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

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