NOTHING BETTER THAN ENJOYING A BEAUTIFUL VIEW FROM THE UPPER CHURCH (BASILICA SUPERIORE)
Our visit to Assisi should be motivated by two purposes: an artistic one and a spiritual one. But we cannot set aside what nature has to offer as we will enjoy the most beautiful view there is in the wonderful region of Umbria.
We will get to see this sights from the large square that is located in front of the Upper Church (Basilica Superiore), built at an altitude of 424 meters, on the slope of Monte Subasio. On this large, 1290 meters high rock which is part of the Apennine Mountains, the city of Assisi was built.But let´s go back to the Upper Church Square.
It is impossible to avoid taking our eyes off the facade of the slender Basilica. It presents a large rose window and a Gothic portal, which gives way to one of the most beautiful churches in Italy. Looking at the balustrade of the square, we will see at our feet the gigantic arcaded Lower Church (Basilica Inferiore) Square. Looking up the winding road that we took to reach the city, we will admire the wonderful Umbrian countryside plenty of cereal plantings and centuries-old olive trees. We will also see the small village of Santa María degli Angeli where the figure of its Basilica stands out.
It was built during the XVI and XVII centuries and it is, undoubtedly, one of the holiest places for the Franciscan congregation because the Porziuncularemains are located inside it. It was a small IV century church where at a very young age, Francis found his vocation.
It is easy to reach it, we should start in Piazza Giovanni Paolo II´s coach park and go up Guglielmo Marconi Street. After passing Porta San Francesco, and turning left on Frate Elia Street, we will reach the great Lower Church Square. We only have to climb a staircase located at the bottom of this square and we will reach the Upper Church Square. Here we can enjoy this inspiring view of calm and peace that will leave us indelible memories of our passage through Assisi.
WE DON´T JUST FEED THE SPIRIT...
No doubt, hearing about the austerity and poverty that characterised St Francis’ life, we will think that he was a vegetarian, but he was not. Even when he lived begging and ate what people gave to him, he had his favourite dishes. He loved shrimp cake and especially a freshwater fish, pike. He liked cheeses, soups, pork and his favourite dessert was almond cake.
The Franciscan Regula non bullataarrives till nowadays. It was approved by Pope Innocent III, where it is said that "friars must live in the love of Christ and their neighbours in absolute poverty and joyful freedom by feeding on the things that God will give us and using all the food that men can eat".
But let´s see what typical dishes we can eat in Assisi, the Umbrian Region heart.
Without a doubt, to start we should try theTaglieri di Salumi. Always served on a wooden board it presents a variety of cold meats, cheeses and hams. It always include Porchettameat, a typical dish from this region. The dish comes from roasting a whole pork without its bones in a wood oven seasoned with a mixture of garlic, fennel, thyme, rosemary, salt and white wine.
If you prefer something lighter to start with, you cannot miss theBruschette. They are thin slices of toasted bread bound with black truffle, white truffle or duck liver, a classic dish in the Umbrian kitchens.
Now let´s move on to the main course. We already know that the pasta cannot be missing at an Italian table and each region has its speciality. In Assisi,certainly theStrangozziare the speciality. They are thicker and larger than the typical spaghetti,and they are served accompanied by"tartufo nero", the famous black truffle located in Norcia, a nearby municipality in the Perugia region.
You could also try the Penne alla Norcina. This short hard grain pasta is accompanied by the typical sauce of Assisi. The secret of this delicious dish is to use in its sauce the following ingredients: Nursia sausage, cream, onion, white wine, olive oil and, of course, a good pecorino cheese.
But something will be missing if we don´t try some Assisi´s typical desserts. Let´s start with theBaci di Assisi (Kisses from Assisi), small biscuit balls made with almond paste and decorated with fine almond slices. At present, nuns also prepare them with chocolate, pistachio or pastry cream: a delicacy.
And you should not forget the famous Rocciata di Assisi, this dessert is prepared for All Saints Day as a pre-Christmas dessert. It is a kind of Strudelalthough more consistent. The ingredients of it are flour, sugar, cinnamon, fruits, wine and raisins. Nowadays, it is easy to find all year round.
There are many places to taste these dishes in Assisi. Our steps can take us to Piazza del Comune(Communal Square), remember Minerva Temple? There are several restaurants that will serve them accompanied by a good local wine, made with Sangioveseor Trebianno grapes.
THE TAU CROSS
For sure, your suitcases will be full of souvenirs from those cities you have already visited. But you have to make a little room to carry with you something as dear and characteristic of Assisi as is the Tau Cross.
What is its origin? And what is its link with the Franciscan Order?
TAU is the name of the letter T in the Greek alphabet and also the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its crossbar at the highest point forms two right angles, the evolution of the so-calledCruz Simplex,used by the Romans for the defendants and prisoners of war crucifixion. By not having the lowest crossbar as the Latin cross, that T cross did not allow the "titulus" to be placed (a small poster where the prisoner’s name and the reasons for its punishment were written).
Already in the Old Testament the Tau Cross is named as a sign that, placed on the forehead of the poor of Israel, saved them from extermination. It will be adopted by the first Christians for two reasons, because being the Hebrew alphabet last letter, like the letter Omega in the Greek alphabet, is the last day prophecy representation: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end..." And secondly, because its shape remembered the cross on which Christ suffered his martyrdom.
It is therefore a Christian devotion symbol and one of commitment to Christ. Is a protection against evil and a sign of recognition for Christians.
For these reasons, St. Francis had great appreciation for this cross, adopting it for its biblical and spiritual value as his signature and his personal seal in the letters he wrote, also using it for his cures and healings.
The Tau Cross will not be difficult to be found in the many Franciscan souvenir shops throughout the city. Via Frate Elia Street takes us to the Basilica and that is a good place to buy them. But it must be made of wood, poor and noble material that is easily worked, thus referencing the cross where Jesus Christ died, made with wood from the tree where Adam sinned.
THE UPPER CHURCH INTERIOR
Staying in the Upper Basilica central nave is something that we will never forget and a photo there will remind us of the wonders that we found. Such an abundance of beauty and colour deserves its history to be known in order to remember what we had in front of us. Its construction began only 3 years after the Saint’s death in the mid XIII century. It is, therefore, an early Gothic architecture example, which although inspired by French Gothic style, it does not incorporate a large number of side openings covered with stained glass windows because the Upper Church does not need them for its lighting, sun in the Umbrian region provides the necessary natural light. But these stained-glass windows, even few, are very important.
They represent Old Testament scenes and are the most complete stain-glass windows collection in Italy, even if they were done by German artists.What is striking is that in the place that these large windows should occupy we find wonderful frescoes painted in the late XIII century. A total of 28 paintings relate St Francis’ life.
Giotto and Cimabue were the authors of them in this huge nave, where intense blues as a background of the frescoes bring more strength to the work.Let us begin by the transept and the apse. Cimabue took charge of the decoration at the end of the XIII century, representing the Crucifixion, the Apostles’ lives, the Lord Transfiguration, Our Lady’s and the evangelists’ lives.
The passage of time and oxidation of the materials used by Cimabue make very difficult to read these scenes.Without a doubt, the lower part of the nave frescoes will draw even more our attention. Giotto di Bondone, forerunner for Renaissance and for the use of nature in art, represented scenes from St Francis’ life, beginning with his adolescence in the first scene to the right of the nave, his conversion, the Franciscan Order approval and development and the Saint’s death and canonisation. It won´t be difficult to identify them because each scene has its title written underneath.The authorship of them is due to Giotto, although it is questioned by some critics. They do accept that the general structure is based on his ideas, but his school students collaboration was fundamental. The nave decoration is completed by 34 paintings representing Bible scenes, painted by Tuscan and Roman artists in the early XIV century.
We have to remind you that in September 1997 an earthquake caused the death of two friars and great damage by tearing down parts of the vault and destroying valuable frescoes. The basilica was closed for 2 years and a titanic restoration effort was carried out which ended in 2006 with the inauguration of the vaults and its starry sky.
Watching our photos in the future will give us an idea of this wonderful work. But having been inside this Upper Basilica will be something that for sure we will never forget.
Admission is for free and the way to reach it is the same one that led us to the view we enjoyed from its large square.
TEMPLE OF MINERVA
Goethe, the German poet and philosopher, said of this temple that "its design is so perfect that it could decorate any place". Even knowing this, few visit it or recommend us to visit it. You should, there are very good reasons for doing it.
Built in the I century A.C. during Augustus’ rule, it was dedicated to Hercules, Jupiter’s son in Roman mythology. But the discovery of a female statue inside this temple mistakenly made people think that it was built in honour of Minerva, the goddess of arts, wisdom and military strategy. So, they kept the name.
It is located in what once was the Forum of Asisium Romana. Its white marble stones have been showing us the perfection and beauty of classical Roman architecture for more than twenty centuries. Its facade, decorated with six ribbed Corinthian columns crowned with a triangular pediment, gives way to a Baroque church dedicated to Saint Mary.
But long was the way to reach its present destination. After the Roman empire fall, the temple was abandoned. Afterwards it was restored by Benedictine monks in the VI century and became a minor church dedicated to St Donato. In the XIII century it passed into the hands of the city council that used part of it as offices and part as a prison. In the XVI century it became a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary that was transformed in the XVII century with a Baroque style that we you could see today. As in almost every church there is, this one has a bell tower. It is enclosed among the adjoining houses, and is called by the inhabitants of the city as "People’s Tower".
Inside the church, even if austere, a Baroque altar with a statue of the virgin stands out. Recently, remains of the ancient Roman temple were discovered near the altar. You can see part of the original wall and the Roman pavement.
As a curious detail returning to Goethe, it is surprising that from his stay in the city he only spoke and remembered this temple, ignoring the Basilica of St Francesco d´Assisi and the frescoes by Giotto, proof of the little appreciation at that time for Middle Ages art, Romanesque and Gothic styles.
It is not difficult to reach it. It is located in Piazza del Comune, a beautiful medieval square plenty of bars and shops. Starting from Porta San Francesco by Via Fontebella, 600 meters separate you from this monument that few see but all admire for its beauty. T
The entrance fee is free of charge.
LET’S GO UP TO ROCCA MAGGIORE
When we look at the fortress on the top of Rocca Maggioreat our arrival to Assisi, we find it unattainable. But when we are already in town, we realise that nothing is impossible. Then, we could decide to climb this hill that dominates the city, the Rocca Maggiore, to appreciate more closely its fortress.
The first writings that inform us about its construction date back to 1173, when the German Archbishop Christian Herrgen of Mainz occupied the city on behalf of his sovereign, Frederick I Barbarossa. For a short time, this German feudal castle was the residence of various members of the Imperial German family. Frederick of Swabia, who was later the Emperor Frederick II, spent his childhood there.
At the end of the XII century, that fortress passed to Pope Innocent III who expelled the members of the Imperial family. At that time, Frederick was only four years old and Francis was sixteen.The fortress suffered great damage when it was destroyed by the inhabitants of Assisi and felt into abandonment. It was not until 1356, by order of Pope Innocent VI who resided at that time in Avignon, that the Rocca Maggiorecastle was rebuilt to fortify the Pontifical Territories. It maintained its medieval structure to which was added a line of trapezoidal-shape walls with watchtowers at each angle.
The fortress was dominated by a large dodecagonal tower. Different constructions were made over the centuries in order to fortify its structure. In the mid XV century another polygonal tower was added to it and a century later, Pope Paul III, ordered to build the great circular bastion where his shield was engraved and by which the fortress is currently accessed.
The entire structure is linked to the city walls by a covered corridor that ends with another large fortified tower. The construction of this gigantic work was also built with the Monte Subasiopink stone.
If we walk the six hundred meters that separate us from Piazza del Comuneto its entrance, we will be facing a magnificent example of a fortification complex characteristic from the XIV century military architecture. Paying a low fee, we could visit the interior.
As an anecdote, let us remember that in 1972, part of the film “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” by film maker Franco Zeffirelli, was shot inside its walls.
From the top of this hill we will also have a wonderful view of the city and the green Umbrian countryside.
THE SAINT’S TOMB
Everything we have seen in Assisi will live on in our memories, but nothing will stay with us as much as visiting St Francis’ tomb.
We know that the first stone of the church that houses the Saint remains was placed the day after his canonisation, on July 17, 1228. It was built in the so-called by Pope Gregory IX "collis paradisi"(paradise hill), to forget its ancient name, "collis inferni"(hell hill), since there was where prisoners were executed.
Donations and alms were so generous that only two years after the church was already able to receive St Francis’ remains. On May 25, 1230 those were moved from St. George Church (later dedicated to St. Clare) and deposited under the main altar of the new church, in a place very difficult to access.
But let´s make a leap in time and go down the stairs that will take us to the crypt. We will find them in the centre of the basilica and your surprise will be that we will enter a magical atmosphere where the absence of decoration contrasts with what is seen in the two basilicas that are above us.
There is the cell originally built by Friar Elias, Franciscan Order General under whose command part of the work of the crypt was made. Protected behind a fence, the Saint’s body is located inside a metal case made in 1818. The current appearance is far from its original. In the first half of the XX century, the tomb was completely transformed into its current neo-romanesque style but always maintaining its atmosphere of serenity and appropriate to the simplicity and poverty that characterised St Francis’ life.
St Jacoba of Settesoli remains (St Francis’ faithful friend who was present at the time of his death) and several friars and companions of the Saint share with him his last abode.
But, the most important thing of this story is the prove of authenticity of St Francis’ remains. For the first time and after 52 nights of work, on December 12, 1818 a sarcophagus was found. When opened, there was a body that, according to a witness "was still in its natural state, with his hands resting in his stomach. But, on contact with the air the corpse disintegrated". This was certified by Pope Pius VII which two years later certified that the body belonged to St Francis.
A second reconnaissance was carried out in 1978 when Pope Paul VI opened the tomb, this time in the presence of forensic experts who cleaned the bones found there and placed them in a plexiglass urn to protect them from germs and the outdoor environment. Finally, on March 4th of that year, St Francis’ remains were definitively placed in their original sarcophagus.
There will always remain a mystery: What is the meaning of the objects found on the side of St Francis’ body? There where 12 silver coins next to 12 amber grains and 17 ebony grains and a ring and a crown with the symbol of Minerva placed at his feet supposedly by Father Elias? 200 years have passed since that discovery in 1818 and this secret has not yet been solved, the answer to this question is open to our imagination...I
t is easy to reach the Lower Church. Starting once again from Porta San Francescoby Via Frate Elia, we will arrive at the large arcaded square that gives access to its entrance.
SANTA MARIA DEGLI ANGELI (ST MARY OF THE ANGELS), PORZIUNCULA
If you like to wander, nothing better than walking the three kilometres from Assisi to the village called Santa Maria degli Angeli. We can also arrive there by bus, as every 30 minutes, bus C departs from Parcheggio Sabacoach park and will take us in twenty minutes to that village, leaving us 200 meters from the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels.
But what would be the reason for our walk?
We will visit the Porziuncula, a small church where the Franciscan movement began. It is located inside the Basilica and recalls emotional moments of St Francis’ life.
Its name means "small portion of land". The origin of it is a small Benedictine church built in the IX century, where Francis discovered his true vocation in the year 1207. At the time he was only twenty years-old, and used to listen and read the Gospels. And so, he began his life of poverty and apostolate.
He founded there two religious orders, that of the Friars Minor and the Order of the Poor Ladies, the Clarisses. He held there the first "Chapters", meetings of friars who then departed to different destinations as missionaries. It was there where Christ appeared to Francis in 1216, offering him the indulgence “Forgiveness of Assisi”.
But we certainly cannot overlook that it will be in a corner of this small church where Francis died on October 3, 1226.
Francis, with his own hands, restored the small church that presents in its walls paintings that tell us about St Francis’ life, St. Anthony’s of Padua life, San Bernardino’s of Siena life and an inscription at the entrance saying "This is the Gate of Eternal Life".
Its interior is austere and built in Gothic style. It is covered by a vault built by Francis with stones of Monte Subasio. It is decorated with frescoes from the XIV and XV centuries representing apostles and a Piety. But without a doubt, the main work that decorates it is the fresco in the apse divided into six panels, work by the painter Hilario de Viterbo made in the late XIV century.
Inside the Basilica we will find the Transit Chapel, where was the Franciscan infirmary. There, Francis, stripped of his clothes, gave his soul to the Lord.
Shortly after his death it was transformed into an oratory. On the outer wall that overlooks the PorziunculaChapel, we can see a XIX century fresco representing "St Francis Transit ".
A COFFEE IN PIAZZA DEL COMUNE (COMMUNAL SQUARE)
For sure, at this point, you have walked and visited the city quite a bit by now, so allow yourselves a break to enjoy a cappuccino, a soft drink or a good ice cream...
Every corner in Assisi is a nice place that tempts us to pause, but if we must choose the perfect place, no doubt, Piazza del Comunewill be the one. This beautiful square, located in what once was the Roman Forum, is a perfect example of medieval architecture. Located in the centre of the city, it is populated by ancient and beautiful cafeterias that delight the visitors with its terraces from which we can see one of the most beautiful squares in Italy.
Firstly, The Three Lions fountain will attract our attention. Located in front of Palazzo delle Poste(Post Palace), it decorates the square. The fountain was built in the XVI century and was restored in the XVIII century.
The magnificent Church of Santa Maria facade with its ribbed columns reminds us of the ancient Roman temple on top of which it was built. The Museo Civicois located in the ancient San Nicolò´s Church crypt and there you could see, the ancient Roman Forum remains.
The Palazzo dei Priorifacade highlights the other side of this square. Built in the XIII century, on the wall that overlooks the square, there is an imposing staircase that led the priests to the pulpit from where they gave sermons.
But no doubt, our eyes will take us to Palazzo del Capitano del popolo(Captain’s Palace), built at an angle of the square at the end of the XIII century, it served as residence for that authority. Its tower is 47 meters high and is attached to the temple of Minerva.
Souvenir shops and other kind of boutiques will allow us to do some last minute shopping.
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