Click on photos to enlarge.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Renaissance Cities--Assisi, Italy

Papal Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
The house where St. Francis of Assisi
spent his early years
When we think of Renais-sance cities (or any city, in fact) we seldom think in terms of individuals but groups of individuals, a nationality, an ethnic group, sometimes a whole panoply of historic fig-ures as in the case of Rome or London. In a few cases, we associate a city with its found-ers, sometimes a relatively small group of (usually) men, such as in the case of Wash-ington, D.C. With the possible exception of Jesus Christ, it's unlikely that a single man down through history has ever left such an indelible mark on a city as did St. Francis of Assisi. He and the city are so inextricably linked that we find it nearly impossible to think of either without the other. Yet Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone (his actual name) was no military commander, no merchant of great wealth, nor a ruler or city founder in any traditional sense. Though born into a wealthy family of silk merchants in 1181, some twenty-four years later he renounced his previous life of high living in favor of one devoted to poverty and religious service. Assisi was merely the place where he was born. He also died there in 1226 at the age of forty-four.

Located in central Italy, Assisi has endured a parade
of conquerors for nearly three-thousand years.
Assisi has much in common with many of the major cities of the Italian Renaissance. It's not just old, but ancient. In this case the area was first inhabited about 1,000 BC by a group known as the Umbrians. Assisi was just one of a number of small, fortified villages situated on high ground as a defensive measure. Apparently such measures were insufficient in that the various settlements were gradually take over by the Etruscans around 450 BC. The Romans took control of central Italy after the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC, whereupon they built a flourishing municipium (municipality) of Asisium on a series of terraces bordering Mount Subasio. (The city's "streets" are often more like stairways).

Assisi is dominated by its topography, an elongated ridge which,
nonetheless, has seldom served as much of a defensive asset.
The Church of Santa Maria
sopra Minerva, originally the
Roman Temple of Minerva.
Roman city walls can still be seen in Assisi, along with the ancient forum (now called the Piazza del Comune), a theatre, an amphitheater and the Temple of Minerva (right, now transformed into the Church of Santa Maria sopra (over) Minerva). In 238 AD Assisi was converted to Christianity by Bishop Rufino, whose remains are said to rest in the Cathedral Church of San Rufino in Assisi. Amid the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the Ostrogoths destroyed most of Assisi in 545. The Lombards came next followed by the Frankish Duchy of Spoleto. The community became independent during the 11th century, though there remained a constant military struggle with the nearby city of Perugia. During one of these battles, the Battle of Ponte San Giovanni, Francesco di Bernardone, (Saint Francis), was taken prisoner, setting in motion the events that eventually led him to renounce worldly thing, to live as a beggar, and establish the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans).

The Basilica of St. Francis dominates the Assisi skyline. The city's
walls, built on ancient Roman foundations, were more
of a tactical defense than strategic.
It's at this point that the saga of Assisi and St. Francis become one and the same. The city came under papal jurisdiction under the rule of Pope Pius II (1458–1464). In 1569 construction was started on the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. In addition to the Order of Friars Minor, St. Francis founded the women’s Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis, and the Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history. In 1228, just two years after his death, Pope Gregory IX canonized Francis. He was designated Patron Saint of Italy. He later became associated with patronage of animals and the natural environment.

Rocca Maggiore, or the Fortress of Assisi, tops the
mountain around which the city is built.
In 1219, St. Francis went to Egypt in an attempt to convert their sultan to put an end to the conflict of the Crusades. By that point, the Franciscan Order had grown to such an extent that its primitive organizational structure was no longer sufficient. He returned to Italy to organize the Order. Once his community was authorized by the Pope, he withdrew increasingly from external affairs. Francis is also known for his love of the Eucharist. In 1223, Francis arranged for the first live nativity scene. A year later he received the stigmata, during an apparition of Seraphic angels in a religious ecstasy making him the first recorded person to bear the wounds of Christ's Passion.

(Top-left) The Betrayal of Jesus, (top-right) The Apocalypse,
(center-left) The Sermon to the Birds, and (bottom-left) by
Pietro Lorenzetti, a Pieta.
Strangely, St. Francis' greatest impact upon Assisi came not during his lifetime but in the years that followed as his story became nearly as well known as that of Christ. The Franciscan Order promoted devotion to the life of Saint Francis following his canonization while commissioning large numbers of works for Franciscan churches, either showing St Francis with sacred figures, or episodes from his life. The large early fresco cycles in the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, are shown above. Unfortunately, they are in deplorable condition, especially the works of Giotto.

This cutaway drawing of the Basilica Church of St. Francis of
Assisi illustrates medieval construction techniques
as well as the dual nature of the church
The Basilica Church of St. Francis of Assisi is actually two churches (above). The basilica was begun in 1228, the same year as St. Francis' canonization. It is built into the side of a hill, an Upper Church (below) and a Lower Church, beneath which is a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred. The interior of the Upper Church is an early example of the Gothic style in Italy. The Upper and Lower Churches are decorated with frescoes by numerous late medieval painters representing the Roman and Tuscan schools, including works by Cimabue, Giotto, Simone Martini, Pietro Lorenzetti and probably Pietro Cavallini. The basilica is of unique importance in demonstrating the development of Italian art during the years leading up to the Renaissance.

Inside his basilica church, on the upper level, the
life of St. Francis is depicted in fresco. The works are
so uneven in quality and condition that many
experts now dispute the attribution to Giotto.
The Lower Church (below) is from the 13th-century and contains most of the biographical frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis. Completed in just two years, though massive in size and scale, it nonetheless conveys a discomforting feeling of a "squashed" Gothic style unlike the more traditional soaring Gothic found in the Upper Church. The upper level was begun in 1239 and took some fourteen years to complete.
Though its arched vaults are strong, yet graceful,
in visiting the Lower Church, one can't help but
have the feeling of being in a "basement" crypt.
On the morning of September 26, 1997, two earthquakes struck the Umbrian region of Italy. The first registering 5.5 while the second measured 6.1 on the Richter Scale. There was widespread devastation causing many ancient buildings to be damaged or destroyed. A group of engineers, safety experts, and friars were called in to survey any damage to the Basilica of St. Francis. During their inspection, an aftershock shook the building, causing the collapse of the vault. Two Franciscan friars and two of the specialists were killed. Some of the frescoes celebrating the life of St. Francis by Giotto in the Upper Church were slightly damaged. However, those in the Lower Church which collapsed, were entirely destroyed. The church was closed for two years for restoration.
The picturesque Eremo delle Carceri,
the smaller of two fortresses built during
medieval times to protect the city of Assisi.

A 1920's era travel poster--
no mention of the patron saint.


No comments:

Post a Comment