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Assisi – Virtual Italy Tour

The town of Assisi sits atop one of the rolling hills in the region of Umbria. As you approach, the view of the hilltown from below is telling: the scene entirely dominated by the massive structure of the Basilica di San Francesco (Basilica of St Francis). Built in memory of Italy’s favorite saint, St Francis, the Basilica is an imposing sight. Since the death of St Francis in 1225, Assisi has been an important spot for pilgrims wanting to visit the saint’s hometown and for art-loving tourists.

View Map of Assisi

Assisi was also home to St Clare, a contemporary of St Francis. Also revered by the faithful, St Clare is honored as founder of the Order of the Poor Clares, the all-female counterpart to the Franciscan order established by St Francis. Working side by side, these two religious orders taught the virtues of poverty, chastity, and obedience. St Francis is also remembered for his writings, in particular Fioretti and Canticle to the Sun, works that still stand equal to the best in medieval poetry.

The Basilica di San Francesco

The Basilica di San Francesco in AssisiFamous as Umbria’s greatest monument, the Basilica continues to draw both pilgrims and visitors inside its impressive walls. The building of the church started in 1228, just three short years after the death of St Francis. Funds poured in from all over Europe as the wealthy offered support for the Franciscan ideals, though many apparently were not moved to follow the virtues themselves. For anyone knowledgeable in the teachings of St Francis, it’s readily apparent that even the church itself struggled with upholding the virtues. But even drably dressed monks need a beautiful place to spend their days!

The Basilica is divided into an Upper Church and a Lower Church, with the lower coming first both in structure and in the works of art that adorn its colorful innner sanctum. Because St Francis was so greatly admired, the best artists of the time were commissioned to decorate the church built as a memorial to him and as a home for his followers, the Franciscans.

Inside the lower church, Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Inside the Lower Church

The Lower Church is composed of a series of low vaults completely covered in brightly colored frescoes. Those by Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti should not be missed. The Cappella di San Martino was painted and designed completely by Martini. You can also visit the underground crypt where St Francis was laid to rest, discovered only in the 1800s.

The Upper Church features a larger, airier space and was built according to a Gothic plan. Again, the frescoes should not be missed, especially those that depict the life of St Francis by Giotto. The painter Cimabue also painted frescoes here, but most of them have badly deteriorated because of his personal choice in pigments.

In Assisi

Though many stop in Assisi just to see the church, it’s well worth taking a walk around the town if you’ve come all this way on your Italian vacation. Take a short walk to the Piazza del Comune where you’ll be struck by the impressive facade of the Tempio di Minerva from the first century. What a contrast with the basilica!

If you’re interested in the life of St Francis then you’ll want to stop in at Chiesa Nuova to see the place where he was born. Continue on to the elegant Duomo where St Francis and St Clare both were baptized.

San Damiano is a fifteen minute downhill walk from the Porta Nuova and was one of St Francis’s favorite spots. There’s a definite monastic feeling to the place and its easy to imagine its meditative qualities. San Damiano was where St Francis received the message calling him as a servant from God. The church was also the original home to the Poor Clares.

On your return to town, stop off at the Basilica di Santa Clara where St Clare was buried. The crucifix that bowed to St Francis in San Damiano can be found here.