Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Four Days in Assisi

Day 1

You don't come to Assisi for great theater, museums, galleries, opera, night life, fashion, or fine dining. You come either to pray at the Basilica of San Francesco, or to see some of the most wonderful paintings in the world. There are other churches with smaller miracles, and the ravishing rolling countryside of the Umbrian hills, to be sure. From Rocca Maggiore, the medieval fortress of popes and emperors atop Monte Subasio, down to the orchards and vineyards of the broad green valley below, Assisi is picture-postcard lovely. But first and foremost, it is the city of Saint Francis.

I didn't just go. I had a mission: to study the frescoes of the Upper and Lower Basilica of S. Francesco as mirrors of thirteenth and fourteenth century life. I allowed myself four days, although I wasn't sure that I'd even want to stay in Assisi four full days. But if I exhausted it quickly I knew I could always take the train to Perugia or Spoleto, Gubbio or Foligno or Orvieto. Having never been to Assisi before, I was playing it by ear.

The first thing that struck me was the homogeneity: inside the city, the clock stopped at 1226. Venice, where I live, is a mad jumble of periods and styles, one layered on the other. In Assisi there are a few intrusions of the baroque, some renaissance facades, a Roman temple front from the previous millenium, but it is fundamentally a medieval walled town built from stone cut from Mount Subasio.

The bus from the train station let me off at the top of the city. I asked directions from two middle-aged women who were chatting nearby. "Sempre diritto," they said, pointing. Literally, it means "always straight," or "straight ahead." It is the universal answer in places where it is impossible to go straight because everything twists and turns. I understand it because we use it in Venice all the time -- where it is always impossible -- to mean "go that way by whatever means available."

The vicolo, as these steep, narrow, often stair-stepped lanes are called, led down to a square in front of S. Ruffino, a gothic church with a thick square campanile. My hotel was on Via S. Ruffino, which I spotted, and headed downhill. I overshot the hotel completely because I was distracted by another piazza at the foot of the hill, Piazza del Comune, Assisi's central square. I could see the Roman Temple of Minerva (1st C. B.C.) wedged between medieval stonework and the clock tower of the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (13th C.), a complete time sandwich.

One look was all it took. I knew immediately I was exactly where I wanted to be, not only in space, but in time. I dropped my bags off at the hotel and with just enough daylight left to reconnoiter, I headed for the Basilica to plan my campaign.

Entering the lower basilica at the end of a dark, overcast afternoon, my eyes took a while to adjust to the gloom and bad electric lighting. The nave has three bays and transepts at either end; each bay has chapels off to each side. The low ceilings are supported on squat pilasters. In the distance the vaults above the Papal altar glittered with gold Byzantine splendor. This was Medieval Italy par excellence, that phantasmagoria of Lombardic, Gothic, Byzantine, Roman, and Moorish. The flat walls, rounded walls, curved vaults, mouldings, cornices, pilasters, niches, are all covered with swirling patterns, geometric eye teasers, lush florals, lace, Persian enamels, Christmas gifts and candy wrappers painted with a rainbow brush. And those were just the trimmings framing the frescoes: panel after panel of medieval storybooks telling stories old and new.

Now I feared that four days might not be enough. And that was just the Lower Basilica. The sky was darkening rapidly so I ducked upstairs to see what the Upper Basilica is like.

San Francesco is like Saint-Chapelle in Paris: there is a church below, and one above, built directly on top of it. The lower structures are supportive, dark, cavelike; the soaring upper structures are filled with light. But at Saint Chapelle the lower chapel simply leads you to the upper chapel, where the walls of stained glass overwhelm you. It seemed the reverse at San Francesco. The Upper Basilica soars vertically, it is lighter, yes. But, at first glance, the lush velvety caverns below were immediately more enchanting.

Twenty-eight individual fresco panels line the nave of the Upper Basilica narrating the life of San Francesco, painted by Giotto and the "Giotteschi" -- his posse of students, cohorts, admirers. These were why I had come, and for the moment they withheld themselves from me. I was still reeling from the lower basilica.

The frescoes of the upper basilica were also suffering from comparison to the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, painted by Giotto a few years later. The Scrovegni frescoes are of such unsurpassed beauty that these seemed to come up a little short. But I also know that things often take time to reveal themselves. I got my orientation, and walked outside into the fading light. The setting sun was streaking the clouds bright orange and fire-coal red, turning the pink stones pinker.

The Piazza del Commune was pleasantly lit; the bars by the 15th c. lion fountain were filled with youngsters, people strolled toward Santa Chiara and the Porta Nuova, the old city gate in the other direction. The air was mild for a mid-winter evening and I was starving.

[For the Day 1 Photo Gallery, click Here]

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