Walking down the same streets as Francis of Assisi

Trip Start Jan 06, 2011
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Flag of Italy  , Umbria,
Friday, February 4, 2011

Amazingly, I have been in Italy over a month now.  That time has flown by already.  Since my last entry, I am feeling much better, thanks to lots of Italian medicine.  Also last weekend, I visited two more Italian cities.  First was my trip to Assisi with my Contemporary Global Issues class.  Since this class focuses on St. Francis's life and philosophy, I was especially excited to see the city where he was born and where he lived.  St. Francis is known for his vow of poverty and his acceptance of social outcasts, and he is often painted as a Christlike figure.  Francis's philosophy is still carried out by a number of Franciscan orders throughout Italy and the world.  Every follower of Francis is expected to make a pilgrimage to Assisi and walk the same streets that Francis did 800 years ago.

My class met in Piazza Italia in Perugia at 8:00 a.m.  Due to some miscommunication, we didn't board our bus till 8:30, but we were off to Assisi by 8:30.  Since Assisi is so close to Perugia, it only took us about 30 minutes to get there.  First on the itinerary was a visit to the church of San Damiano, where Francis had a vision in which Jesus told him, "Rebuild my church."  San Damiano was outside the city down a huge hill and we got to see some of the Umbrian countryside, vineyards, and sheep. 

After San Damiano, we took an escalator up into the main city.  We entered through Porta Nuova, the main city gate, after taking 15 minutes or so to play on a playground.  Walking into the center, we stopped at the Basilica di Santa Chiara, or St. Clare.  St. Clare is best remembered for establishing the Poor Clares, a Franciscan order for women which still practices extreme poverty.  Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos in this church or most other religious sites in Assisi, but I got some good pictures of the outside.  In the basement of the church, we visited a small exhibit containing relics from St. Clare and St. Francis.  Then we saw the remains of St. Clare, which are on display for the public.

After leaving the church, we noticed a large number of shops selling religious objects.  Since so many people come to Assisi for religious reasons, it's only natural that these stores have sprung up, but to someone accustomed to the comparatively secular feel of the United States, these shops are very bizarre-looking.  We also saw a Franciscan friar walking through the center wearing the traditional cord around his waste and no shoes.  Even though it was a very nice day for winter in Italy, it was probably still around 50 degrees and walking down the cobblestone streets without shoes can't have been very comfortable.  We made our way to Piazzetta di San Francesco Piccolino--literally, the small square of the very little St. Francis.  This Piazza is where you can find St. Francis's traditional birthplace.  His birthplace isn't much to look at anymore, just a gate into a small chapel, but it was really neat to think about the history associated with that location and how many pilgrims had come to that spot for centuries.

After that, we headed down to a very old church, but unfortunately I can't remember the name right now.  Our professor told us that St. Francis actually attended church there though.  Then we headed toward the Basilica de San Francesco, or St. Francis.  This church was built shortly after St. Francis's death to hold his body.  The interior of the upper church is absolutely beautiful, decorated with a series of frescoes by Giotto illustrating Francis's life.  There are also frescoes by Cimabue, Giotto's teacher, in this part of the church, but an earthquake damaged them and they were never touched up, so they are quite deteriorated.  In the lower church, we saw other works by Cimabue and Pietro Lorenzetti depicting the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus, and St. Francis.  We headed further downstairs to the crypt of St. Francis, where his body is held, but we couldn't get very close because prayers had just started in the chapel area.

After the Basilica de San Francesco, we headed off to lunch.  A bunch of us went to a pizzeria that my professor recommended and I had a tasty vegetable pizza.  Then we headed down to meet our bus and we rode outside of the center down to Santa Maria degli Angeli.  This huge church was constructed around 1600, so it was much more modern than most of the other churches we had seen in Italy.  Inside, the walls are decorated with wonderful paintings by several artists from different periods.  What made this church really unique was that it was built on the swampy land where St. Francis and his followers once lived.  Inside the church, a small chapel, Porziuncola, is preserved from way before Francis's birth.  Francis was given this church by the Benedictine monks and it is seen as one of the most sacred places in Assisi.  There is also a rose garden where according to tradition, Francis rolled in the thorns when he was overcome by temptation.  Whenever his body came in contact with the thorns, they disappeared from the bushes.  After finishing up with the church, I headed to the train station in Assisi where I got a ticket to Bologna.

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