31 July 2008


I spent today in Spoleto, another Umbrian hill town south of Assisi. It was oppressively hot today, so I waited until later in the afternoon to sightsee. The town was mostly empty, so I got to see the frescoes by Fra Fillippo Lippi in the Duomo undisturbed. Storms had been building all afternoon and rain finally came pouring down while I was inside the Cathedral, creating a break in the temperature. After it stopped raining, I walked further uphill to the Ponte delle Torri, a striking medieval bridge built over a Roman aqueduct. From that vantage point, I had fabulous views over Spoleto and the valley as well as the bridge and Rocca, a late medieval fortress. There was a fairly strong breeze which actually made it feel chilly - such a nice change after feeling like I’ve been living in a furnace! While I enjoyed Spoleto and found it very pretty, there was less to see than I had hoped as the museums were already closed for August.
The Palazzo Comunale

The Duomo

The Duomo - S. Maria Assunta

Rose window with telemones

Thirteenth-century mosaic depicting Christ enthroned

Apse frescoes, completed in part by Filippo Lippi, whose tomb is in the Cathedral

Detail of the Coronation of the Virgin

Altar in one of the side chapels with a frescoed front depicting Christ as the Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrows)

View of Spoleto from above on the walk to the Ponte delle Torri

The fourteenth-century Rocca Albornoziana which was used as a jail in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The scenic Ponte delle Torri, definitely of medieval construction, but which may or may not be built over Roman foundations.

View of the hills and storm clouds around Spoleto from the Ponte delle Torri

30 July 2008

Assisi, Part Two

Bella Assisi, nothing I write and none of the pictures I’ve taken can convey just how wonderful this town is, especially in the evening when it’s peaceful and there’s a beautiful Umbrian sunset framing the Basilica. St. Francis’ greeting, Pax et Bonum, peace and all good, I think articulates the character of Assisi best of all. As I write this, I am sitting on the terrace of the convent and the nuns have just begun their evening prayers (I guess this would be compline?).
Today I braved the hills, inclines, and undulating terrain of the town to see most of the major sites, starting with the Duomo, dedicated to Saint Rufino (Rufus?), who brought Christianity to Assisi in the third century. On the way there, I passed the Temple of Minerva, a beautifully preserved first century Roman temple, now converted into a church.
Temple of Minerva in the Piazza del Comune

The Duomo has a very pretty exterior with an intricately carved door and pretty rose window, below which are three carved figures who appear to be holding up the church. The inside is plain and holds in the font in which St. Francis, St. Clare, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II were baptized.

Cathedral of San Rufino

The rose window, "supported" by three telemones
Romanesque lunette over the main door with Christ, Mary, and San Rufino on the left

It was obvious that today was going to be another hot day, so I decided to make the trek up to the Rocca Maggiore, a medieval fortress which overlooks Assisi and the valley below. The walk took about half an hour, almost all uphill, though nothing too steep and the views were well worth the climb.

Rocca Maggiore from the Cathedral

Street which follows the outline of the Roman amphitheatre

Rocca Maggiore

View of Assisi and Santa Chiara from Rocca Maggiore

The Basilica from above

Gorgeous scenery

The walk back down to Assisi was all downhill, so within ten minutes, I found myself back in town at the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare), one of Francis’ followers who founded the Poor Clares, the female branch of the Franciscans. Clare’s church is basically a miniature copy of the Francis’ basilica across town, with the addition of buttresses along the walls of the nave to prevent the collapse of the building due to a poor foundation. The interior of the church has remained mostly unadorned, in contrast to San Francesco. What I found most startling is that Clare’s body is on display in the crypt below, laid out in a glass coffin for all to see. Now, I understand the whole saint/relic thing, and can appreciate it even if I don’t agree with it. But really, an entire body?

The Church of St. Clare

Buttresses supporting the church

After that semi-traumatizing event, I came back to the hotel for a few hours since everything shuts at mid-day to avoid the heat. Later in the afternoon, I visited the Pinacoteca, which has some very nice medieval paintings, including two crucifixion scenes, both from the Confraternity of Santa Maria del Vescovato, about which I know absolutely nothing, but hope to find out more.

Crucifixion from Santa Maria del Vescovato

Fragment of a fresco depicting the Crucifixion, also from S. Maria del Vescovato

I spent the rest of the afternoon back at the Basilica of San Francesco taking in the frescoes again. In the Upper Basilica, each of the frescoed scenes is divided by painted pillars and molding, done with perspective in mind so there’s a tromp l’oeil effect and it looks like they’re three-dimensional instead of flat on a wall. There’s also a set of beautiful wooden choir stalls which also utilize tromp l’oeil, this time with wood so that the backs of the stalls appear to have doors or shelves for books. As beautiful as the church is, though, I can’t help but think that St. Francis would be appalled at the opulence spilled out in his name.

Gelato count: 6

29 July 2008

Assisi, Part One

Today I left Rome for Assisi, the small town in the Appenine Mountains of Umbria, made famous by St. Francis in the thirteenth century. I was sad to leave the sisters at the hotel since they’ve been so kind, but it’s definitely nice to be out of Rome and someplace quieter, at least now, in the evening, with most of the crowds gone. The trip here via public transportation wasn’t too bad, though my morning started out poorly when ticket inspectors got on the bus just before Termini and I couldn’t find my newly purchased ticket. 50 euro fines are not fun, especially when I could be buying shoes or gelato instead. Once I got out of Rome, things went more smoothly, and the scenery on the train ride was beautiful. I got to Assisi in the early afternoon after negotiating the many inclines from the bus stop to the convent where I’m staying - I have to say that guidebooks are great, but they really should include topographical maps to prepare you for towns like Assisi! While the nuns at this convent don’t seem to be as friendly as the Brigittines (they’re Franciscans) the location of this convent is spectacular, literally across from the Basilica, and my room has a large window from which I have a dramatic view of the church and the valley below.

The iconic Basilica

View of St. Clare's church and part of the upper town

It was hot again today, so I spent the afternoon at the Basilica admiring the artwork covering the walls. The found amount of “religious-ness” somewhat overwhelming since I’m so used to Protestant churches with their bare walls (and we would never have relics and popish things like that!). Even the Catholic churches in Northern Europe - Notre Dame in Paris and Onze-Lieve-Vrouwe Cathedral in Antwerp included - don’t have such ornate interiors as some of the Italian churches I’ve seen so far. The Roman horror vacui has obviously persisted in Italy and it takes some getting used to. The frescoes are fabulous, though some are in pretty poor condition, both from age and the earthquake about ten years ago. There are three depictions of the Crucifixion between the Lower and Upper Basilicas and two Passion narratives, one in each. I thought the images of the Passion in the Upper Basilica were more interesting and they could have been seen by a wider audience, but I couldn’t find any information about them in the bookstore or tourist information office and photos aren’t allowed inside the building, so I think I’m out of luck. The narrative in the Lower Basilica was done by Pietro Lorenzetti, but is in a chapel which probably would have been inaccessible to most people, so for that reason isn’t particularly useful. The third Crucifixion is also in the Lower Basilica, but it’s on a wall that can only be seen from behind the altar, so again, most people wouldn’t have seen it.

One of the many pretty houses in Assisi

The Pilgrim's Oratory

I spent this evening walking around Assisi appreciating the peacefulness. The sunset was beautiful and I took lots of pictures of the buildings and the scenery. This convent has a 10:00 curfew, but that’s not really a problem since the town quiets down dramatically after around 6:00, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out on much. Plus, the view of the Basilica and sunset from my room is one of the best in Assisi!

The way into town from the Basilica - the convent where I stayed is the multi-story building with brown shutters to the far left.

The Upper and Lower Basilicas

The view as you approach the church
The sunset...
Gelato count: 5