Travels & Traditions: Assisi, Italy - #608

BURT WOLF: The Italian province of Umbria is in the center of Italy. Famous as an agricultural heartland its hills are covered with fruit and olive trees and the vineyards produce excellent wines. The central valley is less than 100 miles north of Rome. In the 1500s the region became part of the lands ruled by the pope.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Because the area belonged to the papacy there was very little commercial development -- which doesn’t do much for your gross national product but it’s really quite fabulous when it comes to preserving the region's natural beauty.

BURT WOLF: The most dramatic elements are the mountains that form the Subasio group. Mount Subasio, itself, supplied the pink stones that were used between the 12th and 14th centuries to build the province’s most famous town -- Assisi. 

Assisi was built on a hill that has been inhabited for about 4,000 years. Umbrian tribes were in residence when in the year 89 B.C. Romans named the town Assisium.

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 quite 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 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.


BURT WOLF: 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.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: 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.

BURT WOLF: 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.”

BURT ON CAMERA: 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.

BURT WOLF: Francis’ father found his sons 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.


BURT WOLF: A turning point in Francis’s life came during a mass on February 24th, 1208.

“As you go, preach the message, the kingdom is at hand. Take no gold, nor silver, nor money in your belts, no bag for your journey, no two tunics, nor sandals, nor staff; for the laborer deserves his food. And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it, and stay with him until you depart.”

This was the message St. Francis had been waiting for. He took off his shoes, dropped his staff, put on a rough tunic and set off to preach repentance. Even though he had no official authority to preach publicly he did, and immediately attracted a group of followers.

Francis was committed to imitating 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.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: This was the point when the Franciscan order was officially founded. They had no monasteries or possessions. Their only objective was to preach a return to the moral values taught by Christ. They took monasticism out of the monasteries and into the streets.


BURT WOLF: 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.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: 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.

BURT WOLF: 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.


BURT WOLF: 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 -- an 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.

Friar Pascal Magro is the director of the Basilica library.

FRIAR PASCAL MAGRO ON CAMERA: Giotto is considered to be the founder of Italian art, also with his master Chimabui, who painted four cycles of frescoes in the apse here and the transepts of this church.

FRIAR PASCAL MAGRO: 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, 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 WOLF: 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.

FRIAR PASCAL MAGRO ON CAMERA: Then also there is the conception of the body, you know? No more the two dimensional bodies.

FRIAR PASCAL MAGRO: We have frontals, we have left profiles, we have right profiles, but we have also persons looking in, they are giving the back to the visitors. Because the visitor has to find himself a part of the fresco. The saints here are no more saying, we are here and you are there. The pilgrim, the visitor, is invited to take part in the episode.

We have the discovery in art of the volume of the body. Friars, Francis himself are represented fat, round. So the pilgrims, visitors, in their minds, in their memory, have a very tough image of Francis and the Friars. 

BURT WOLF: 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.


BURT WOLF: In the valley west of Assisi is the Church of Our Lady of the Angels.

It is a monumental baroque building that was begun in 1569 and modeled after

St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. When it was finished, about a hundred years later, it turned out to be the seventh largest church in the Christian world.

This magnificent church, however, was built as a cover for a small church known as the Porziuncola which means “the little portion”. This is the tiny structure in which St. Francis organized the Franciscan order. And symbolically, it sits at the very center of this gigantic structure. 


BURT WOLF: Clare belonged to a noble family in Assisi. When she was sixteen years old she heard Francis speak and decided to give up her privileged life and follow his teachings.

She met with Saint Francis and had her hair cut short to mark the change in her life. In 1215, with the help of Saint Francis, she organized the order of Poor Clares. They follow the rule of Saint Francis and exist on charity.

In 1253, construction began on a basilica to honor St. Clare.

In a side chapel you can see the crucifix that was originally in the ruined chapel of San Damiano and spoke to St. Francis. This type of cross is known as an icon cross because it contains images of the people who have taken part in the story that the cross represents. Iconic crosses are traditionally found in the Eastern Church and were used to teach the meaning of an event. This cross contains the story of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension. 

The Poor Clare order of nuns still exists with its center here in Assisi. Their convent was damaged by an earthquake in 1997 but was quickly repaired with help from the United States through the efforts of the Knights of Columbus.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Well when this terrible earth quake came to Assisi it devastated their center of the convent where they have their daily prayer.

CARL ANDERSON: And while many government agencies helped in the public parts restoring what had been damaged in Assisi we had the privilege of helping them in their choir, in the places where they privately pray and to restore that, and so we were very happy to do that. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the early years of the 13th century there was an enormous increase in religious activity by women. They wanted to follow Gods calling, but they didn’t want to leave home. One result was the formation of the Third Order of St. Francis – a group of men and women who did not take religious vows but committed themselves to a life that followed the teachings of St. Francis.

BURT WOLF: By the second half of the 13th century, donations to the basilica of St. Francis made by women greatly outnumbered those given by men.


BURT WOLF: At the edge of the city and surrounded by olives groves, San Damiano is the little church complex that Saint Francis was told to repair.

As I arrived it became apparent that the repairs were still underway

Sister Clotilde Mizzi is a Franciscan missionary and resides in the convent of San Damiano.

SISTER CLOTILDE MIZZI ON CAMERA: This is the first monastery of Saint Clare, where she lived and she died here.

We have the monastery, the first where they used to pray and then you go to the Oratorio, that means it was a private chapel, what was the way Saint Clare wanted it. There’s a related story of the Saracen where they came to attack Assisi, and the sisters prayed in front of the Blessed Sacrament and Saint Claire invited them to put all their hope in the lord, and there they heard a little voice of a child that said, "don’t be afraid, I’ll be always with you." And that’s why Clare was more encouraged to take the Blessed Sacrament, and in front of the enemy, she presented herself, exactly what they saw, we don’t know. The fact is that they were afraid and they escaped. And so the sisters were saved and even the city Assisi.

It’s Christmas Eve and all the sisters went to pray, and she was left alone. While she was paying, the Lord permitted that she could see all the celebration that was going in the Basilica of Saint Francis. That’s why later on the Pope made her patron saint of television.

BURT WOLF: The chapel contains an unusual crucifix that was carved in 1637. It shows the head of Christ with three different expressions -- agony -- death -- and tranquility. Which face you see, depends on where you are standing -- left, right or center.

Everything about San Damiano speaks of the simple life that both St. Clare and St. Francis believed in.


BURT WOLF: While praying in the little church Saint Francis had a vision that told him to ask the Pope to forgive the sins of anyone who confessed and received the sacraments in his little church.

Much to the surprise of his Cardinals, the Pope granted the request but limited the period of pardon to a block of 24 hours and only once a year. It runs from evening prayers on August 1st to sunset on August 2nd. 

After the death of St. Francis, thousands of pilgrims started coming to Assisi.

The idea of having their sins forgiven was extremely attractive. The event became known as “The Pardon of St. Francis” and was eventually extended to all Franciscan churches around the world. However, the limited hours of availability still stand.


BURT WOLF: When Francis died in 1226 his body was buried in the Church of Saint George in Assisi. But when the basilica was almost finished, the authorities decided to move

St. Francis to the new building.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Just as they were about to take the body inside a group of monks came along and seized it. They were afraid that their enemies from the city of Perugia would come along and steal St. Francis’ body. So they hid it. And they did such a good job of hiding it that no one could find it for 600 years. 

BURT WOLF: In 1880 the remains of St. Francis were discovered and placed into a crypt.

The discovery of his body resulted in a renewed interest in pilgrimage to his Basilica.

A new railway line opened and connected both Florence and Rome to Assisi.

New hotels were built to accommodate the pilgrims. The first was the Hotel Subasio which opened next to the entrance to the Basilica in 1868.

PIETRO MARIOTTINI ON CAMERA: It all started like to be a mail stop for chariots. And the old world had a lot of these stops. Down the ways, communication ways, from north to south, and this was a central point that gathers halfway, Firenze, Florence and Rome.

PIETRO MARIOTTINI: The early years of the 20th century, when the hotel became a grand hotel, a luxury, which was unexpected, strange for the experience of Assisi. 

The hotel is really nested into this part of the hill you know, it’s just a link to the sanctuary, to the Basilica of St. Francis, it’s one thing, it’s a unique position and also very nice. 

When you come in the first impression that you have is probably elegance, because it has its own elegance and refinement, but then when you cross the lounge you go towards the balcony. You really have a birds eye look overlook the valley, which is really picturesque. 

BURT WOLF: It’s still open and the most convenient place to stay. The owners have made all the necessary technological improvements but they have also made a great effort to retain the feeling that the hotel had when it originally opened.


BURT WOLF: A three-dimensional presentation of the birth of Jesus as described in the Bible is known as a Christmas Crib or crèche which is the French word for “crib”. The scene usually shows the newborn baby Jesus in a stable, surrounded by his mother and Joseph, the wise men, the shepherds, an ox and an ass, a few angels and a star. The moment is often made to look as if it was taking place locally -- somewhere that was easily recognizable -- near the town or the church. The idea of creating this form of Nativity scene came from St. Francis.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: A landowner in a nearby town gave St. Francis a plot of land up in the woods to build a secluded retreat. On Christmas Eve of the year 1224, St. Francis turned the building into a stable and presented a Nativity scene with a live ass and a live ox.

BURT WOLF: The ox and the ass had been part of the Nativity scene for hundreds of years. They refer to a passage in the Bible where God expresses his disappointment. God says, “The ox knows its owner, and the ass knows the manger of its master, but my people do not know me.”

CARL ANDERSON: Well this is one of the great gifts of St. Francis is the idea of the Christmas crib showing that Christ comes to us as a gift and is really the greatest gift. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: And of course our whole tradition of gift giving is a reflection of God’s gift to us. 

CARL ANDERSON: Of course, St. Francis had another idea in mind too with the crib. And that was to show us how this great gift came. Most people expected he would come in riches and his royalty. But he came to show us in such a way what our material possessions really mean. He came in poverty as if to tell us those riches are not so important. The real gift is the gift we make of each other as persons.

BURT WOLF: The Nativity crib has become a traditional part of Christmas all over the world.


BURT WOLF: Throughout history people have divided the world into opposites -- dark and light, male and female, ying and yang. Our cultures have been organized in terms of contradictions and conflicts.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But from time to time somebody would come along with a different viewpoint. They believed that opposites were not two things in opposition, but one thing in harmony -- that at the same time the way down was at the same time the way up. People who express this point of view are known as mystics and St. Francis was a mystic.

BURT WOLF: St. Francis believed that he was in direct contact with heaven and that his responsibility was to live a life as close to the life of Christ as possible. He preached understanding.

He called all the animals his brothers.

Even during the final days of his life when he was blind and in great pain his vision did not alter and he welcomed “sister death”.

During the days I spent in Assisi, I met Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and people who were not interested in religion at all.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But they all appreciated the message of Saint Francis and his love for everything -- animals, people, and our natural environment.

For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.