27 August 2012

Umbria I - Assisi

The Heart of Italy - Part I

La Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

On September 26th, 1997, starting at 2.30am, Italy suffered a series of heart attacks.  The furred up arteries of her heartland were racked with shocks which caused devastation in and around Assisi, the home town of St Francis, patron saint of Italy.  The great basilica, with Giotto’s 13th century frescos of the life of the saint, was seriously damaged and much of the vaulted ceilings fell in ruins.  In the neighbouring hills, monasteries and villages were ravaged and, as with a serious cardiac arrest, there was fear, pain, and death.

The Cloister of the Basilica of St Francis

Fortunately the paramedics, doctors and nurses worked tirelessly and brilliantly and the green heart of Italy is still beating.  Some might even say its health has been improved, and like a reformed smoker, Assisi is pink and shiny, clean and bright, getting up early to greet the day and still having the energy to stay up late at night.  The basilica is in top condition, and the miraculous cycle of frescos has been restored for all to admire, so we can still see young Frank handing his father his fine clothes in the presence of the Bishop, and the remarkable proportions and movements of the doves, quails and sparrows coming to feed from his careworn hands.

Reflections on St Francis

Some say, however, there has been an element of Disneyfication, so that Assisi, with its crowds, is more a medieval theme park than a living museum.  It’s too smart and shiny, and, again like some reformed smokers, there’s a zealous cleanness about it that doesn’t quite convince.  In fact, the town is craving for a puff of smoke, a taint of tawdriness in the darker corners, and that touch of danger that comes from risky practice.

Tempting goodies to catch the eye

You can sense the tensions in the shop windows – a material world of glittering creations is on sale here, from plaster Saints to enticing cakes; figurines for cribs to hand-painted pottery.  On the steps of the great church of Santa Chiara a group of brothers wait for opening time, their watches and mobile phones not quite in keeping with their simple habits and sandals.

On the steps of Santa Chiara

For me there’s interest in these contradictions, but I tend to prefer the other places, not quite so pretty, not quite so frequented.  However, I am not complaining – Assisi is a wonder; a treasure trove of medieval art and architecture, from the imposing Rocca Maggiore that dominates the hill to the cloisters of San Damiano below.  And you do not have to wander far up the stony veins that lead into the piazza to get away from the swirling, chattering masses, and to find symbolic peace within the walls and gardens.

A Peace Niche within the walls of Assisi

And one special place, not far from Assisi, that also suffered in the landquake, is the Abbey of Sassovivo (living rock – because of the clearwater spring there).  This monastery, which tops a spur on the wooded slopes of 1100m Monte Aguzzo, commands a view across the city of Foligno and up towards Monte Subasio and Assisi. 

The Abbey of Sassovivo, 520 metres above sea level

It was founded by Benedictines around the year 1,000, and was an important centre of scholarship in the fourteenth century, although it went into decline in the fifteenth.  Today it is the home of a small group of The Little Brothers of Jesus, followers of Charles de Foucauld.  It is being lovingly restored, but work is slow.  Central to the complex is a beautiful Romanesque cloister, the work of Pietro De Maria in 1229, who constructed it in Rome to be brought here and assembled. 

Part of the Cloister at Sassovivo

I marvel at the idea of an upmarket medieval Ikea, with the monks choosing the design from a vellum catalogue and a team of donkeys employed to deliver the goods.  It consists of 128 double columns, with 58 arches, around an ornate well (dating from 1340, although redesigned in 1623).  Today the silent shade is skewed, as though the hand of God has lifted and twisted it slightly but left it whole, respecting its integrity and value as a place of contemplation.  A solitary brother studies in the cool.  The coloured marbles, pink limestone and threads of mosaic catch the sunlight and reflect it back to the blue sky.  Nothing stirs, except for a tiny tremor in my heart. 

Il Chiostro - Sassovivo

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