. Benedict. But when visiting the crypt, called a triastila, which refers to the particular layout of the space containing three carved columns that form a mysterious triangle in the center, you realize right away that the floor tiled with very small red bricks in a herringbone pattern you are standing on is obviously ancient. A recent interpretation is that the crypt is from the 7th-8th centuries and was once a Christian chapel, a restructuring of a pre-existing pagan temple.

A few vague historical notions began to appear in the second half of the 11th century when the building was under the powerful and prosperous Abbey of Farfa in Sabina; it was used as the administration center for the Benedictine order for the surrounding area. Confirmed facts began with the privileges granted by Popes Eugene III and Alexander III in the 12th century and then again in the next century when the structure passed under control of the Cistercian monks; later it became a hideout for bandits banished from Assisi because of frequent quarrels between rival families. This became a problem for governing bodies because the bandits could easily plan their revenge undisturbed and not far from the town. The abbey soon ceased to be a place of worship and became a coveted military stronghold. In fact, in the 14th century it was partially destroyed under orders of the Gonfalonier of Assisi, then it was taken over by the army from Perugia. Little more than the chapel remained of the old monastery. Even the bell tower was lost, the only traces of which can be seen in a fresco by Giotto in the Upper Church (Basilica Superiore), included among the portrayals of stories about St Frances. Once the armies had left, the structure was abandoned and neglected for over two hundred years; it was then taken over and restructured by various orders of monks one after the other. In 1945 the Benedictine monks of St Peter of Assisi took possession of it and began twenty years of works and remodeling giving it the look it has today. Earthquakes in recent years in this area compromised the stability of several structures, but the monks went back to work to restore the beauty of this important piece of our historical and cultural heritage.

The monastery includes several buildings for the convent and of course the church. The church is in an austere Romanesque style with a single aisle and a raised presbytery. The ceiling has collapsed and the interior is quite impressive. A Romanesque crypt is below the presbytery, divided by five short aisles bordered by columns with beautifully carved capitals. Wandering around the presbytery you will see a slab over a tomb with an engraving probably depicting the person buried there – an abbot with a crosier and wearing a miter. Moving further along the corridors with rock vaulted ceilings, you will find the entrance to the heart of the abbey – the triastila crypt, described above, which is square with a semicircular apse. An altar or perhaps a sarcophagus might have once been in the triangular area bordered by columns. A definite air of antiquity and mystery will surround you and will not abbandon you until you return to the floor above.

One of the best things to tick off on your Assisi wish list is to explore the part of the ancient city that remains hidden and mysterious to most of its tourists. Without detracting from the fabulous churches and buildings on ground level, a fascinating and extraordinary underground world exists in the city, yearning to emerge from the darkness and claim some well-deserved recognition. Every day a small section of Roman and pre-Roman Assisi is unearthed and the Domus del Lararium is one such recent find, with excavations and studies on this amazing site still on-going.

In 2001, during work carried out under Palazzo Giampè to install a lift, the remains of ancient stuccoes from Roman capitals attracted the attention of builders. Thorough investigations were carried out and what emerged from the basement of the building – where the court is located now – went beyond all expectations. The capitals were part of three columns measuring four metres high and dating back to the 1st century, when the Roman territories were under the rule of Emperor Nero. They were columns from the inner courtyard, also called peristyle, typical of a Roman domus (aristocratic residence). Given the shape and size of the peristyle, it was assumed that at least thirteen other rooms were built around it, a treasure that could not remain concealed. First a living room was discovered and immediately after a triclinium, a must-have furnishing in a Roman house, where much of its social life took place, eating and chatting whilst in a relaxed reclining position. Scholars came up against numerous obstacles, both economic and structural, whilst carrying out the excavations. The 17th-century buildings above the domus did not rest their foundations on the Roman walls and columns, as often happens, but simply on earth banks. The designers probably didn’t even notice what was under their feet when they laid the first stones. The domus has thereby been perfectly preserved over the centuries, but scholars were not able to bring it entirely to light due to the risk of collapse of the structures above.

Dogged by difficulties and delays, efforts continued and finally, almost ten years after the initial discovery, they were handsomely repaid. A bedroom or cubiculum emerged from the bowels of the earth, revealed in all its splendour. The room probably belonged to the mistress of the house, given the furnishings and the objects found. The bright red colour on the walls was very well preserved, interrupted only by refined cycles of wall paintings representing the nuptials of an enamoured couple and four elegant ladies who observe a fifth, intent on assisting the ablutions aided by a maid. On the ground, archaeologists found a number of hairgrips and an oscillum, a large talisman made of marble and half-moon shaped which, hung from the ceiling and swaying in the wind, was tasked with protecting the house and bringing good luck. The small sculpture was lying on a precious mosaic floor made of black and white tiles, split in two. The profiles of the two sculpted faces that decorated the half-moon no longer looked at each other. The talisman was probably broken in ancient times, having fallen to the ground during a sudden, tumultuous event that led the domus being evacuated at speed by its inhabitants. Whether caused by a water leak from a nearby cistern or something else, the inhabitants evidently had to leave their home in a hurry without the chance to rescue their belongings.

The theory of an impromptu escape is also evidenced by another element that is so characterful and strange for a site of this kind as to underpin its name. On the threshold of the cubiculum, on a small terracotta altar, was a small statue that remained standing for centuries. The altar was a lararium (shrine) – hence the name of the domus –  and the statue depicted a ‘lare’: a Roman divinity whose task was to protect the house, the family and its activities. Nothing could have been more important inside a domus, so whatever led the residents to flee without first seizing the precious statue must have been just as important.

The archaeologists who entered the domus for the first time after two thousand years were able to relive that precise moment, as if it had been frozen, along with everything else, in space and time.

The Piazza del Comune in Assisi is one of the most beautiful and historically significant squares in Umbria for a very specific reason: all the historical, artistic and cultural heritage visible on the surface is replicated to the same extent, if not more so, underground. The square’s brick paving sits on overlapping levels of rock and centuries-old layers of built structures, starting from when the first civilization, the Umbrians, colonized these lush green hills for the first time in the 6th-7th century BC. The Forum (Foro Romano), the hub of city life, was built in Assisi in the years straddling BC/AD at the behest of a number of wealthy patrons. Today, after almost twenty-one centuries, it is still partly visible.

The entrance to the underground part of this sublime city is in Via Portica, heading downwards a few dozen metres where the access door is, naturally, the crypt of a church (a perfect emblem of the union of ancient and subterranean), that of the Chiesa S. Nicolò. This is not just an access point but an actual museum because since 1934, it has housed Assisi’s municipal archaeological collection. There are beautiful, well-preserved sarcophagi, cinerary urns and some inscribed stone slabs, which are the most important and information-rich historical ‘documents’ we have about the ancient history of the city.

A small opening in the crypt wall leads to the Forum. The exhibition space was completely renovated in 2008. The set-up and lighting system were updated, and a long suspended glass walkway was built across the whole room, measuring over 100 metres in length. While it was a necessary device from a conservation point of view, it does remove the privilege of those who, until a few years ago, could lay their feet on the same stones trodden by our ancestors. Although underground, we have to imagine a large open space, lit by the white plastered travertine and protected by the monumental Tempio di Minerva, which is much higher than we see it today, given that the floor was at least five metres below its present position. Walking along the footbridge, on our right and left, there are stone slabs and epigraphs, funerary mementos recovered from the necropolis of the district that would certainly not have been here 2000 years ago. They were placed here to symbolize the citizens who populated the forum at that time: those who came to trade and sell the produce of their part of the countryside, to attend or participate in public assemblies, or to give thanks to the gods. There are also the remains of the tribunal, a stone structure composed of seats where the city’s magistrates took the most important decisions. Behind the tribunal there is a wall, which we must ‘see’, with some stretch of the imagination, covered with white plaster and studded with floral decorations and bronze garlands. This was the wall which, thanks to two openings, led to the staircase of the Temple, which remained hidden. Stretching our imagination further, we could see ourselves standing there in the 1st century, admiring the Temple, which we would see emerging from the wall without understanding what lies below, making it seem almost suspended in the air.

Turning around, with our back to the temple, we would have seen another very important monument that formed part of the town’s religious life: the Tempio dei Dioscuri Castore and Polluce (Castor and Pollux), the demi-god sons of Jupiter. Today only the base and a large perfectly-preserved inscription remain, indicating the names of the its commissioners, well-exposed to the sight of passers-by.

Further along the path is one of the many cisterns that must have dotted the ancient city. Although Assisi was famous in antiquity for its numerous springs and its restorative waters, rainwater still made a crucial contribution to the water supply. There were four water collection tanks in the forum’s piazza alone, of which only two remain today. The little drainage gullies that used to carry the water to the tanks are still clearly visible today.

Exploring further, the exhibition path leads to two spaces that were to act as tabernae, that is, shops where basic necessities were sold and where the inhabitants stopped to eat during the day. The exhibition terminates with a display of marble statues, including one of the probable Dioscuri that were housed in the Temple of Castor and Pollux.

A visit to the Forum and the Archaeological Collection is a must for anyone visiting Assisi and reminds us once again that the city is an endless treasure trove of history and culture. And, as in the case of any self-respecting treasure hunt, the further you venture, the more surprises emerge.

Despite having been almost exclusively a destination for pilgrimages and spiritual journeys for centuries, Assisi also offers a wide range of alternative activities that can be enjoyed both inside and outside of the city walls. An often overlooked feature is that the district of Assisi is part of Mount Subasio’s National Park, a beautiful and full-featured park where nature blooms in all its glory. If you like trekking and excursions, well… you are in luck! A myriad of well marked, walkable paths winding throughout the whole surface of Mount Subasio will lead you to the discovery of the park’s most beautiful secrets. A number of “rocks” or “cliffs” such as Sasso Piano (Flat Rock) or Sasso  Rosso (Red Rock), geological formations that surface from the scrub drawing a beautiful landscape overlooking the valley, sprout from the south slope of the mountain. From the mountaintop, 1290 metres (42,000 ft) above sea level, you can enjoy a spectacular 360° view that frames the whole ridge of the Umbro-Marchigiano Apennines and, on a clear day, one can see it stretching southwards up to the sumptuous Gran Sasso. Just take short walk from there and reach one of the most astonishing attractions of the region: the Mortari, Giant chasms of karstic origin spreading throughout the whole summit, that dive into the core of the mountain up to 60 metres (200 ft). Also known as dolinas, were once believed to be the dormant mouths of a primordial volcano. The Mortaro Grande has a diameter of 260 metres (850 ft). With a little bit of dedication and good legs one can easily reach the bottom for a very unique experience, beware of vertigo though!

Keep following those very paths to find the remains of the old abbeys and churches that were once shelter to monks and solitary hermits: the Abbey of S. Benedetto al Subasio and Eremo delle carceri are most popular of the lot. If you are tired you can take a break and grab a bite in one of the tiny medieval villages secluded in the woods, such as Collepino, Armenzano or Costa di Trex. A little farther downhill, you can take a splash in river Tescio or, if you are feeling adventurous, embark on an exciting canyoning session at Forra del Ponte Marchetto with a specialised tour guide.

If you are interested and have some time to spare, why not following Saint Francis’ footsteps along the Via di Francesco, a fascinating and thrilling path which leads north towards the mystical sanctuary La Verna, in Tuscany, and south towards Rome. You can also do it on foot or by bicycle, just remember that it will take some time.

If you are not a fan of walking you can explore the park on the back of a horse and, if you’re still yearning for excitement, how about reaching for the skies and gaze upon the valley of Assisi from from a paraglider?

do you want to know more?

ETRUSCAN-UMBRIAN PERIOD

The legend ascribes the origin of Assisi to Dardanus, a mythological hybrid whose descendants founded the city of Troy. According to the myth, he had built the city eight centuries before Rome was founded and, to give thanks to Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, handicraft, and warfare he erected a temple in her honour. The very same temple that to this day sits in the city square and – despite housing the church of S. Maria sopra Minerva – is the most important testimony of the classical period of Assisi.

The Asisinates were probably the first direct descendants of modern-day Assisians. They are included amongst the populations belonging to the Umbrian People by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia, written in the middle of the First Century A.D. The Roman historian and writer maintains that the Umbrians were one of the most ancient peoples in Italy. Assisi was therefore Umbrian and experienced a perpetual relation and conflict with the Etruscan Perugia up to the III Century B.C. when both cities passed under Roman rule. The influence of the Roman Res Publica put a temporary end to the clash between the two neighbouring and almost specular cities, but the rivalry never really ended and it would mark the entire history of the region. The Romans, in their infinite wisdom, never established a direct rule and let the Marones – indigenous Umbrian magistrates – administer the city with a certain degree of autonomy. Assisi became a civitas foederata, meaning allied community, since the beginning of the first century B.C.

Tracing back the steps of pre-Roman Assisi is a rather strenuous but very exciting task. The remains of the Umbrian and Etruscan civilisations, after more than two millennia, became rarer and rarer; but there is always a lead and it starts from the archaeological collection of the Roman Forum in the middle of the city square, which hosts an exhibition of inscriptions, and the Diocesan Museum of the S. Rufino Cathedral, where you will find beautiful architectural sculptures called Antefisse, still embedded in the foundations of the parsonage.

ROMAN PERIOD

Soon Christianity spread throughout Roman Assisi and its first martyrs appeared, above all Rufinus. Rufinus was the first bishop of the city and he came to Rome in the Fourth Century from a Turkish province to preach the gospel, facing the opposition of the authorities. When consul Aspasius learned about him, he sentenced the bishop to torture and had him thrown in the Chiasco river, near the village of Costano, with a millstone tied to his neck. Today Rufinus is the patron saint of Assisi and the cathedral that bears his name and hosts his tomb is one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful.

With all probability, already during the first Imperial Age, Assisi was renowned for its therapeutical air, due to the sacredness and healthiness of the land. Many aristocratic groups who lived in Rome had houses built here in order to control property, basically making Assisi their holiday resort. This led to the rise of Liberti, meaning freed slaves, who administered properties in the city on behalf of the owners. A famous example is the case of Publio Decimio Eros Merula who was a surgeon, optician, and benefactor for the city. He made donations to pave the streets and restore statues in the Temple of Hercules, as inscribed on the epigraph displayed in the archaeological collection of the Roman Forum.

As opposed to previous civilisations, the Romans left very recognisable traces in Assisi. In the underground of Piazza del Comune, Assisi’s city square, the Roman Forum can still be visited and is in excellent conditions. The Forum was not supposed to be the centre of the settlement, which developed farther upstream, but rather a sanctuary to celebrate the waters that, with all probability, poured directly into the temple. Going back from the square you will find other Roman ruins, such as the perimeter wall of a cistern, the remains of an aqueduct, a theatre ‒ now privately owned ‒ and an amphitheatre. Finding the amphitheatre on foot is not the easiest task; If you look at how buildings are arranged around Piazza Matteotti on a map you’ll easily pin-pot the site: today’s houses are built on the foundations of the amphitheatre and they are organised in the typical Roman elliptical section.

But the most prominent personality of Roman culture in Assisi is indubitably Propertius, one of the greatest poets of the Classical Period. Probably born in Assisi’s countryside, in the fraction of Collemancio, his Elegies would become, especially during the Neoclassical Period, a lyrical milestone that inspired the likes of Ariosto, Tasso and Goethe. If you want to know more about him, just pay a visit to the Domus Sesto Properzio, under the crypt of the Church of S. Maria Maggiore. There you can admire ancient and beautiful frescoes and the inscription that helped researchers link those places to the house where the poet lived during his youth, before moving to Rome.

MIDDLE AGES

After the fall of the Roman empire, also Assisi would inevitably be sucked into the downward spiral of the Middle Ages. During the X, VI, and VII Century, the traces of the passage of Germanic populations – due to a limited use of writing and poor building techniques – become increasingly scarce.

All we know is that with the end of the Roman rule, which is conventionally set to 476 A.D., Assisi falls into a turbulent and dark period which, save for some short brakes, would wear out the city until the unification of Italy. Sieges and occupations would alternate incessantly since the beginning, starting with the initial conflict between Germanic and Byzantine populations. At first Theoderic the Great’s Gothic Stronghold, the city then passed under the influence of the Byzantine General Belisarius, in 545 Assisi is invaded by Totila‘s Ostrogoths, just to be back in Byzantine hands a few years later with Narses in 552. The end of the VI Century marks the beginning of a period of relative peace under Alboin, king of the Longobards and the annexation of the city to the Duchy of Spoleto.  Two centuries later, the Longobard Kingdom will fall under the sword of Charlemagne and his impressive army. The rule of the Franks and the new Carolingian Empire seem not to have left any trace in the city, while being rather evident in the peripheral areas where the never-ending wars forced the governors to defend their cities with encastellation systems. Many of the castles at the feet of the hill, and the enchanting little villages that rose around them, were erected around this period. The castles of Torchiagina, Tordandrea, Castelnuovo, Sterpeto and Petrignano are some of the settlements that began to develop during this time and represented the first line of defence for the city.

This system lasted until 1174, when the troops of the German emperor Federico Barbarossa, after conquering the majority of Northern Italy, broke into Assisi. Coming from a family that knew a thing or two about castle construction techniques (his nephew, Federico II, built Castel del Monte), he gave order to erect the castle of Rocca Maggiore for his brief stay.

THE MEDIEVAL COMMUNE

But even the Rocca castle was impotent against the powers that were raising in Italy at the time. One one hand Pope Innocent III and his expansionist campaign in Central Italy, on the other the other the communal institutions that were spreading throughout the region. In 1198 a popular uprising dismissed the imperial power establishing a communal government in Assisi, with its consuls and the Capitano del popolo (captain of the people); it goes without saying that ecclesiastical institutions where behind all that. This is pretty much when the endless rivalry between the Guelphs – endorsed by the Pope – and the Ghibellines – advocating imperial power – begins. The same dynamic applied to the juxtaposition between Perugia and Assisi: at times one was Guelph and the other Gibelline, some other times it was the opposite.

In the meantime, between 1181 and 1182 in a small house in the city centre, where now sits the church of Chiesa Nuova, Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone was born. He would become the most important man of Assisi and one of the most famous personalities of the western world. If that name does not sound familiar to you, maybe this would ring a bell: Francis. Saint Francis of Assisi.

It would be arduous to cover in these pages the life and deeds of the man who single-handedly revolutionised – and in all likelihood saved from a never-ending crisis – the Catholic Church through the return to values such as peace, pauperism and fraternity. There is no better way to know the story of Francis than exploring his home town. In each church you visit, each street you walk, each artwork you enjoy, you will discover a new chapter of his fascinating story. In the myths and deeds that have been preserved in his hagiography you will discovery the sanctity and importance of the values of which he was the bearer, in his life events and historical records you will find the beauty and simplicity of the Everyman.

During the period immediately following Francis’ death in 1226 and his canonisation two years later, the Seraphic City reaches its artistic and cultural peak. All of a sudden the streets are flocking with pilgrims from all walks of life, from the poor and the leaper, to the prince and the cardinal. Painters, sculptors, makers, and artists of all sorts come from all over the world creating a melting-pot of different cultures and artistic styles.

The places we now admire in awe would have never been that wonderful if a man, shortly after Francis’ death, had not fought to build them so magnificently. Elia of Cortona, friar of the monastic order founded by the Saint, went to great lengths to build the two Churches dedicated to Francis: Basilica Inferiore and Basilica Superiore. The principles of humility and frugality preached by Francis and followed by his order sparked a very long and heated debate on how the institutes bearing his name should be built. If it hadn’t been for Elia, instead of the Basilicas of Saint Francis, Basilica of Saint Clare, Basilica di S. Maria degli Angeli, and many other wonderful and majestic Franciscan Monuments, we would have small and anonymous buildings, free from any form of embellishment or precious objects, as the Rule provided. Thankfully things went differently. One could play a game while walking around the city and imagine how it would have looked if the Franciscan Rule had been observed, wondering whether and how this would have affected the history of the city, Italy, and the Church itself.

Only the Franciscan experience managed to give back a few decades of peace and serenity to the city. But soon enough hostility, resentment, and violence between the two factions were resumed at full capacity in a rising spiral of brutality. In 1319, due to the continuous raids of Muzio Brancaleoni‘s Ghibellines, the whole city was excommunicated by Pope John XXII in person depriving its citizens of sacraments and Christian burials for over 30 years. Later the city fell back under the pontifical aegis again with Cardinal Albornoz who, in order to avoid the uprising of the heretic rebels, reinforced the city walls and fortifications, adding the castle of Rocca Minore, connecting it with Rocca Maggiore via a long corridor.

Towards the end of the XIV Century, internal struggles are back harsher than ever: The rivalry between the two fractions, the Guelphs lead by the Nepis family and the Ghibellines under the command of Guglielmo di Carlo (Muzio Brancaleoni’s nephew), liteerally split the city in two; the Parte di Sopra, the upper part that includes the quarters of Porta Perlici, S. Chiara and S. Maria Maggiore and the Parte di Sotto, the bottom part incorporating S. Francesco, S. Giacomo and S. Pietro. The separation is so pronounced that the city will remain split forever. To this day, once a year,  history is revived in the Calendimaggio celebrations; but worry not, you will not risk your life or excommunication.

RENAISSANCE

Not even the prosperous age of Renaissance, which blessed the whole peninsula with culture and beauty, could bring peace to the Umbrian city. Throughout the whole XV Century Assisi is torn apart by the frequent raids of Perugian warlords who take over the city on many occasions and are cyclically thrown out by the allies of the Papal States, such as the Sforza and Montefeltro. In 1398 Braccio Fortebraccio da Montone invaded the city with the intention of going back to Perugia from where he had been recently exiled.  In 1442 Niccolò Piccinino, with the help of a treasonous friar, managed to get past the city walls and destroy everything on his path. Legend has it that, dazzled by Assisi’s beauty he refused the 15,000 Florins that the Commune of Perugia offered him to raze it to the ground.

Assisi was on its knees, destroyed and deserted. Around the end of the century the internal clashes are resumed one more time. The Guelph Parte di Sopra, supporting the Baglioni family and the Ghibelline Parte di Sotto, fighting along with the Oddi family. And again, at the beginning of the new century, it will be the turn of the Valentine, Cesare Borgia, to wreck havoc with it; on the pretext of returning the city to the Pope he ransacks and destroys any church he can get his hands on.

If this was not enough, besides the tragically famous epidemic of 1348, between 1416 and 1526 twenty-six outbursts of plague had been recorded. An average of one every four years, during which time citizens were forced to abandon the city tempting fate through the hardships of the countryside or mountainous regions, or stay and face certain death. With the first half of the XVI Century, Assisi officially becomes part of the Pope States entering a new peaceful but, paradoxically, even poorer era.

MODERN AGE

The period of relative peace and stability in the Franciscan city would last for about two centuries, until the rise of a new threat for Italy: Napoléon Bonaparte. Between the end of the XVIII and the beginning of the XIX Century, Assisi was occupied by the French troops who ravaged the city churches stripping them from their treasures and several works of art. According to the records, more than 500 Kilos (1,000 pounds) of wrought silver were stolen from the Basilica of Saint Francis alone. During the first years of the XIX Century the city was incredibly poor, there were no signs of industrial or commercial activity of any kind and most people had fled. The majority of citizens moved to the countryside, hoping to survive by joining the only economy available: agriculture. Making things worse, in 1832 a brutal earthquake tore down the city, heavily damaging most of its monuments; only the Basilica of Saint Francis could escape such fate. The dome of Basilica di S. Maria degli Angeli collapsed, but the Porziuncola – priceless site of Franciscan history – was miraculously spared. What made the phoenix rise from the ashes and reawaken the cultural and economical spirit of the city was, once again, a sacred event for the Franciscan Cult: the finding of the bodies of Francis and Clare. In 1818, by order of Pope Pius VII, after 52 nights of hard work the body of Francis was exhumed from underneath the altar of Basilica Inferiore.  The news spread all around the world attracting millions of pilgrims, devotees or ordinary visitors curios to see the remains of the famous saint, which were being displayed in the Basilica’s crypt. The remains of Saint Clare, Francis’ disciple and protegée and founder of the Franciscan female order of the Poor Clares, were found a few years later in 1850.

Down the cobbled streets, amongst restaurants and gift-shops, it is very easy to run into artist studios or ateliers where the finest objects are crafted. These are not mere businesses, but art forms that have been passed down from generation to generation and, in some cases, typical examples of local culture and traditions. A notable example is iron and copper working, through which unique objects and beautiful medieval weapons are crafted; woodworking,  particularly olive wood – which has been cultivated from time immemorial and thrives in these areas – is used for crafting refined objects and sacred art reproductions. One of the most famous objects of Assisi is the Tau, a pendant in the shape of the 19th letter of the Greek Alphabet originating from the Taw of the of the Semitic abjads. A symbol of ancient Christian tradition very dear to Francis, who used it as a signature on his letters.

If you like textiles, you’ll be glad to know that Assisi is the birthplace of a unique stitching technique, unsurprisingly called Assisi stitch or Franciscan stitch. In the city centre you will find many ateliers where this very distinctive technique, due to its “negative” style decorations, is applied; also upon commission.  The shapes, inspired by Gothic and Romanesque architecture and decorations, are stitched tracing the contours. This ancient technique has been employed since the XVI Century by nuns living in the many cloisters across the city. Although, in modern times, this tradition risked to disappear. Luckily, thanks to people like the noblewoman Elisabetta Locatelli Pucci – who in 1903 opened a special stitching workshop that she included in the Cooperative for Italian Female Industries (a prestigious entrepreneurial association of the time) – the practice survived. The Assisi stitch and its ancient tradition were safe. From that day forward, many schools opened and this tradition also became a relevant source of revenue.

In the XVI Century, in his report to the pope, a pontifical functionary, wrote that, despite being tormented by war and famine for centuries, Assisi «shall beyond any city in Umbria be hight happy, sith of wheat, wine and oil and other meat has aplenty above all others and of delicious fruits […]». We knew that eating opens the door to happiness, now we know that Assisi has had the key for centuries.

What makes the food of this land so unique is undoubtedly its relationship with history, the antiquity of traditions and know-how through which the crop is brought from the farm to the table. A few centuries later, another document drafted by an agrarian committee appointed by the Kingdom of Italy reads: «the diet of sharecrop farmers predominantly consists of […] flatbread or savoury tarts cooked in a disc of fireclay heated on the fire at a rather high temperature». Over a century later, this technique is still used by bakers in Assisi to make Torta al testo, one of the more typical regional products.

Another speciality of Assisi is olive oil. The city is part of the Assisi-Spoleto olive strip, an area comprising five different municipalities which is a unique example of landscapes where, for centuries, human intervention – with over 40 kilometres (25 miles) of olive groves along the slopes of the Spoletana Valley – was able to seamlessly combine with environmental protection and land preservation in a perfect balance. In 2018, the olive strip was recognised as agricultural heritage of world relevance by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In case you need more evidence that here food makes people happy, you can take a trip around the villages at the feet of Assisi, which regularly hold thematic food festivals with typical products. Need some examples? Well… torta al testo with sausage and cooked vegetables, fried goose, stew snails, porchetta di Costano spit-roasted pork, boar stew, Cannara red onion Parmigiana, spaghetti with Subasio caciotta and truffle. These are just some of the regional delicacies you’ll be able to enjoy. Feeling happier already?

Assisi is even more than its beautiful sites, it is also a very lively city! The administration and citizens are always organising events and cultural exhibitions of all sorts. There is always a concert to attend, from the traditional Christmas Concert, held in the Basilica Superiore of Saint Francis and broadcasted all over Europe, to the Riverock Festival dedicated to the most innovative and emerging national and international artists. There are also several culinary events, including “Sagre” (traditional Italian food festivals ideal to experience the local delicacies), plays, and cultural events held in the beautiful city theatres such as the Metastasio or the Lyrick.

If you are visiting Assisi between the end of April and the beginning of May, you will find people in medieval garments flocking the streets performing dances and songs at the powerful and ancestral rhythm of tambourine bands. That is Calendimaggio, one of the oldest historical re-enactments in Umbria which will make you travel back to the late XIV Century, when the rivalry between the two opposing factions was at its peak. The Nobilissima Parte de Sopra, lead by the Nepis family, was siding with the Italian Ghibelline Forces supporting the Emperor. The Magnifica Parte de Sotto, under the aegis of the Fiume family, was fighting with the Guelph Army supporting the temporal power of the Pope.

But every year, during the “Kalends” (the cycle of the new moon) of May, hostilities were paused throughout the whole city to celebrate the arrival of Spring, the rebirth of nature and propitiate an abundant crop. Seven centuries later, Assisi can recreate that thrilling, vivacious, and unique experience.

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