15 June 2006

Assisi 2006

Since my last entry I have been to Italy and back. I meant to blog about this some time ago, but shortly after my return my computer crashed and I have been busy retrieving data (full marks to PC World for extracting all my files from a dead hard disk for only £15), setting things up again and catching up with work.

Anyway, the holiday:

We flew out from Prestwick with Ryanair – a very basic service but they were on time (which is more than I can say for my experiences of Easyjet). The worst part of the journey was Ciampino Airport, which seems to be permanently hot and overcrowded with only the most minimal facilities.

For me the trip was as much a pilgrimage as a holiday, visiting Assisi and several other sites associated with St Francis.

Monday 22nd May

Our first full day in Italy and a day for orientation: gentle wandering through the byways of the old city of Assisi. We found a footpath barely two feet wide that snakes up the hillside to the Rocca Maggiore, the old fortress where German princes once lorded it over the people great and small of the city below.

Lunch – paninis stuffed with pecorino cheese and wild boar salami, iced tea, consumed in a shady spot in the Piazza di Santa Chiara.

After lunch we were taken on an introductory tour of some of the sights, notably the Basilica of Santa Chiara and the Cathedral of San Rufino. San Rufino, in particular, is wrapped about by a sense of great age – perhaps because of the bits of Roman sculpture incorporated into the building; perhaps too because of the glass panels in the floor, allowing you to see the ruins of the Roman temple beneath. At times it felt like walking on the bones of a lost civilization.

Tuesday 23rd May

An early start and a long coach journey to Orvieto. The city struck me as quite oppressive by comparison with Assisi. Two churches stood out, however – San Francesco and San Lorenzo de Arari – the former because of its Tertiary connections (dedicated to Francis as founder of the Third Order and the place where St Louis was canonized); the latter because of its atmosphere. San Lorenzo is an ancient and slightly neglected building. The fresco in the apse is a Byzantine-style Christ Pantokrator. The altar is even more unusual: an Etruscan altar surmounted by a simple stone slab and enclosed by a giant stone ciborium.

On the way back we stopped at Rivotorto, site of the earliest Franciscan community. All that is there now is an undistinguished nineteenth-century church containing a life-size ‘replica’ of the original buildings. I’m afraid it left me cold.

Wednesday 24th May

This morning was spent at the Basilica of St Francis. Our guide, Eduardo, made a striking comment about the place. He pointed out the deliberate contrast between the outward simplicity of the building and its interior ornateness, with its frescoes by Giotto, Cimabue and others. He suggested that this was iconic of the Christian life – outwardly simple, but inwardly rich because of the grace of God. It doesn’t do anything to change my distaste for overly ornamented churches, but it does help me understand them a little better.

After lunch we went up to the Carceri, Francis’s hermitage on mount Subasio. There I felt much closer in spirit to Francis than in the basilica. The ancient ilex that was there in Francis's day is still (barely) alive. When I last visited the place twenty-five years ago, the local doves were perching in it – very appropriate for one of the traditional sites of Francis's sermon to the birds. Today it was raining so the birds had to find somewhere else to perch.

Our next stop was San Damiano. I know I have visited the place before but I couldn’t remember much about it. Unlike many Franciscan shrines it has not been spoiled by the over-enthusiasm of later generations. It was possible to get a sense of what the place must have been like for Francis and Clare: the church itself is much the same as it was when Francis restored it; the nuns’ dormitory and refectory are pretty much as they would have been during Clare’s lifetime when it became the base for the Second Order. For some reason, I found the little oratory that Clare used particularly moving.

Thursday 25th May

Today’s trip was to La Verna in Tuscany – the mountainside hermitage where Francis is reputed to have received the stigmata. I found the place strangely disappointing. What I expected was a quiet place like the Carceri, a place where prayer has been valid (as T. S. Eliot would put it). Instead the place was full of visitors, crowding into the various chapels and creating quite a din. Granted the Italian concept of silenzio is several decibels louder than British silence, this was considerably noisier than the silenzio demanded in, for example, the Basilica of St Francis: Italian housewives gesticulating and shouting their gossip halfway across the courtyard; an American priest reading loudly from a guidebook for the benefit of his companions and, it seemed, everyone else within fifty yards. I did find one quiet spot, which seemed more in tune with the spirit of St Francis – a rock cleft below the Chapel of St Peter of Alcantara.

On our way back we detoured via San Sepolcro to see the Piero della Francesca painting of the Resurrection. It was interesting as a piece of art history, but not terribly relevant to Francis.

Friday 26th May

Today we visited Isola Maggiore in Lake Trasimene. This might seem an odd choice, but again there is a strong Franciscan connection: Francis came here to mediatate during Lent in 1211. With a population of only thirty or forty and no cars allowed on the island, it is like stepping back a century (or at least several decades). The place was quiet, sunny and peaceful. Everywhere lizards were sunning themselves on stones. Grebes dived for the little fish that seemed to form shoals near the water’s edge, while bigger fish flashed silver in the sunlight as they jumped out of the water.

Saturday 27th May

I made it up to the Carceri on foot this morning! There were a couple of times I thought I might not make it at all. It may not be the historical or liturgical heart of the Franciscan movement, but for me this place seems close to being its spiritual heart.

In some ways the walk down was worse than the walk up. My knees decided they didn’t like the strain I was putting on them and I managed to put a hole in my trousers, falling on the loose chippings covering the path.

For lunch we went to one of the many small restaurants in Assisi for pizza and panna cotta – very pleasant.

In the afternoon, we walked down to San Damiano for another visit to the convent. We had more time to wander round and drink in the atmosphere. This time I made a point of looking out for the giardinetta where Francis composed his Canticle of the Creatures.

Sunday 28th May

Our last day in Italy, but since our flight out of Rome wasn’t until late in the evening there was time for one more piece of sightseeing on our way to the airport. The coach took us by way of the Rieti Valley, the site of a number of early Franciscan hermitages. We had lunch in the village of Greccio; the food was indifferent, but the view across the valley to the peaks beyond was magnificent. After lunch we visited the hermitage just outside Greccio where Francis put on the first nativity play.