Mozart Among the Giottos
Assisi, where Francis and Clare are born and Francis spends his indulgent youth
Assisi looks like an enchanted kingdom from the roads crisscrossing the Spoleto Valley. The small, medieval hill town hovers on the side of Mount Subasio, not so high as to seem inaccessible and not so low as to seem commonplace. The massive thirteenth-century Basilica of St. Francis rises above the city walls at the western end of the town and is visible from miles away, a luminous, milky beige by day, dramatically lit by night.
The thirteenth-century Basilica of St. Clare lies farther down the hill, at the other end of Assisi, a smaller but no less imposing building whose striped façade of Subasio stone is pink and white.
The approach to Assisi is tantalizing. The road climbs and curves, bringing us closer to the town’s walls, then circling us away. Up and up, then around, until we think that we must have missed Assisi altogether, that it was a fantasy after all, and then, finally, parking lots, one after another, filled with the jarring reality of cars and multinational tour buses.
My husband, Harvey, and I are just two of the close to five million people who visit Assisi each year. Most are clergy and pilgrims from all over the world who come to pray in the birthplace of Assisi’s endearing—and enduring—native saints: Francis, Italy’s patron saint and the founder of three ongoing Franciscan orders; and Clare, Francis’s spiritual companion and the first and sainted member of his Order of Poor Ladies. The combination makes Assisi second only to Rome as an Italian pilgrimage destination.
Almost as many visitors are tourists who come just to see the extraordinary early Renaissance frescoes in the Basilica of St. Francis by the leading artists of the time—the Sienese painters Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti; the Florentine Cimabue, whose portrait of a stark, suffering St.
Francis in the lower basilica is the world’s most familiar, and accurate, image of the saint; and, of course, the incomparable early-fourteenthcentury Florentine artist Giotto.
Giotto’s twenty-eight larger-than-life frescoes of the life and legend of St. Francis in the upper church of his basilica are the most popular and perhaps the best-known narrative fresco cycle in the world. The familiar story marches around the walls: Francis, naked, confronting his father; Francis, preaching to the birds; Francis, expelling the devil from Arezzo; Clare bidding farewell to Francis after his death. On and on. One memorable evening my husband and I go to the basilica for a free, standing-room-only performance of the Mozart Requiem conducted by a Franciscan friar during which, unbelievably, I end up perching on a box of programs directly under Giotto’s famous depiction of Francis receiving the stigmata.
Clare’s basilica used to be just as brilliantly frescoed, but no more. A stern German bishop had the frescoes obliterated in the seventeenth century to protect the Franciscan nuns cloistered there from any contamination by visiting tourists. The austere interior walls of Clare’s basilica still bear fragments of the frescoes, but they are all that remain, in the words of one Franciscan historian, “of a decoration that was once as abundant as that of San Francesco.”Frescoes aside, there is an overriding and alluring presence of Francis and Clare throughout the cobbled hill town. Both saints were born here, Francis in 1181 and Clare in 1193. And both are buried here, in their respective basilicas.
I spend time in both their crypts, sitting in a pew and listening to the muffled and unceasing sound of the rubber-soled shoes of tourists and pilgrims alike on the stone floors. Few of those moving quietly around Francis’s stone sarcophagus know the dramatic events that overtook his remains on the road with francis of assisi after his death in 1226. His body was first kept in his parish church of San Giorgio, some say sitting up and visible to all, his eyes open and staring, his stigmata wounds prominently displayed.
Whether that is true or not, what is undeniable is that four years after his death and two years after he was officially canonized as a saint, his body was transferred under heavy guard to his semiconstructed basilica on what had been known in Assisi as the Hill of Hell, where criminals were executed, which was quickly renamed the Hill of Paradise.
The fear was so great that his body might be stolen for its limitless value as a source of relics by the marauding, rival hill town of Perugia, or simply by thieves, that his coffin was hidden, tunneled somewhere deep in the rock below the basilica, and the access to it sealed. His body would lie in that secret spot for the next six hundred years, until it was discovered in
Few of the people gathered in front of Clare’s crystal coffin, looking somewhat uneasily at her realistic effigy clothed in a brown habit and a black cowl and displayed with darkened face, hands, and bare feet, are aware that her body, too, was kept at San Giorgio after her death in 1253, twenty-seven years after Francis died; that she, too, would be transferred,
five years after her canonization in 1255, to her new pink and white basilica built on the foundations of San Giorgio. Clare, too, would lie hidden until her body was discovered in 1850 and placed some years later in the crypt.
I have always been fascinated by the relics and artifacts people leave behind after their deaths, like the army of terra-cotta warriors chosen by Emperor Qin Shi Huang in China, or the rather gruesome slice of a seventeenth-century callus I saw enshrined in a church in Guatemala from the remains of Pedro Hermano, a Franciscan friar so devout that he walked only on his knees. The relics left behind by the saints of Assisi are an odd lot as well, and understandably spare, in that Francis and Clare chose to own nothing in life. What relics there are, however, are bookmarks to their lives.
On a prior visit to Assisi, I had breezed through Francis’s relics displayed in the lower church of his basilica, having no idea of their significance.
On this visit, having immersed myself in his legend, I find them fascinating.
There is a letter Francis wrote in his own hand, one of only two in existence, giving his blessing to Brother Leo, one of his first and most faithful friars. Leo was so moved by the gift that he carried the increasingly fragile blessing next to his heart until he died, forty years later.
Francis’s quest to convert the Muslim “Saracens” in the Holy Land, or be martyred trying, is represented by a silver-and-ivory horn given to him in 1219 by the sultan of Egypt. In what turned out to be a futile gesture, the horn was ceremoniously shown to Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister and a Chaldean Christian, as an icon of peace by the Franciscan leadership in February 2003, when he made a high-profile visit to Assisi during the countdown to the Iraq war.
Another treasured relic is the framed Franciscan Rule of Life, dated November 29, 1223, which Francis dictated to Brother Leo at a hermitage in the Rieti Valley and which still governs the Franciscan Order today.
Also displayed are some linen cloths and a tunic, which by themselves seem forgettable but which actually represent one of the more curious aspects of Francis’s life.
The linens were brought to Francis on his deathbed by a young widow, Lady Jacopa di Settesoli, with whom he often stayed in Rome and whom he had asked to see one last time before he died. (Her spontaneous arrival in Assisi without having received his message is considered a miracle.) Lady Jacopa is said by all his early biographers to have been “highly pious,” so pious that Francis gave her the honorary title “Brother” Jacopa. As proof of her treasured role in his life, she is buried near him in his basilica, along with four of his early friars, Leo, Angelo, Masseo, and Clare’s cousin Rufino.
Then there are his clothes—a patched, coarse gray habit, a pair of his tattered leather sandals, a piece of leather that is said to have covered the wound in his side from the stigmata. That seems a stretch. Could they really have been worn by him over eight hundred years ago? But perhaps I am being too rational instead of losing myself in the legend.
Still, I feel the same way looking at relics in the Cappelli di Santa Chiara in Clare’s basilica. Another patched, uneven habit belonging to St. Francis and a tunic and cape that look far too big for the man Celano describes as of “medium height, closer to shortness.” Then there is a white,
on the road with francis of assisi full-length gown identified as belonging to Clare, but its proportions are grotesquely big, which she couldn’t have been. She is described by Celano, who knew her and wrote her biography as well, as a “lovely young girl” in her early years, and there would have been little opportunity for her to gain weight in her later years. Clare fasted three full days a week until Francisordered her not to, and then she ate little more than crusts of bread. As for the relic of her blond curls displayed in a glass box . . .
The religious relics are more convincing, among them a breviàrio or prayer book used by St. Francis and the grata di S. Chiara, a filigree iron screen with a central opening through which Clare and her cloistered “sisters” discreetly received communion from a male priest. Upstairs, in the glassed-in Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, are the most important relics of all: another and undeniably authentic book of the Gospels used by Francis with an inscription by Brother Leo; and the original, six-foot-tall, colorfully painted Byzantine crucifix that, legend holds, spoke to Francis in the little ruined church of San Damiano in 1205 and started him on his life’s mission.
I leave the relics, feeling rather guilty at having any uncharitable thoughts. I have grown very fond of Clare and Francis in the course of my research, and looking at some of their personal artifacts, especially their old clothes, makes me feel like a voyeur rummaging, uninvited, through their closets.
I don’t have a clear, physical impression of Clare, but I do of Francis.
To Celano’s everlasting credit, he provides a detailed portrait of Francis in his biography of the saint. Beyond his short stature, which a later examination of his bones would pinpoint at only five foot three, three inches shorter than the average medieval Italian man, Francis had a “cheerful countenance,” a “round” head, a face “a bit long,” a forehead that was “smooth and low,” “black” eyes, hair, and a beard, “not bushy.” His eyebrows were “straight,” his nose “symmetrical, thin and straight,” his ears “upright, but small,” his temples “smooth,” his lips “small and thin,” his teeth “set close together, even, and white.”
Celano goes on to describe this appealing-sounding man as having a “slender” neck, “straight” shoulders, “short” arms, “slender” hands, “long” Mozart Among the Giottos fingers, “extended” fingernails, “thin” legs, and “small” feet. “His skin was very delicate, his flesh very spare,” Celano ends.
As we move on to see the other vestiges of Francis and Clare dotted around Assisi, it is extraordinary to think that we are walking on the same streets they did and seeing at least a few of the same medieval structures they did. The first-century Temple of Minerva in Assisi’s central Piazza del Comune, for example, is clearly visible in one of Giotto’s frescoes in Francis’s basilica. Now a secular Franciscan church, the pagan temple in their time was used as the local jail.
Not surprisingly, some visitors to Assisi, and not only the many pilgrims and religious groups, feel a deeply spiritual presence on these streets. One friend of mine spent a month here after being treated for cancer and returned home in a newly serene state of mind. Another friend, a Muslim diplomat, told me he had experienced a spiritual awakening in Assisi second only to one he had felt during a pilgrimage to Mecca.
But another aspect of Assisi is undeniably commercial. As uncomfortable a reality as it might be, Francis, and to a lesser extent Clare, is a profitable industry for Assisi. The only one, in fact. Besides the many restaurants and hotels supported by visitors to Assisi, shops all over town sell multisized replicas of the San Damiano cross, religious medals with Francis’s likeness on them, and his signature tau cross carved out of olive wood, which many visitors wear on leather cords around their necks.
Pottery shops sell ashtrays and plates with scenes from Francis’s life on them, and at least one bakery sells “Pane di San Francesco,” a local bread laced with the limoncello liqueur so popular in Italy. One shop even sells Umbrian wine with replicas of the saints by Simone Martini on the label—St. Francis on the red wine, St. Clare on the white.
The Francis we have come to know as a saint would have been disgusted by the money changing hands in his name. The Francis we know less well as a young man, however, would have welcomed the exchange and perhaps even profited from it.
Francis was born into an emerging merchant class to a mother who is thought to have been French and a successful Assisi fabric merchant, Pietro di Bernadone. Pietro amassed a sizable fortune bringing home embroidered silks and velvets and damasks from France, fashioning them into stylish clothes in his workshop, and selling them to the nobles and affluent burghers of Assisi. Consumerism was taking hold in the late twelfth century,
a trend that marked the accumulation of fancy clothes and dress for status, rather than simpler clothes for warmth and practicality. Pietro added more to his coffers by investing in land around Assisi, amassing so many farms, orchards, meadows, and forests that it is believed he was one of the hill town’s larger landowners.
No one is absolutely sure where the Bernadone family lived in Assisi.
Some historians believe they lived in a house known as the T.O.R. Casa Paterna near the Piazza del Comune. Others believe the family home was on the Vicolo Sup. San Antonio, also near the Piazza del Comune. The choice of that location is supported by the presence of a tiny, charming shrine with fading frescoes that has been called the Oratorio di San Francesco Piccolino since the thirteenth century and that, with unsubtle religious symbolism, bears a placard in Latin stating Francis was born here—in a stable.
The most generally recognized location of the Bernadone home, however, and the one marked on tourist maps, is under the seventeenth-century Chiesa Nuova, just south of the Piazza del Comune. With some excitement we walk the short distance to the house from the oratorio but find its semiexcavated remains quite dull. There is archaeological value in the subterranean section of the ancient cobbled street on which the house fronted and the presumed remains of Pietro Bernadone’s shop where Francis worked for his father selling cloth. But we don’t sense any presence there of Francis.
More interesting is the suggestion of a porta del morto, or “door of the dead,” in the house’s old vaulted brick-and-stone exterior wall. One of Assisi’s intriguing medieval trademarks, the small and elevated porta del morto is thought to have been opened only to transfer dead bodies outside,
but it probably also had a more practical use, as a security measure. Most houses in Assisi had two entrances—one on the street level, which opened into the stable or whatever business the family was in, the other, higher, leading into the living quarters and reached by wooden steps that were taken up at night for safety. Quite a few houses in Assisi still have a porta del morto, though the “doors” have long since been either cobbled over or glassed in as windows.
The only hint of Francis we find at the house he presumably lived in for the first twenty years or so of his life with at least one younger brother, Angelo,
is the iron-barred carceri or cell displayed inside the Chiesa Nuova at ground level. It was in this “dark cellar,” according to the Legend of the Three Companions, that Pietro locked up his rebellious son for days on end to dissuade him from his spiritual conversion. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Pietro was away on one of his months-long buying trips to France when Francis was born. Francis’s mother, Lady Pica (whether she really was a noble “Lady” or even French has never been determined), took her son to be christened at either Santa Maria Maggiore, the first cathedral in Assisi, or the “new” cathedral, dedicated to San Rufino, Assisi’s patron saint, which was then under construction.
I would like to think that Francis was baptized in the charming eleventh-century Santa Maria Maggiore, adjacent to the Bishop’s Palace on the equally charming, small, tree-lined Piazza del Vescovado. The old cathedral’s simple stone Romanesque façade, with its one rose window, and the faded frescoes in its barrel-vaulted nave seem much more in keeping with the simplicity of Francis than the cavernous San Rufino, Assisi’s current cathedral, which took another hundred years to complete.
Redone in the sixteenth century, San Rufino’s Gothic interior seems quite cheerless by comparison with the warmth of Santa Maria Maggiore.
But whether Francis was baptized there or not, San Rufino would play a major role in the legend of Francis and Clare. A splendid pair of sculpted stone lions guard the doors to the cathedral, and during his conversion, Francis is said to have stood on top of the lions to preach to the incredulous people in the cathedral’s piazza. His makeshift pulpit would have been clearly visible from the house Clare grew up in, and perhaps the adolescent Clare first saw him from a window and was stirred by his message of peace and love—unlike the people who initially jeered at him and thought this son of Assisi had gone mad.
Francis was certainly in San Rufino in later years. He would preach often in the cathedral, and he undoubtedly entered San Rufino, as we do, through a door in its original and splendid twelfth-century stone façade.
He may also have walked on the cathedral’s original, uneven stone floor, a portion of which is visible beneath protective glass.
But what tips the scales toward San Rufino as the site of Francis’s baptism is that just inside the entry, on the right, is the marble baptism font at which Francis was baptized, as was Clare eleven years later. Lady Pica had her son baptized Giovanni or John, after John the Baptist, but the name was short-lived. Pietro evidently did not want his son named after a desert saint, and when he returned from France, he changed his son’s name to the more business like Francesco or Francis, which means “the Frenchman.”
Francis, by all accounts, was a wild and spoiled youth who cut quite a figure in Assisi. An indulged member of the nouveau riche, Francis always had a purse full of money, which he lavished on food and drink with his friends, and on stylish clothes for himself. According to the Legend of the Three Companions, “He would use only the finest materials and sometimes his vanity took an eccentric turn, and then he would insist on the richest cloth and the commonest being sewn together in the same garment.”
Needless to say, there are no marked sites in Assisi that record the ne’erdowell youth of Francis, save for the streets themselves, which he prowled late into the night with his friends, singing and carrying on and undoubtedly wenching in the spirit of the times. He wasn’t just part of the pack; he led it. “He was the admiration of all and strove to outdo the rest in the pomp of vainglory, in jokes, in strange doings, in idle and useless talk, in song, in soft and flowing garments,” writes Thomas of Celano. Francis agreed. In his Testament, written in the Bishop’s Palace in Assisi shortly before he died, he refers to the first twenty-five years of his life as a time “while I was in sin.”
Francis received his rudimentary schooling in reading and writing Latin at the church of San Giorgio, over which the Basilica of St. Clare was constructed, just a few streets from his family home. Little remains of the old church except, perhaps, the back wall of the basilica’s glassed-in Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Francis was definitely not a Latin scholar. There are missteps in the two surviving letters in his own hand, which evidently made him sympathetic to the errors made by the better-educated friars who took his dictation.
“And what is no less to be admired,” writes Celano, “when he had caused some letters of greeting or admonition to be written, he would not allow even a single letter or syllable to be deleted, even though they had often been placed there superfluously or in error.”
He did, however, speak fluent French, then the universal language of commerce. He also sang in French, and well. All his early biographers praise his voice—“strong, sweet, clear, and sonorous,” says Celano. There were limitless songs, both bawdy and chivalric, for him to choose from. It was the time of the French troubadours, who traveled all over Italy, entertaining the nobility (the majores) in their castles and the common folk (the minores) at tournaments and religious festivals, of which there were no fewer than 150 a year in Assisi. The troubadours sang the stories of brave knights and heroic deeds, passing on the legends of Charlemagne and Roland and the legendary court of King Arthur; his bravest knight, Lancelot; and Lancelot’s forbidden love, King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere.
A whole class of Italian jongleurs emerged to interpret the French into an argot of Franco-Italian, and everyone on the streets, including Francis, learned the stories of heroism, sacrifice, and courtly love.
Standing in the Piazza del Comune, it is easy to imagine the troubadours and jongleurs captivating the medieval crowds, who had no other source of entertainment. In the busy but peaceful piazza, it is harder to imagine the violence and bloodshed that marked twelfth-century Assisi.
Francis grew up in a time of civil foment and bloody confrontations between feuding families, rival hill towns, peasants and nobles, and most particularly, Church and State. The State was not the Italy we know but the Holy Roman Empire, which kept a tight grip on most of the region, including the prosperous but increasingly rebellious Assisi. Assisi had been captured by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1160, twenty years before Francis was born, and its people had chafed under the imperial yoke ever since. Assisians wanted their independence and had risen up against the imperial forces in 1174 but had been defeated. It was only a matter of time before the people would try again. Looming above the piazza at the top of the hill town is the Rocca Maggiore, the restored twelfth-century military fortress from which the German forces of the emperor, supported by most of Assisi’s nobility, kept one eye on Assisi, the other on the road from Assisi’s always threatening archrival, the Papal town of Perugia, fifteen miles to the west. All the while the frustration and fury of Assisi’s middle-class citizens continued to fester, directed not only at the emperor’s forces in the Rocca but at Assisi’s feudal lords, who levied taxes and tariffs on the merchants like Pietro Bernadone while giving the growing burgher class few political rights.
Francis was seventeen when the people rose again in 1198, and though there is no record of his having taken part in the ransacking of the garrison, few of his biographers doubt that he and his friends were eager participants.
It was a bloody moment in Assisi’s history. The townspeople slaughtered the imperial forces, tore down the fortress stone by stone, then turned their wrath on the nobility. Some feudals threw in their lot with the newly formed independent commune of Assisi, but others did not.
In the ensuing class warfare, which lasted for two years, many of the nobility were massacred and their estates sacked. The more prudent feudals fled to nearby Perugia; they included the noble Offreduccio family with their six-year-old daughter, Clare, who left just before their house next to the Cathedral of San Rufino was razed. The canny Bernadone bought up as much of the nobles’ deserted land as he could, presumably at bargain prices.
We leave the main piazza to clamber up to La Rocca after fortifying ourselves with cappuccino at a sunny outdoor trattoria. Standing on the fourteenth-century reconstruction of the fortress, we can see what a brilliant vantage point it had been for the imperial forces—every building and church in Assisi is clearly visible. So is the road to Perugia and, in the distance, the nobility’s temporary sanctuary itself. Also visible are the surviving crenellated gates or pòrte through the twelfth-century city walls that the victorious Assisians quickly built after the siege of La Rocca with the stones from the dismantled fortress. All of Francis’s biographers agree that he must have learned the art of stonemasonry by helping to construct those walls, a skill he would rely on during his conversion.
We retrace our steps to join the swarms of tourists and pilgrims milling about the fountain in the sun-warmed piazza in front of the Basilica of St.
Clare. It is late on a mid-October afternoon, and the smell of roasting chestnuts gives a pungent flavor to the crystal-clear air. A newspaper kiosk is doing brisk business in multinational journals and magazines on one edge of the piazza, while on another, a brightly painted van pumps out the Toreadors’ Theme from Carmen. Drawn by the music, children cluster around the van to covet an eclectic offering of toys laid out on the ground—a rooster with a peacock tail, an old Barbie wearing an Italian flag as a miniskirt, a replica of the milk-heavy wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.
It is a beautiful afternoon. The sun turns Assisi’s stone and stucco houses, with their enviable balconies and roof gardens, into impossibly warm shades of tan and ocher—“a beige tweed city,” I write in my notes.
In contrast, the view beyond the city walls and across the Spoleto Valley is a mélange of color—the rich green of fall crops, the dark brown corduroy of tilled fields, the pink and purple hills on the far side of the valley as a backdrop. Just an arm’s length away, over the piazza’s marble-columned balustrade, groves of ancient olive trees begin their steep, stepped descent toward the valley, and white butterflies flit among the ripening fruit.
Francis could easily have stood on that very spot eight hundred years ago, looking out over that same valley. Assisi was much smaller in his day, and San Giorgio lay outside the city walls, but the elevation would have been the same. Francis would have seen many more trees back then; the valley floor was thick with oak forests and wetland marshes, which have since been drained. But on a day as clear as ours, he might have seen Perugia—with no realization as a schoolboy of what was to come.
Three years after the citizens of Assisi waged their war of independence against feudalism and the empire—and risked excommunication by Pope Innocent III for not turning the city over to Papal protection—Perugia declared war on Assisi. The displaced nobles of Assisi who had fled to Perugia wanted not only vengeance but compensation for their losses, which the commune of Assisi refused to honor. The furious nobles persuaded Perugia,a longtime rival of Assisi, to teach the hill town’s upstarts a lesson. So Francis, then twenty-one, and his friends prepared for the glorious victory they would inflict on Perugia, their heads filled no doubt with the glories of heroism and bravery in battle that had been sung to them by the troubadours and the jongleur.
What a sight it must have been when the church bells in Assisi sounded the call to arms in November 1202 and the commune’s citizens mustered in front of San Rufino to march against Perugia. One of Francis’s modern biographers,
Julien Green, imagines the scene. The cathedral’s piazza was ablaze with the flags of each quarter of the town that would lead the column to war. Behind them would come the infantry, armed with swords, pikes, and crossbows; then the men on horseback encircling a wagon drawn by white oxen, draped in Assisi’s flag and bearing a traveling altar complete with a crucifix, lighted candles, and priests saying mass.
Francis, though not an aristocrat, rode through the city gates with the noble knights because his family was rich enough to own a horse. He no doubt was wearing some sort of splendid battle dress, underscoring his early biographers’ observation that he often dressed better than his social position “warranted.” The fanfare of trumpets that sent Assisi’s army on its way must have been thrilling to young Francis, who thought his heraldic battlefield fantasies were about to fulfilled. They weren’t.
We drive the fifteen minutes from Assisi to the hill above the ancient village of Collestrada on the border between the two warring hill towns, a journey that took the men of Assisi four hours. The battlefield on which the armies met is now a shopping mall, with no hint of the carnage that took place there. Already tired, Assisi’s men were no match for the furious forces from Perugia, who had only to sweep down from their town and cross the Tiber River at Ponte San Giovanni. The sons of Assisi were quickly overwhelmed. Then slaughtered. The displaced nobles in Perugia rode down the Assisians fleeing for cover throughout the valley and the woods and hacked them to death.
Ironically, it was Francis’s pretension that saved his life. The Perugians spared the nobles and took them prisoner for the ransom they would fetch.
Francis, mistakenly identified as a noble by the clothes he wore, his manners, and especially the fact he had a horse, was spared as well. That meant money in the bank to the Perugians and a year of hell for Francis.
We follow him from the industrial town of Ponte San Giovanni to Perugia, where he would spend the next twelve months or so in a dungeon somewhere under the town, without light, without sanitation, without adequate food or clean water, without a change of clothes in the cold of winter and the heat of summer.
He almost died.