Travels & Traditions: Assisi & Siena, Italy - #1304

This is the fourth program in a series in which I travel around Italy with Steve Perillo. Steve is the third generation to run a company called Perillo Tours, which specializes in bringing American tourists to Italy. We started by visiting Assisi, which was the birthplace of St. Francis, then we moved on to Siena which was the birthplace of Italian Renaissance painting.

Assisi was built on a hill that has been inhabited for about 4,000 years. Umbrian tribes were in residence when the Romans arrived in 89 B.C. They say that the stones that were used to build Assisi have absorbed the prayers of the millions of pilgrims that have come here over the centuries. And now the stones radiate a sense of peace and quiet that has a spiritual effect on visitors.

In the center of town is a Roman temple that was built in 25 B.C. to honor the goddess Minerva. Minerva was in charge of art and she appears to have done a good job in Assisi. No other city in Italy has had a greater impact on Italian painting.

The underlying cause for the great art in Assisi is St. Francis who was born here in 1182 and died here in 1226. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant. He learned to read and write Latin and speak French and he had a romantic and heroic view of the world. He dreamed of becoming a Knight and living a life of adventure.

It was a time of continuous warring between the city-states of Italy. The city of Perugia was the great enemy of Assisi and Francis took part in one of the many battles between them. He was captured by the Perugian forces and held prisoner for almost a year.

His health began to fail and he started asking himself, “If I actually do survive all of this, what should I do with my life?” He did survive and he decided to join the Pope’s army. But on the way to Rome, he had a vision. A vision that told him to return to Assisi, where he would be called to a new kind of knighthood.

At one point he was praying in the ruined chapel of San Damiano just outside Assisi. As he prayed, he heard a voice coming from above the altar telling him “Repair my house, it has fallen into ruins.”

Saint Francis went to his father’s warehouse, took some clothing and rode to a nearby town where he sold the clothing and his horse. He tried to give the money he got from that sale to the priest at San Damiano, but the priest wouldn’t take it. So, somewhat annoyed, St. Francis just threw the money out the window.

Francis’ father found his son’s behavior unacceptable and had him called before the bishop of Assisi. But before his father could say anything, Francis peeled off his clothing and gave them to his father. Standing completely naked, he said; “Until now I have called you my father on earth. But from now on, I can truly say: My Father is in heaven.” The bishop was astounded and gave Francis a cloak to cover himself. Francis renounced his family and all worldly goods and embraced a life of poverty.

Francis wanted to imitate the life of Christ.  Poverty was his bride. He was a social worker, a traveling preacher, a lover of nature, and a protector of animals. He thought of all creatures as his brothers. 

In 1209, Francis took a group of his disciples to Rome in the hope of getting official approval from the Pope and to demonstrate his recognition of papal authority. It was a long shot but Francis lucked out.  The Pope had a dream in which Francis was holding up the church of San Giovanni in Laterno, which is the official church of the Pope in Rome. The Pope saw his dream as a sign that he should give his approval to the work of the Franciscans.

Saint Francis died in 1226 and within two years, plans for his Basilica were underway. Francis was not even Saint Francis at the time. But there were three influential groups that wanted the basilica as fast as possible.

The Papacy wanted it because most of the followers of St. Francis were outside the church and the Basilica would bring them in. The Franciscan brothers wanted it because it honored their founder.  And Assisi needed it in order to make the city an important and profitable center for pilgrims.

The Pope, who had been a longtime friend of Francis, announced that the basilica was being built on land owned by the Pope and would forever be under the control of a Pope and only a Pope. No other authority would be allowed to influence events in the Basilica or the Franciscan order.  The Basilica became a fortified papal residence. The Pope gave the friars custody of the building and control of the local treasury.

The Basilica of Saint Francis is actually made up of two churches, one built on top of the other. The Upper Church is the model for all Franciscan churches around the world. The façade has a double portal under a pointed arch, which is typical for places of pilgrimage.
The Basilica of St. Francis is the cradle in which Italian Renaissance painting was born.  On these walls, art was transformed by a new approach developed by Gothic artists who had been working north of the Alps. In the past, religious events were presented within the classical tradition of Byzantine painting.  Byzantine art asks you to take its story on faith.  The Gothic artists brought a realistic vision to their work.

For many years Friar Pascal Magro was the director of the Basilica library.

(PASCAL MAGRO) Giotto is considered to be the founder of Italian art, also with his master Cimabue, who painted four cycles of frescoes in the apse here and the transepts of this church. 

There is a new conception of the spaces, the spaces are recognizable spaces of this world. So these episodes are taking place on recognizable stages, real stages, and historical stages.  We have the beginning of landscape in Italian art. We have the landscape of Assisi. In the first fresco of the life of Francis of Assisi, the saint is represented walking on the Square of Assisi. 

(BURT) Everyone from Assisi who saw this picture of St. Francis receiving homage from a simple man recognized the temple of Minerva in the background. The actual Temple is still in the center of Assisi’s town square.

Giotto’s twenty-eight panels illustrating the life of St. Francis was the first time that an artist used the walls of a church to tell the entire life story of a saint who was buried in that building. It is a story set in familiar places and creates a totally recognizable vision. You don’t have to take this story on faith you can see it with your own eyes and identify where it took place. The old Greek style was out. The new Latin style was in. The Renaissance was underway.

During the days I spent in Assisi, I met Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people who were not interested in religion at all. But they all appreciated the message of Saint Francis and his love for everything, animals, people, and our natural environment.

Just before we came to Assisi, we were filming in Rome. It was busy and stressful environment and my focus moved up and back between its ancient past and what Rome is today. In Assisi, I lived in a much more spiritual space. I never felt pulled into the present. Everything around me kept me in the world of St. Francis. It’s an extraordinary place.

Our next stop was going to be in Siena and I was curious to see what it would be like.

During the 9th century, the hill town of Siena in central Italy became a major stopping point on the road between Paris and Rome. By the beginning of the 12th century it was a bustling city producing some of the best wool in Italy, developing a clothing industry and exploiting a small silver mine. 

By the end of the 12th century Siena was a commercial and financial center and her growing economic success began to challenge the city of Florence, which was only 30 miles to the north. An emotional competition developed between the two cities, which eventually led to the Battle of Montaperti in 1260.

Siena won the battle and entered a period of extraordinary power, power, which rested in the hands of a small group of influential families. One way the families showed their newfound wealth and influence was the construction of magnificent fortified palaces.

The city’s location on the road to Rome gave it a commercial advantage but it also made it a resting place for pilgrims. If you were on your way to the Vatican from virtually any part of Europe, you made a stop at Siena.

During the 12th century, the city began building a series of outstanding churches, towers and public squares. And since most of the modern construction has taken place outside the old city, Siena’s character remains relatively unspoiled. Narrow winding streets and ancient buildings give Siena a distinct medieval feeling.

Hundreds of years ago, Siena was divided into sub-districts called contrade. 17 of them still exist. They were not set-up simply as geographic boundaries; they were self-governing political and social neighborhoods.

Each contrade has an emblem that represents one of the virtues attributed to Siena. The Giraffe for elegance. The Snail for prudence. The emblem with the Sea Creature and water is the Wave and it stands for joy.

Debra Barbagli is in charge of the women’s society for the contrade of the Goose.

(DEBRA BARBAGLI) Contrade is a kind of life and it’s a life full of people, with people that have the same feelings that you have.  And if you need something, you know that in your Contrade you can find this help.

(BURT) The Noble contrade of the goose stands for wisdom and intelligence. It was awarded the title of noble because of the courage shown by its militia in the battles against Florence. Like the other contrade it has an administrative building, a museum, which displays trophies of its past, a neighborhood band, and a warehouse for the storage of weapons used in great battles, a fountain and a community church.

Badia a Coltibuono translates as “the abbey of the good harvest. It was founded about a thousand years ago by a group of monks who wanted a quite place to pray. And we were able to arrange for group to have a private tour of the property.

In 1051, they began planting vines to make wine and by 1400, the vineyard was so successful that it was in the care of the great Lorenzo de Medici. During the Napoleonic occupation of the area, the monks were forced to leave, but the winemaking continued. Napoleon was no fool.

In 1846, the property was purchased by a Florentine banker and today it is run by his descendents including Emanuela Stucchi Prinetto, who took us on the tour. She pointed out that when the monks first began working the land over a thousand years ago, they understood the importance of biodiversity and organic farming. They wanted to preserve and maintain the integrity of the land and that is still at the center of the work at Coltibuono.

After the tour the vineyards we stopped for lunch and a wine tasting at the vineyard’s restaurant. After which we toured the interior of the ancient palace.

It was during the 13th and 14th centuries that Siena’s most important public works were constructed including the Palazzo Pubblico which is considered to be one of the most elegant buildings in Italy and the inspiration for many of the other palaces in Siena.

It has been the seat of the city’s government for almost 700 years.

Siena was well aware that its love of wealth and power was often in conflict with its love of the Virgin Mary. The Palazzo Pubblico is filled with art that addresses this problem. A perfect example is The Portrait of our Lady in the Hall of the Great Council.  On the surface the subject appears to be entirely religious, but that is not the case.  There is a block of text in which Mary warns the government to act with humility and justice. It says, “I will answer your prayers, but if the strong molest the weak, your prayers will go unheeded.” 

Down the hall is a giant fresco that dates to 1335 and makes the same point in a different way. It's titled "The Effects of Good and Bad Government".

There are two matching scenes. One is Siena under good government – the other under bad government. Good government is represented by a wise old man dressed in the colors of Siena. Next to him are the cardinal virtues – Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. Prudence is always at the head of the line because it is the virtue that regulates all the others. Above are Faith, Hope and Charity. In the properly governed city, life is peaceful, work is progressing.  Bad government is marked by the dishonesty of public officials, pride, greed, mismanagement, and the power of special interests. Fascinating to see how little has changed.

The center of Siena, both culturally and physically, is a plaza called The Campo. It is one of the most famous squares in the world and for centuries it has been the focal point of Siena’s political and social life. This was the site where official government proclamations were read.

Early on, Siena became a sophisticated self-governing republic and divided itself into associations, each with its own political and economic interests. And the Campo was the spot where the associations came to battle things out. Differences of opinion among the groups was often settled by an organized street fight in the Campo with about three hundred guys to a side. The rules called for fists-only but from time to time a dagger or a sword or a battle-axe would slip in. At some point in history they were able to redirect most of the anger into a horse race.

The Campo is the site of that race and it’s called The Palio. It was first recorded in 1283 but probably goes back much earlier. The race is held twice each year on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. The edges of the plaza are covered with sand and the corners are protected with padding. Each of the ten horses in the race represents a neighborhood association, one of the Contrade. On the morning of the race there is an elaborate procession through the streets and around The Campo. The participants are dressed in 15th century costumes. The race itself takes less than two minutes – enough time for the riders to circle The Campo three times. There are no rules of conduct for the race which takes on the character of a moving free-for-all. Considerable amounts of money are bet on the outcome and the honor of each neighborhood is at stake.
Siena’s great Cathedral was planned as the largest cathedral in the world. What you see here today, however, is only a small section of the original design. The arrival of the Black Plague in 1348 put an end to the grand plan.

(MARIA ELENA TORCHIO) The church was begun at just after the end of the 12th century, and it was completed in the middle of the 14th century. It took about 200 years to do all this. It was made in bricks, and bricks were covered with a coating of marble stripes. The idea of using marble stripes came from far away, from the mid-Eastern world.  It’s something you found in Turkey and Syria first of all but it's also very evident in Spain, in the southern part of Italy. It’s like a fashion they brought from there. The relationship with the mid-Eastern world was really very important. They had trade all around the Mediterranean area. They had many families, from Siena they moved down to the mid-Eastern world just to go to Crusades in the Holy Lands. And coming back, they brought back artists’ objects, ideas. So they knew the use of marble stripes.

What is really very unique here in this cathedral is the floor, because it’s something that you find only here. And then the whole floor is covered in marble.  It had to be like a picture book, to give messages to help people understanding something. We have to remember people were not able to read. And the floor is dedicated, not only to religious subjects; you find something from mythology, from the classical world, very profane subjects, just to help people understanding something.

The church itself is like a museum. In the centuries they went on adding more and more just to show the authority the importance and the power of the church. 

(BURT WOLF) The church also houses the Piccolomini Library which is covered with a series of frescos that illustrate the life of Pope Pius II.  The colors of the frescos in the library are original. Because votive candles were not used in the room and very few candles for light, the walls were never repainted. Today when a curator is restoring a work of art and wants to check on what colors were really like during the 1500s, they come here. 

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf. And I’m Steve Perillo