In further anticipation of our aventura italiana, here’s the third of several posts I’m sending your way prior to our departure:

As you know, on our second full day in Tuscany we will take a road trip into the adjoining territory of Umbria–the only region of Italy that does not border the sea.  Umbria is the inner core of the peninsula, il cuore verde dell’Italia (Italy’s green heart).  Our destinations that day will include Assisi, the hill town made famous by Saint Francis.

Saint Francis is remembered for his compassionate character, his empathy for Mary and Jesus (Francis so completely identified with the sufferings of Jesus that he experienced the Stigmata, a replication of the wounds suffered by Christ at the Crucifixion), and his love of nature, which he saw as God’s creation.  In 1228, just two years after the death of Saint Francis, his followers began to construct the enormous Church of San Francesco, sited on the flank of a hill overlooking the Umbrian countryside.  Beginning in the 1280s, the new church was a magnet for prominent mural painters from Florence, Siena, and elsewhere.

The church is built on two levels, the so-called Lower and Upper Churches, both decorated with beautiful examples of late Medieval frescoes that lay the groundwork for Renaissance painting.  The Church of San Francesco and some of the frescoes inside will be the primary focus of our visit to Assisi.

Here’s an aerial view of the Church of San Francesco with full view of the Upper Church facade.  Umbria, the green heart, spreads out and beyond.

Here, we’re viewing the Church of San Francesco from the lower plaza.  The entrance of the Lower Church is to the left, with a bit of the entrance to the Upper Church just visible in the upper right corner of the photo (portal is under the round Rose window).  I think that might be me trudging up the shallow steps.

We’ll be entering by way of the Lower Church, the more intimate and sequestered of the two levels.  Its low vaults and arches are decorated with ornamental patterns, and paintings of Biblical figures cover the walls.  Here’s the interior of the Lower Church; the steps on either side lead into side chapels.

It’s a rich interior, and in 1995 Bonnie took a sampling of some of the patterns:

Down the sanctuary and around the corner to the right we will come upon this major fresco by the famous Florentine painter Cimabue . . .

. . . considered to be the grandfather of Renaissance painting in Italy.  He spent the years 1280-1285 in Assisi, painting scenes in Saint Francis’s church.  This is his fresco of the Madonna and Child with angels and Saint Francis.  Never mind that Mary and Jesus lived 1200 years before Saint Francis did.  This is art.

Saint Francis stands to the right in his characteristic plain cloth robe with rope belt.  He shows us the results of his Stigmata–the wounds in his hands, feet, and side.  Viewers over the centuries have delighted in the gentle tenderness of the Madonna and Child and the subtlety of the lights and shadows bathing the face of Mary.  It’s this emphasis on the delicacy of human form and beauty and the tenderness with which Mary tickles Jesus’s foot that helps qualify Cimabue as the forefather of the humanism of Renaissance painting.

A word about fresco painting: This is the medium that involves painting pigments directly into the wet plaster as it dries on the wall.  You have to work fairly fast, to keep ahead of the drying plaster.  It’s an ancient medium, but Cimabue of Florence was one of the first to revive its use in his era, and his early experiments were here at Assisi.  Frescoes by nature are permanently affixed to the wall on which they were painted: Cimabue was right here, right where we will be standing, when he painted this.  All the paintings we’ll see at the Church of San Francesco are frescoes.  (Another category of painting is panel–paintings on wood panels that, in theory, can be moved from one place to another; we’ll see our share of panel paintings on this trip, as well.)

Here’s another famous fresco at San Francesco, also featuring Mary, Jesus, and Saint Francis:

This one is by the Sienese artist Pietro Lorenzetti.  It’s his Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and Saint John the Evangelist (1320s), also in the Lower Church.  This is sometimes called the “Sunset Madonna” because it is positioned so that it catches the light of the setting sun each day.  Mary attempts to get Jesus to say hello to Saint Francis but to no avail: Jesus only has eyes for this mother.  (That’s Saint John the Evangelist on the right, with the red tunic.)

Then, we’ll climb some fairly steep stairs to the Upper Church, a more spacious and formal space (the ceremonial, public portion):

Down the sanctuary and to the left, in the left transept, is another remarkable Cimabue fresco:

It’s his Crucifixion of Christ, also painted during the period 1280-1285.  This stands as one of the great monuments of late Medieval painting in Italy.  Cimabue renders the scene in highly emotional terms, in keeping with Francis’s own intense response to the suffering of Christ.  The body of Christ sags on the cross into an extreme S-curve of pain and suffering, the angels careen hysterically in the sky around the cross, and at the base of the cross huddles Saint Francis, who imagined this event so intensely that he is present at it.  Fresco, though and old medium, was just being rediscovered in Central Italy when Cimabue painted this work; he did not fully understand the chemical properties of the medium, with the result that over time the lights and darks have reversed themselves, so that this enormous mural takes on the qualities of a huge photographic negative.

Leaving the transept, we step back into the main section of the Upper Church:

This part of the church is also decorated with frescoes, the row beneath the windows said to be by the Florentine painter Giotto, who with the somewhat older Cimabue laid the groundwork for Renaissance painting.  There is scholarly debate as to whether these really are by Giotto, but prominent experts assert that they are.  The scenes describe the life of Saint Francis from his youth as a wealthy young Assisi gentleman, to his vow of poverty and founding of the Franciscan brotherhood.   At the far end, to the right of the doors, is one of the most famous of this set:

This is the scene of Saint Francis preaching to the birds, an incident that confirms his love of and respect for nature.  The case for Giotto as the creator of this work is given credibility by the sensitive interpretation of human behavior: notice how Saint Francis’s companion responds with surprise if not incredulity as his master takes on the project of explaining a few matters to the birds.  The companion is dubious, but the birds seem pretty attentive.

Saint Francis’s teachings about the humanity of Mary and Jesus and his reverence for nature as the creation of God did much to shift Christian experience from abstract doctrine to life lived here and now.  The frescoes painted in the Church of Saint Francis by Cimabue, Giotto, and others were among the first to lead art into increasingly humanistic interpretations of Christian narratives.

The fresco of Saint Francis with the birds is located just inside the front door of the Upper Church, so that you can view the Saint’s embrace of nature just as you are about to leave the church and re-enter nature yourself.  It’s no wonder that Saint Francis loved nature, for there is none more beautiful than that around Assisi!

We’ll have a bit of free time to stroll Assisi, maybe locating a recuperative cappuccino:

And then it’s lunch at a local restaurant.

BUT–Assisi is just one of our stops on this busy day.  After lunch, it is on to Perugia for an afternoon of sight-seeing:

Of Perugia, our late friend and colleague Adele Birnbaum, who studied Italian at the Universita per Stranieri in the early 1990s, had this to say:  “From the very beginning, I could see that finding my way around in the medieval hill town of Perugia would be a matter of luck.  For one thing, the city was vertical in most places and horizontal in a few others, and the map didn’t show this” (“Tales of Perugia,” Willamette Journal of the Liberal Arts, Spring 1994).  How right she was.  And that is why in Perugia and in all other locations we will have the services of excellent guides.

In 2008, Estella was our guide in both Assisi and Perugia.  Here, she’s telling us about one of the flatter areas of Perugia, a piazza with a church where a wedding was occurring, the musicians waiting to herald the happy couple:

On a fountain nearby, relief sculptures are reminders of the story of a much earlier couple:

Be all that as it may, on we stroll . . .

. . . back to the coach for the return to Cortona.  The Assisi-Perugia day is long, exciting, and strenuous.  As Adele and I used to tell our Florence Program tour groups, “Pluck, Scholars!  Summon your pluck!”  This may be a day when a little of that is needed.

But then, back at the Hotel San Luca, we can rest a little while before going to the dining room for dinner and leisurely conversation about a day well spent.

Ciao for now.  I’ll be back in touch before long.



2 Responses to “Assisi”

  1. Beautiful, loved your photos. I would love to visit these sites some day!

  2. Melissa Livengood Says:

    Am remembering more of the wonderful WU trip in 1979! Great photos. And how could I forget “pluck”??

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