BASILIC OF SAINT FRANCISApproximately 90 miles north of Rome, in the rolling hills of Umbria, stands the exceptionally well-preserved medieval town of Assisi. Known primarily as the birthplace of St. Francis (1182-1226 AD), the town has been a sacred place since long before the Franciscan era. Little is known regarding the original founding of the town. One legend tells that the ancient town, called Assisium, came into existence around a holy spring that was later venerated by the Etruscans (9th - 5th centuries BC) and, following them, by the Romans. Another legend tells that the town was begun by Dardanus 865 years before the founding of Rome (April 21, 753 BC). Sometime in the 1st century BC a temple of Minerva, the Roman goddess of art, handicrafts and the professions, was constructed at the sacred spring. During the early Christian era the sanctuary of Minerva was destroyed, a series of churches were erected at the site, and the sacred spring stopped flowing. Subject to the dukes of Spoleto in the early Middle Ages, the town of Assisi became an independent commune in the 12th century and was involved in disputes and battles with nearby Perugia before passing to the Papal states. It became part of the Italian kingdom in 1860.
St. Francis was born in Assisi in 1182 (some sources say 1181), the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant. Alively, even riotous youth who dreamed of achieving military glory, Francis abandoned his worldlyambitions at the age of 19 while a prisoner of war in Perugia. He thereafter became a mystic whoexperienced visions of Christ and Mary, composed the first poems in the Italian language about thebeauties of nature, and in 1210 founded the famous order of mendicant friars known as the Franciscans.His repudiation of the worldliness and hypocrisy of the church, his love of nature, and his humble,unassuming character earned him an enormous following throughout Europe, posing an unprecedentedchallenge to the decadent Papacy. Francis was the first known Christian to receive the stigmata, thespontaneously appearing wounds on the hands, feet and side of the body corresponding to the torments ofChrist on the cross. These injuries caused Francis great pain and suffering, but he bore them with hischaracteristic serenity, keeping the matter secret for many years so as not to draw attention to himselfand away from god.
The Basilica of San Francesco, one of Italys foremost monuments, was built between 1228 and 1253 AD. The short period of its construction, rare for a church of this size, is often explained as a measure of the great love that the people of the time had for St. Francis. By the mid 1400s pilgrims were flocking to Assisi from all parts of Europe and today the walled medieval town and its grand basilica are among the most visited of Christian shrines. The author, during his extensive travels to the sacred sites of the world, has frequently perceived that certain places have a distinct feeling, presence, or energy of peace. Assisi is one of these places. The entire town and particularly the Basilica have a definite atmosphere of peacefulness that awakens and stimulates that same characteristic in the human heart. In this regard it is perhaps more fitting to call such sacred sites empowerment places rather than power places.
ASSISI CATHEDRALAssisi Cathedral dedicated to San Rufino is a major church in Assisi, Italy, that has been important in the history of the Franciscan order. In this church Saint Francis of Assisi (1182), Saint Clare (1193) and many of their original disciples were baptised. It was on hearing Francis preaching in this church in 1209 that Clare became deeply touched by his message and realized her calling. Tommaso da Celano related that once Saint Francis was witnessed praying in this church while, at the same time, he was seen jumping on a chariot of fire in the Porziuncola.This stately church in Umbrian Romanesque style was the third church built on the same site to contain the remains of bishop Rufinus of Assisi, martyred in the 3rd century. The construction was started in 1140 to the designs by Giovanni da Gubbio, as attested by the wall inscription visible inside the apse. He may be the same Giovanni who designed the rose-window on the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore in 1163.In 1228, while he was in Assisi for the canonization of Saint Francis, Pope Gregory IX consecrated the high altar. Pope Innocent IV inaugurated the finished church in 1253.
TEMPLE OF MINERVABuilt in the late Republican period in the 1st century BC, this temple was erected by the quatorvirates Gneus Cesius and Titus Cesius Priscus at their own expense. When a female statue was unearthed here it was thought the temple had been dedicated to Minerva, although the subsequent discovery of a votive plaque to Hercules makes it more likely that the temple had been dedicated to him. The facade has survived surprisingly well, with its six fluted columns supporting corinthian capitals and standing on plinths that rest on the steps leading to the pronaos for lack of space. In 1539 the inner sanctum of the temple was transformed into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, with further alterations added in the Baroque style during the 17th century.
THE ROCCA MAGGIOREThe earlies records of this building date back to 1174, when it was erected as a German feudal castle. The future Emperor Frederick II of Swabia spent several years of his childhood here in the care of Conrad of Urslingen, and was baptised in Assisi at the age of three in 1197. The following year, in Conrads absence, the people of Assisi rebelled and destroyed the castle. The castle remained a ruin until 1367, when Cardinal Albornoz rebuilt the fortress using the western section of outside walls and part of the interior fortifications. In 1458 Jacopo Piccinino, then lord of Assisi, erected the twelve-sided tower and the long curtain wall connecting the castle to the city. In 1478 Pope Sixtus IV restored the castles keep, while between 1535 and 1538 Pope Paul III built the round tower near the main gate.
FORO ROMANO Passing through the civic museum, containing exhibits from Umbro Roman times, you gain access to the Roman Forum underlying the Piazza del Comune where the original Roman paving stones and the steps, which once led up to the Temple, can be seen.
BASILICA OF SANTA MARIA DEGLI ANGELIThe Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli is a church situated in the plain at the foot of the hill of Assisi, Italy, in the frazione of Santa Maria degli Angeli.The basilica was constructed in the Mannerist style between 1569 and 1679 enclosing the 9th century little church, the Porziuncola, the most sacred place for the Franciscans. It was here that the young Francis of Assisi understood his vocation and renounced the world in order to live in poverty among the poor and thus started the Franciscan movement.
The basilica has a rectangular ground plan, divided into a central nave and two lateral aisles, flanked by ten side chapels, with at the far end a transept, and a long choir in a semi-circular apse, protruding from the ground plan. The Porziuncola is situated directly under the dome. The church is 126 meters long, 65 meters large and the dome is 75 meters high.The interior is simple and yet elegant, with only a few decorations, in stark contrast with the decorations of the side chapels. The nave and the aisles were rebuilt in neoclassical Doric style by Luigi Poletti. The apse holds the precious wooden choir, carved by Franciscan brothers starting in 1689, the papal cathedra (with bas-reliefs by E. Manfrini) and the papal altar. The Chapel of the Transito, the cell in which St. Francis died, is still preserved. It is situated under the bay of the choir, against the right columns of the dome.
THE PORZIUNCOLAThe chiesetta (little church) of Porziuncola (Italian for "Little portion") is the most sacred place for Franciscans. Francis was given this little church, dating from the 9th century, by the Benedictine monks.The church is exquisitely decorated by artists from different periods. Above the entrance is the fresco by Johann Friedrich Overbeck (1829) depicting St. Francis receiving from the Christ and the Virgin the indulgence, known as the “Pardon of Assisi”. The side wall on the right side shows fragments of two frescoes by an unknown Umbrian artists. The austere interior is decorated in a simple Gothic style with frescoes from the 14th and the 15th century. The most outstanding work is the six-part fresco in the apse of this little church, painted by Ilario da Viterbo (1393). At the back, above the entrance, is a fresco depicting the Crucifixion by Pietro Perugino.