Assisi is a small Umbrian town in central Italy, located 12 miles (19 km) east of Perugia at an elevation of 400 meters. Assisi is best known as the birthplace of St. Francis of Assisi — patron saint of Italy, founder of the Franciscan order and one of the most popular Catholic saints in history.
Assisi’s main attraction is the 13th-century Basilica di San Francesco, which contains the sacred relics of Francis and beautiful frescoes of his life. And there are at least seven other churches well worth visiting for their history, beauty and connection with St. Francis or his friend St. Clare. The town of Assisi, with its Roman ruins, winding medieval streets and sacred shrines, has been a major Catholic pilgrimage destination for centuries and is today one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy. Several sites outside of the city walls remain quiet and frequented mainly by pilgrims.
General Information and History of Assisi
Little is known regarding the original founding of the town. One legend tells that the ancient town, called Assisium, came into existence around a holy spring that was later venerated by the Etruscans (9th – 5th centuries BC) and, following them, by the Romans. Another legend tells that the town was begun by Dardanus 865 years before the founding of Rome (April 21, 753 BC). Sometime in the 1st century BC a temple of Minerva, the Roman goddess of art, handicrafts and the professions, was constructed at the sacred spring. During the early Christian era the sanctuary of Minerva was destroyed, a series of churches were erected at the site and the sacred spring stopped flowing. Subject to the dukes of Spoleto in the early Middle Ages, the town of Assisi became an independent commune in the 12th century and was involved in disputes and battles with nearby Perugia before passing to the Papal states. It became part of the Italian kingdom in 1860.
Saint Francis and other Saints of Assisi
St. Francis was born in Assisi in 1182 (some sources say 1181), the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant. A lively, even riotous youth who dreamed of achieving military glory, Francis abandoned his worldly ambitions at the age of 19 while a prisoner of war in Perugia. He thereafter became a mystic who experienced visions of Christ and Mary, composed the first poems in the Italian language about the beauties of nature and in 1210 founded the famous order of mendicant friars known as the Franciscans. His repudiation of the worldliness and hypocrisy of the church, his love of nature and his humble, unassuming character earned him an enormous following throughout Europe, posing an unprecedented challenge to the decadent Papacy. Francis was the first known Christian to receive the stigmata, the spontaneously appearing wounds on the hands, feet and side of the body corresponding to the torments of Christ on the cross. These injuries caused Francis great pain and suffering, but he bore them with his characteristic serenity, keeping the matter secret for many years so as not to draw attention to himself and away from god. Other saints who were from Assisi are:
- Agnes of Assisi
- Clare of Assisi
- Gabriel of Our Lady of Sorrows
- Rufinus of Assisi
- Vitalis of Assisi
- Sylvester of Assisi
Things to See in Assisi
The town is dominated by two medieval castles. The larger, called Rocca Maggiore is a massive presence meant to intimidate the people of the town: it was built by Cardinal Albornoz (1367) and expanded by popes Pius II (polygonal tower, 1458) and Paul III, the cylindrical bastion near the entrance, 1535-1538. The smaller of the two was built in Roman era: it has been only partially reserved, a small portion and three towers being open to the public.
The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi (St. Francis).
The Franciscan monastery, il Sacro Convento, and the lower and upper church of St Francis were begun immediately after his canonization in 1228, and completed in 1253. The lower church has frescoes by the late-medieval artists Cimabue and Giotto; the upper church houses frescoes of scenes in the life of St. Francis previously ascribed to Giotto, but now thought to be by artists of the circle of Pietro Cavallini from Rome. The Basilica was badly damaged by an earthquake on 26 September 1997, during which part of the vault collapsed, killing four people inside the church and carrying with it a fresco by Cimabue. The edifice was closed for two years for restoration.
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