History, facts and travel tips about Assisi
Assisi, standing on the western slope of Mount Subasio, overlooks the valley enclosed by Chiascio and Topino rivers. Dante Alighieri mentioned Assisi in the Divine Comedy as the birthplace of the Sun: in fact, it is where both Saint Francis -who would become the Saint Patron of Italy- and Saint Clare lived and died. The area around Assisi was inhabited as far back as the Neolithic period. From the 9th century BC, it was the location of a tiny village founded by Umbrians who, according to archaeological findings, traded with neighbouring Etruscans living along the west bank of the Tiber.
The Romans gave Assisi its urban form, creating a colony known as Asisium in the 4th century BC. The name has an uncertain origin; it could mean “City of the Hawk”, or simply derive from the Assino river. At that point, the city started enjoying a long period of peace and prosperity. During the Roman Empire it became an important trading and social centre. The city holiness began when the bishop Rufino -later martyred- arrived in town -starting preaching Christianity- in the 3rd century AD.
Life in Assisi was not always peaceful: in the 4th century AD it was sacked by King Totila's Ostrogoths and later taken over by the Byzantines. When it came under Lombard rule, it was annexed to the Duchy of Spoleto. In the 12th century it was conquered by Frederick I, known as Barbarossa (Red Beard). In the Communes era people rebelled, starting battles with neighbouring Perugia. It was during that period that Francis was born; a man who was to leave an indelible mark on the history of Assisi and Christianity.
In 1200 emperor Frederick II as well laid claim to the city: he was successfully resisted thanks to the city army, but also to the charisma of a woman, Clare, friend of Francis.
During the following years, control of the city passed both to the Guelfs and the Ghibellines, but also the Catholic Church, Perugia, the Visconti family, the Montefeltros and the Sforza family fought to gain control of it. In 1142 Assisi was devastated by the troops of Niccolò Piccinino, a general from Perugia. Further devastation awaited the city when, centuries later, Napoleon Bonaparte sacked it, stealing many works of art.
In 1800 the bodies of Saint Francis and Saint Clare were found, making Assisi an even more important pilgrimage destination than it had been in the Middle Ages. During WWII, the city provided asylum for thousands of refugees, mainly jewish, becoming one of the main centres of the Italian Resistance movement. Persecuted Jews were hidden in convents, dressed as friars and sisters and provided with false documents; such generosity of Assisi population earned the city a gold medal for civilian honour.
In addition to archaeological findings, ancient Roman remains include an amphitheatre dating back to 1st Century BC. Its structure is not completely visible, but the original plan can be detected in the elliptical-shaped arrangement of medieval houses built on the ancient building ruins; where the arena was there is now a garden. A travertine arch belonging to the theatre survived too. Since nowadays the buildings preserving the amphitheatre perimeter are private homes, they are not open for visits, but it is worthwhile to take a walk around and admire its remains.
One more striking spot is the Rocca Maggiore, atop a hill overlooking the valley. It dates back to early middle ages and was destroyed in a revolt in 1200; Cardinal Albornoz rebuilt it in 1356, keeping the original shape unchanged.
Anyway, the most visited places in Assisi, by nonreligious people, believers, and people of all religions, are with no doubt those connected to the story of Francis, the humble saint who tried to reform the Church and founded the mendicant order of the Franciscans. But not everyone knows that Francis is also connected to literature; his “Canticle of the Sun” is considered among the first examples of the Italian literary tradition.
An exploration of his life helps explain how every corner of the city is profoundly tied to the saint and his works. Francis was born in Assisi in 1182 from a bourgeois family; his given name was Giovanni; however his father, a cloth merchant, renamed him Francis upon his return from a journey to France. Francis also became a cloth merchant and enjoyed living an life of enjoyment together with other young aristocrats in the city. During the war which had broken out between Assisi and Perugia in 1154, he fought alongside his friends and after a terrible defeat in Collestrada, he was captured and imprisoned. The war experience and his capture shook him to his core and changed his life; when the war ended Francis, critically ill after a year spent in prison, was freed.
Maybe his will to be a knight and join the Crusaders, or his innate compassion for weak, sick, marginalized people, led him along a path culminating in his conversion: he left Assisi as a knight, but he fell sick again and his journey ended in Spoleto, where he had a vision suggesting him to follow in the footsteps of the “Lord” instead of his “Slave”. From that moment on, he started giving his father’s money to poor people and kissing lepers, making his family quite disappointed.
The peak of his conversion was the day a crucifix in the small church of Saint Damian spoke urging him to “repair his house which was about to collapse”, so Francis started selling his father’s fabrics with the aim to collect money for the restoration; his father, furious, sued him. During the trial, the young man gave away all his property, completely baring himself to prove his aim was true. So his new life began.
He abandoned mundane attractions with the aim of explaining how renouncing material values could led to “perfect joy”. For that reason, in the beginning he was considered as a subversive and even a fool. He soon began preaching around the neighbouring area of Assisi, where other young people joined him forming the first nucleus of the friars community. His preaching was direct and captivating -sources state. He was a great speaker who was able to enchant his listeners.
In 1209 the Pope approved the Rule of Franciscan Order, although there is no record of the original document. The friars settled in the “Porziuncola”, the small church still visible within the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Such a new, “revolutionary” way of living also attracted women: Clare, a noblewoman, was the first one, followed by her sister and many others. They started living together in the small church of Saint Damian, creating the “Clarisse" (Poor Clares) order, named after Clare.
Over time, the crowd of friars grew remarkably and such a peaceful revolution started expanding towards Germany, France, Spain, among others. In 1219 Francis sailed to Egypt and Palestine where the 5th Crusade was under way. He managed to obtain a meeting with the Sultan, Saladin’s nephew, in a Saracen camp besieged by the Crusaders. Francis aroused great admiration, was treated with great respect and was offered lavish gifts. It is not clear if the saint supported the crusaders or if he was there as a detractor; actually, both Christian and Arab sources testify he was the first to undertake a dialogue with Islam.
As the order grew, conflicts began to arise related to some friars accepting money as a gift. Meanwhile Francis, sick, felt the increasing need to withdraw in solitude. He often climbed into the Eremo delle Carceri -at the feet of Monte Subasio- or to La Verna in Tuscany. It was there he had a vision and immediately after he received stigmata -signs of Christ’s Passion -sources say; after his death, he was always depicted with stigmata.
In June 1226, afflicted with an eye disease and other physical suffering, he dictated his testament and asked to go back and die in Assisi, in his favourite sacred place: the Porziuncola. And so he did: he died on October 3. His body was carried through the whole city passing by the church of Saint Damian where Clare and her sisters bid him farewell; he was buried in the Church of Saint George and four years later his body was moved to the Lower Church of the basilica named after him, his resting place to this day.