On the Road with Francis of Assisi : A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond
On the Road with Francis of Assisi offers a unique and lively travelogue of parallel journeys: that of Francis of Assisi on his way to sainthood in the thirteenth century, and that of author Linda Bird Francke, who followed his path through the beauty of central and coastal Italy-and even on to Egypt.Francke tells the compelling story of Saint Francis through the many places he visited. She and her husband, Harvey Loomis, used as their guidebooks medieval texts, including the first official biography of the saint, completed in 1229, just three years after he died. Theirs was not a spiritual journey but one based on admiration for a man whose legend continues to inspire and fascinate millions around the world.
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November 14, 2005
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Excerpt from On the Road with Francis of Assisi by Linda Bird Francke
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 fa ' ade 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-fourteenth-century 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."