Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Four Days in Assisi

Day 2

They sky is overcast when I step outside. I want as much sun as possible for San Francesco, so I go to Santa Chiara first.

Chiara, St. Clare, was a rich, young noblewoman who understood Francesco instantly and followed him implicity. She embraced a religious life against her parents' wishes; Francesco cut her hair and dressed her in sackcloth. They were brother and sister in their souls.

When Francesco died, in 1226, his body was buried in the church of S. Giorgio, where, in 1228, Pope Gregorio IX canonized him. In 1230 his body was moved to the new basilica built in his honor.

Chiara died in 1254, was canonized in 1256, and a basilica was built for her on the site of S. Giorgio in 1257. Her basilica is pristinely simple. The facade, in three tiers, like San Ruffino and San Francesco, is layered like a cake in horizontal stripes of pink and white stone . A lacy rose window occupies the middle tier, above the portal that dominates the lower level. The top level is a triangle that reaches into the sky. Massive buttresses were added to the sides to support the outward thrust of the stone walls. On the street side the buttresses were built over washing rooms; the stream-fed pools are still there.

Santa Chiara is elegant and and strong, a slightly more feminized version of the Upper Basilica of San Francesco. It is also similar inside, minus the frescoes. Santa Chiara's frescoes have all but disappeared, except for the vaults high above the altar, a jeweled embroidery just out of sight.

Stairs lead down from the nave to the crypt where Chiara's body lies. There is a dimly lit vestibule at the bottom of the stairs. Behind you, in a screened showcase, are clothes she made and wore, locks of her hair shorn by Francesco, one of Francesco's tunics. These saints were not from a previous millenium; they prayed here at the dawn of the thirteenth century. The builders knew them. Their clothing has not disintegrated entirely into dust.

In front of you, across a bay with candy-striped marble ribs and vaults painted like a starry sky, through carved and inlaid arches, is a pink confection of Byzantine arabesques: Chiara's tomb.

You can't help but wonder what Chiara and Francesco would have thought of such ostentation. At the same time, you can't help but be struck by the artistry, the beauty of the stone, the poetry of the conception. This is the curious paradox at the heart of the main monuments of Assisi.

Chiara herself is laid out on a polished wooden palette, dressed in a black nun's habit. The body has been preserved and her face sealed in a protective layer of wax.

After that, I need sunlight and fresh air. Outside, the sky is blue and clear, the clouds moving swiftly away across the valley and I have an appointment with Giotto.

I approach San Francesco differently than yesterday. I enter through the Piazza Inferiore, the broad lower plaza with very long porticos of simple arches on two sides designed, presumably, to shelter the lines of pilgrims queuing up to visit Francesco's tomb. Beyond the porticos the valley is lush green in full sun. The exterior of the basilica is gleaming.

I have to take off my glasses as I enter the lower basilica because they have darkened in the sun, and aren't lightening quickly enough for me to see where I'm going. It is still shadowy and dark. The sun only penetrates particular spots at particular times, I discover. I start down the nave, and notice a painting of two gorgeous women, both saints, on the underside of an archway into the side chapel. I climb three steep shiny marble steps.

I have to sit down immediately. It is the Scrovegni Chapel experience all over again. I don't know where to look. The walls and ceiling are throwing a party for my eyes. Fortunately, here there is no 15-minute limit here, as at Scrovegni. I have all the time want.

I am in the Chapel of St. Martin of Tours, painted by Simone Martini. The plaque on the grillwork gate into the chapel says the frescoes were painted in 1317; other sources date them toward the middle of that century. In either case, they were painted after Giotto's work was done.

While the presence of Giotto is strong in these frescoes, they are different. Giotto always goes for the bare moment where the human drama is at its height, adding only those decorative details necessary to illuminate the essence of the moment. Martini places his dramas in lush settings, in gardens of rare flowers, palaces of surpassing beauty, in a richly detailed natural world. The Renaissance is clearly showing through.

I sit at various points around the chapel so that I can see all the panels. They are painted in sequence and move like comic books, with internal connection and external logic. They are medieval movies with text and subtext, framed in jeweled arches and extravagant carved marble and drapery, all faux, quickly painted in wet plaster to seal them for all time.

But not for all time.

Most of the frescoes in Venice vanished centuries ago thanks to the moisture and salt; the closely controlled Scrovegni Chapel was at dire risk; two vaults in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco were shaken down by an earthquake in 1997. Given the odds, the Martini frescoes are miraculous.

The sun, advancing behind the chapel, suddenly breaks through the stained glass windows of the chapel, and I notice them for the first time. They were executed in 1330 by Giovanni Bonino, a local glass master. Set amid these frescoes, gorgeous but their original luster gone, these windows glitter as if freshly created by the advancing sun. They are three portraits tall on each side, and there are three of them, six panels in all filled with bishops, saints, martyrs, people with individual gestures and unique faces, in mosaics of the most brilliant and transparent gemlike glass.

The windows are overwhelming. But what makes the less luminous frescoes so especially moving, the key to their particular genius, is that stained glass cannot gently shape flat surfaces into drapery and hauntingly evocative human interactions, as fresco can. The glass is iconic, decorative. The frescoes plunge you into human drama with intense intimacy.

The sun has shifted again and I follow the light to the Upper Basilica. I walk through the nave to the transept to view the sadly vanishing Cimabue frescoes. Apparently he used lead oxide in his colors and applied them when the fresco was dry. Only shadows are left.

The glory of the Upper Basilica is the series of twenty-eight frescoes painted by Giotto and Company. I found the first in the series, and looked at each in sequence. My inital notes are funny because I recorded only what I saw, not yet knowing what they really were. There are no labels; this is not a museum, it is a Basilica. Hence, my own personal narrative runs something like this: Francis rises on a puff of pink cotton candy toward Christ appearing in the sky; an eastern potentate points toward a blazing fire beside Francesco; Francesco and two angels assist a wounded man in a splendid bed in a pink-walled palace; a queen begs before a bright pink candy-cane minaret while Francesco floats in the sky above.

The paintings begin to work their magic. I begin to understand the narrative technique. There is an Arabian Nights quality to many of the settings, particularly those heavy on architecture. The buildings are real, and they're not. They are icons, the universal symbol of building, high building, low building, holy building. These panels are telling their stories in a symbolic language; the part stands for the whole.

I have to admit that this period is one which, in my youth, I always flipped past in art books on my way to the renaissance or modern periods. Now I begin to deeply appreciate Ruskin's exaltation of the Gothic sensibility; it is, he says, characterized by sheer exuberance of creation, free of the Renaissance passion for symmetry and line. These artists channeled their triumphs and their sorrows directly into stone and paint. They found joy in the birds and the dogs and the flowers and their fellow man and recreated them lovingly. They breathed life into inanimate matter.

The central focus of the frescoes is always on the human drama; the panels lead from one key moment to the next with the logic of myth and all the genius of human invention. This is, above all, a narrative art; its purpose is to tell stories old and new. It is not self-conscious; it is humble and earnest and vivid.

Slowly I fall under the spell of the Upper Basilica frescoes, but to penetrate their world further, I need to know what the stories really are. I decide it's time to see the tomb of St. Francesco.

You reach by the crypt by a stairway located midway in the nave of the Lower Basilica. There is a simple altar with six white candles at the far end. The chapel feels like it was carved into the mountain. The ceiling is low, the lights are dim. The tomb is in a massive pier of grey stone. The front is open so that you can see the stone bier inside. It is encircled by a black metal mesh, with large sprays of white flowers on either side. Here lies whatever remains of the body of Francesco Bordenone, born 1182 in Assisi to a rich fabric merchant.

I find it touching that four of his closest brothers are buried around him, in plain stone graves marked with simple plaques: "Fr. Ruffino / 1249 / Compagne di S. Francesco," "Fr. Angelo, 1258..," "Fr. Masseo, 1280...," "Fr. Leone, 1271..."

This is the spiritual epicenter of Assisi, the thing that makes it different from every other place on earth. It is this spirit which permeates the city and the hills: the amazing appearance of man whose faith in the divine spirit of love moved heaven and earth. He was able to convince a Pope to sanction his order, to challenge a Sultan's religious leaders to walk through fire, to preach to the birds of the field, to bring a laser-bright lovelight into a contentious, warring world.

[For the Day 2 Photo Gallery, click Here]

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