Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Four Days in Assisi

Day 3

Today there is light fog the sun will soon burn off. After breakfast I decide to hike up to Rocco Maggiore, and then catch up with the afternoon sun at the Basilica.

I climb past S. Ruffino to the oldest quarter of the city, built in the remnants of a Roman arena. The central oval of the arena is now a garden and houses encircle it; the stone blocks quarried locally were laid amid Roman masonry. Just outside the arena is the Porta Perfici, the highest-placed of the old stone gates into the city. From there I walk along the crest to Rocca Maggiore.

Rocca Maggiore commands the summit of Monte Subasio, with 360-degree views of the city, the valley and the encircling hills covered with olive and pine, fields and forest slopes, farmhouses and churches. To naturalists, Monte Subasio is a protected nature preserve with a few ancient buildings of note.

A fortress has stood here since Etruscan times; it was a Roman fortress before being rebuilt in the twelfth century by the German Emperors who laid claim to Italy. Frederick II, the German king and Holy Roman Emperor, who was born in Assisi and later reigned over a brilliant court in Sicily, lived in Rocco Maggiore as a child. After the expulsion of the Germans the fortress was sacked by the locals only too glad to be rid of them, and was rebuilt almost immediately by a succession of Cardinals and Popes, for whom it was an important bastion against further incursions of the Empire.

My curiosity about Rocco Maggiore was especially keen because Frederick II's grandfather, the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, played an immense role in Venetian history. The 1174 meeting between Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III, known as the Peace of Venice, was orchestrated by Doge Sebastiano Ziano. This high summit, formalizing the submission of the Emperor to Papal authority, was conducted in a blaze of pomp and splendor on the steps of the Basilica of San Marco. In gratitude the Pope gave the Doge a suite of gifts that for the next 600 years were symbolically displayed in every Ducal procession. For Venice, the summit confirmed their pre-eminent position in the medieval world: Mistress of the Seas. Alexander III supposedly gave Ziani a gold ring with which to marry the sea during the Festa della Sensa, the annual rite which had already gone on for centuries and perhaps dated back to Roman times. Sailing to the San Nicolo mouth of the lagoon each Doge threw a ring into the Adriatic with the words "we marry you, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion."

The exoskeleton of Rocco Maggiore is a patchwork of periods; inside is a twelfth century fortress/castle with ovens for baking bread, dormitories for the soldiers, an enclosed garden for food and livestock, and a towering keep to house generals, emperors, or popes. The thick outer walls are pierced with keyhole windows where watch was kept and the crossbows which revolutionized medieval warfare were mounted. A corkscrew of stone stairs polished shiny with use winds up to the very top of the keep where the view is awe-inspiring. A corridor a quarter mile long runs through walls linking the keep to the polygonal tower which pinions the farthest flank of the mountaintop.

The view from atop the polygonal tower is dizzying and exhilarating. From here you can easily imagine the medieval powerbrokers planning their moves on the chessboard of history. It is the photo-op par excellence, windswept and dazzling.

But it is not the heart of Assisi. From the polygonal tower you also have a clear view of the Basilica of San Francesco below, perched on a sharp spine of rock once called the "Hill of Hell" because it was where the public executions took place. It was Francesco's express wish to be buried there. After his death, the basilica complex arose and it was transformed into the "Hill of Paradise," the symbolic and spiritual center of the city.

From Rocco Maggiore a dirt mountain path winds its way down into the city; I emerge near the Church of San Stefano. Twisted vicolos stair-step down to the broad green lawn in front of the Upper Basilica. There is a statue of San Francesco at the far end of the lawn. He is not standing with his arms outstretched to receive the stigmata; he is not preaching to the birds; he is not even dressed like a monk. He is a young warrior on the losing side, ill, heartsick, defeated, astride his weary horse. It is Francesco before his transformation; the horse plods slowly toward the basilica. The simple message "Pax," peace, is written in topiary hedges in front of him and above that a patch of purple bush is cut into the shape of a tau, the character with which he signed his letters and the symbol of his movement.

Francesco di Bernardone was charismatically charming, a party animal, master of revels for the young noblemen of the city. He was a musician, an aspiring poet, but above all he was inspired by the ideals of knightly chivalry and longed to distinguish himself in war.

In the first fresco of the cycle of his life, he is walking down the street, proud and fine, while a humble man spreads a cloak at his feet so that he will not soil his velvet slippers. That's how the story begins.

It is told in 28 frescoes lining the walls beneath the high stained glass windows. Each bay has a set of three panels; the last set nearest the portal has four panels because the bay is deeper. There is one panel on either side of the portal, and then the story continues in the same configuration down the opposite wall.

The each group of three panels is tied together by compositional elements that thrust the narrative forward. In one, Francesco meets with the Pope seeking authorization for his new Order. On the far left his humble band of monks in plain brown robes kneels in prayer. On the right, the Pope and Cardinals cluster in brilliant robes. Francesco kneels in the center, offering the Pope the rules of his order. The document, a delicate curl of white, links the two men, pulling the picture together and drawing the story forward.

The rising diagonal of bodies points directly to the focal point of the next panel, Francesco riding a chariot into the sky, above his awestruck and dreaming brothers . This in turn carries the eye to the third panel, Francesco's dream of the empty, awaiting thrones in heaven; they hover above the kneeling Francesco who anchors the lower part of the frame. The upper and lower elements are tied together by Christ hovering in the center, vertically and horizontally, linking heaven and earth.

Giotto, or whoever painted this image, was a complete master of his narrative technique. There is no pretty picture painting here, everything shown is essential to drive the story forward and reveal its meaning. The language is symbolic. The architectural elements of the buildings are realistic, but they do not add up to a real building, they add up to a universal symbol for glorious palace or humble, rundown church. The figures, who are portraying, for the most part, actual people, are at once palpably real as people and also abstactions, the prodigal son, the humble saint, the dying man, the village idiot. This is the extraordinary plasticity of medieval narrative. Reality and symbol are one. Reality is arranged to tell the story; the symbols are arranged to give it universal meaning and resonance. They are fused in a gorgeous pastel world.

It becomes impossible to single out individual pictures; none is better than the others. They all exist at the pinnacle of human expressiveness. You cannot help but feel that the men who created these frescoes, the kaleidoscopic patterns on the vaults, the faux fabric and uncannily real architectural details, were totally joyous in their creation. "Look, Ma!" they were singing. "We're painting the most gorgeous things the world has ever seen!"

Three times in two days I stopped, then walked up close to see if the dentils, the teeth of the deeply notched stone mouldings, were real or painted. Each time I forgot that I had checked before, or simply didn't believe that I was right. Even close up they preserve the illusion of depth although obviously painted on flat plaster.

The Upper Basilica is filled with marvels. There are stained glass windows above each bay that rival those in the Chapel of S. Martino downstairs. Small miracles abound. Near the altar, on the left corner where the nave meets the transept a stone pulpit rises up a quarter of the way toward the vaults. The slender seemingly-structural pilaster dropping from the vault above it stops just above the pulpit. I looked more closely. The base of the suspended pilaster rests in the palm of a large yet delicate hand cupping it. There is nothing else like it anywhere in the basilica. But these are decorative, a colossal framing device for the frescoes.

Something especially important was being represented in these stories in paint and plaster. At the living heart of religious myth is spirit, which we can see reflected in the faces of a humankind carefully and exhaustively painted on these walls, humble, hopeful, proud, afraid, dying, praying, exalted. It lies beyond the visible, we can only grasp it symbolically, and it unites and elevates. It shines through this art like a brilliant sun through patchy clouds, and at last I am able to appreciate the festive opulence of the basilica. It is a means of evoking the felicities and mysteries of the invisible spirit that moves the universe. To experience them is a joyous experience. It is the gift of all great art.

[For the Day 3 Photo Gallery, click Here]

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