Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Happy Saint's Day, Francis
I had long wanted to go to Assisi, but while Pisa, Florence and Siena are all more or less handy to the autostrada del sole, Assisi was always just a little out of the way. But I remember, when I heard the news of the earthquakes in 1997, thinking selfishly that they couldn’t let it be destroyed before I had seen it.
We did get there eventually. Having spent longer on the road from Rome than we'd intended, by the time we wound our way up to the top of the hill it was almost dusk. Like many such non-decisions, it proved the best - it was the perfect time to arrive. It had rained earlier, but now the rain had stopped and the setting sun behind us floodlit the Basilica of St. Francis in all its Gothic glory. The last of the tourists busses had left and the little shops of the town were making their last attempts to dispense their religious tat before closing.
Thankfully, the Basilica itself was still open, and we were able to visit it alone and in peace.
Why are we thinking of Assisi? Partly because it’s my blog, partly because I saw this old Zefferelli film called Tea with Mussolini recently, about a bunch of middle-aged expatriate English women trapped in Tuscany by WW II. (Usual suspects: Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Judi Dench, plus Cher and Tomalin for the US market.); and partly because in Assisi today they’re holding the annual celebrations of the life of St. Francis. It’s his Saint’s day - so to Franks around the world, from Sinatra to Lampard: Buona festa!
Pope Gregory IX laid the first stone in 1228. Two years later Francis's body was brought here in secret for fear of looting by tomb raiders and buried in the unfinished church.
The tragedy of the earthquakes of September 1997 was not that I almost didn’t get to visit the Basilica, or even that ten people were killed and many injured by falling rubble (they were mostly archeologists investigating the damage caused by an earlier ‘quake). It was the damage done to the magnificent frescoes, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries, by great Florentine and Sienese masters like Giotto, Cimabue and Simone Martini (one of whose works, you will recall, is in Liverpool). When we got there, some of the works were still not visible because of the danger of further falls and some were still being repaired, but we were able to enjoy many of their works, amazingly fresh after 600 years.
By the time we had to leave the Basilica it was almost dark and we had made no plans about where we would eat or sleep. Funny - although I have complete recall about Assisi, I have no memory at all of what we did afterwards.