There are several ways to travel from Spello to Assisi. The first, quickest but most boring, is via the main route SS75. Secondly, the local roads that go gently north through some small historic villages. And the road we chose. Right up almost to the summit of the Mountain, some 1290 metres (4230 feet) high. The mountain was (and perhaps still is) regarded as a sacred and mystical place; the beauty and solitude was certainly inspiring. The route follows an ancient cart track, winding steeply upwards with hair-raising hairpin bends (particularly when the driver is situated on the blind side of the car, as was I). The surface degenerated as we ascended, and soon we were driving over a pounded stone track, full of holes and rocks. Luckily we met few other cars (I should have wondered why) so were able to use the width of the road when things got really bad. The track was barely wide enough for 2 vehicles with very few passing places. Fortunately I was able to pull over when a large cattle truck approached from behind; we saw him shortly afterwards disgorging the animals onto the high pastures. We reached the snow line shortly afterwards.
When we did get the chance to stop, we were treated to superb views across to the Appenines.
Eventually we got our first view of Assisi, tumbling down the lower slopes of the mountain, the rose hue of its stones shimmering through the swirling cloud.
Assisi was the birthplace of Saint Francis, and it was here that he set up his religious order, based on the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The town is permeated by monuments and art commemorating the life and works of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare, who also lived and worked in Assisi. It is for this reason that the town remains a place of pilgrimage for many Christians, and is one of the main tourist centres in Italy.
The most significant monument is the Basilica of Saint Francis, constructed shortly after his death in 1226, although much of the internal decoration was added later. The Basilica dominates the town; externally I did not think it was beautiful architecturally, but inside it was visually stunning.
The Basilica consists of 2 churches: the upper church was built on top of the lower church and the crypt. All have been damaged to some extent by earthquakes, but the restoration has been well executed. The tomb of Saint Francis is in the crypt, along with those of several of his closest followers.
The lower church is rather dark, but the quality of the wonderfully rich art is superb. Some of the greatest artists of the age, including Giotto, Cimabue and the unidentified Maestro di San Francesco contributed to the frescoes. No photography is allowed, so the following photos are taken from postcards, just to illustrate the extent of the decoration.
The upper church is lofty and bright. Its art is more famous (though I am a fan of the lower church art), in particular the episodes from the life of Saint Francis are considered to be amongst the world’s great masterpieces. This fresco cycle was attributed to Giotto and his assistant, but more latterly is thought to be the work of the Maestro di San Francesco. But both Giotto and Cimabue are well represented in the art of the upper church.
Leaving the Basilica, we walked to the main square – the Piazza del Comune – which is largely medieval and well preserved. In fact, the Temple of Minerva (1st Century BC) and the Torre del Popolo (13th Century) can be seen in one of the frescoes of the life of Saint Francis!
The town was crowded with tourists, surprising this early in the year. It was disappointing that many of the restaurants and shops seemed to cater entirely for the tourists, with fast food and cheap religious souveniers everywhere. I have said before that I am not religious, but I love the architecture and art that organised religion has generated over the decades. I still find it distasteful that making money is such a key feature of many religious sites.
We called it a day at that point; it is just too much to take in on a single visit, so we will return to again do battle with the crowds.