ASSISI, Italy — A massive rainstorm is sweeping across the Umbrian countryside south of Assisi, drenching citron-tinged fields and hurtling lightning bolts at rustic farmhouses. With no umbrella or raincoats, we flatten ourselves against an ancient doorway, preparing for the deluge. Suddenly, as if guided by an unseen hand, the storm veers off, sparing the town. The sun reemerges, casting dazzling beams on stone-paved streets that have weathered many tempests over the centuries, from the Roman conquest of central Italy in 295 BC to the region’s devastating earthquake of 1997.
Assisi’s resilience as a spiritual, artistic, and architectural landmark arises from its historical renown as the birthplace of St. Francis, a patron saint of Italy who founded the Franciscan monastic order. For 700 years Christian pilgrims have ascended to the lofty hill town on the slope of Monte Subasio to pay homage to the humble Italian friar who was born into wealth in the 12th century but chose to live in poverty and serve the poor.
The Roman Catholic Church’s March 13 election of Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as its 266th pontiff, and his taking the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, has rekindled interest in this charismatic figure and the town symbolic of his life and legacy.
From afar, the ancient walled settlement, dating to the seventh century, appears as a light-hued fresco of church bell towers, colonnades, and castles painted on blue plaster. When we arrive in midmorning, the tourist traffic is already bumper-to-bumper on the road winding up to Assisi, 16 miles east of Perugia. On the outskirts, we stop at the Patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, a 16th-century Renaissance church commemorating landmarks in the life and death of St. Francis (1182-1226). Inside stands a small, unadorned ninth-century Benedictine chapel, called the Porziuncola, where it is said that the 25-year-old Francis renounced worldly riches, embraced his religious calling, and found his first followers.
Continuing up the Via Patrono D’Italia, we nose into a jammed parking lot with a captivating view of the Papal Basilica of St. Francis. Built in the 13th century on the “hills of paradise,” it attracts nearly 5 million visitors annually. The masterfully designed and engineered double-tiered structure houses two churches, one atop the other. Their walls showcase magnificent 13th- and 14th-century paintings and frescoes by Italy’s most accomplished artists, among them Giotto, Cimabue, and Torriti, who depicted the lives of Christ and St. Francis.
Stepping through massive carved wooden doors, we enter the lower basilica, a dimly lighted, mystical Romanesque chamber with stalwart pillars and grand ribbed vaulting. Descending a stone staircase, worn smooth by countless feet, we reach the hushed, airless crypt where St. Francis’s remains reside. Retracing our steps, we emerge in the upper basilica, a vibrant celebration of Italian Gothic architecture, with soaring arches, elegant stained glass, and a rose window inset with diamond-shaped petals. Giotto’s famous fresco of St. Francis preaching to the birds portrays the saint’s humanity and concern for all living things. The basilica’s museum displays many historical treasures, and its bustling gift shop offers a plethora of religious mementos.
Leaving the basilica, we thread our way through a stone archway in the old city wall onto Via San Francesco. The touristy pedestrian thoroughfare is lined with souvenir shops, selling carved-wood St. Francis statues and Assisi tote bags, and ristorantes haloed by savory aromas of chicken and pasta. Brown-frocked friars ripple through the tide of pilgrims, pausing to talk with knots of schoolchildren. Away from the hubbub, we explore medieval alleyways enlivened by red geraniums in window boxes and on doorsteps.
In early afternoon, we take a break for chocolate gelato along Via Portica and spot an ancient stone building with six Corinthian columns on the Piazza del Comune. Our curiosity leads us inside the Church of St. Mary Over Minerva, an elegant chapel with a gilded altar and frescos. The church was built over a first-century Roman temple honoring Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, and rededicated to the Virgin Mary in 1539. Suddenly, a thunderous chord erupts from the pipe organ, followed by a short recital. When the music ends, a man picks up his backpack and leaves. He is a tourist who was as enchanted by the church as we were.
Our final stop is the Cathedral Church of San Rufino, where St. Francis and his disciple St. Clare of Assisi were baptized. Afterward, we make our way back down Via San Francesco to the Piazza San Francesco. Assisi’s wealth of artistic beauty, history, and spirituality, enriched by a humble friar who shunned worldly possessions, has captivated us in a single day, ensuring a return visit.