An itinerary along the footsteps of St. Francis of Assisi
Important religious men and women lived in Umbria over the centuries left a deep influence in its history and a profound spiritual sentiment, which make it a destination of constant pilgrimages. Even its landscape is characterized by a multitude of monasteries, convents and churches immersed in the luxuriant, uncontaminated nature.
San Francesco is the greatest saint hailing from this land: he left a message of fraternity and peace, and love for all creatures, and preached poverty and compassion into the Church, bringing a real revolution in Christianity.
San Francesco is the Patron Saint of Italy, and our itinerary along his footstep should be start from Assisi, known all over the world for being the place where he was born and where he lies today, in the marvellous Basilica di San Francesco. It’s composed by two superimposed churches and the crypt reachable by a double stairway, and excavated in 1818 in order to protect the stone coffin of the Saint, held inside a grating above the altar.
The walls and ceilings of the Basilica have been decorated by extraordinary artists of the 14th century, like Giotto, Cimabue and Simone Martini. The Upper church is slender and bright, and it enshrines 28 panels representing scenes of San Francesco’s life over an intense blue background realized by Giotto and his scholars around the end of 1290s. The Lower church, on the contrary, is darker and starker than the other one; the entrance has an elegant 13th century portal and the inner part has a Tau-shaped plan, San Francesco’s dearest symbol – still associated to his order.
Not far from the Basilica there’s the Bosco di San Francesco, a huge peaceful place where San Francesco and his Brothers used to go to pray and meditate; you can choose a spiritual, a landscape or a historic itinerary and enjoy the contact with nature reading the Canticle of the Creatures furnished at the entrance.
The place where he was born currently hosted the Oratorio di San Francesco Piccolino, near the Chiesa Nuova, while his baptism was celebrated at the font of the Duomo di San Rufino, where also Santa Chiara and Frederick II – one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors – received the Sacrament.
The remains of the school he attended are now absorbed inside the other important Basilica of Assisi, that one of Santa Chiara: the oratory houses the crucifix that spoke to San Francesco inside the Monastery of San Damiano, and there are also numerous relics of him and Santa Chiara.
Outside the walls of Assisi, in the caves immersed in the nature of Monte Subasio, there is the Eremo delle Carceri, a peacefully isolated refuge he used to meditate, pray and did penance. It is very interesting also for its medieval architecture, with tiny doorways and narrow alleys, which lead you to the Grotta of San Francesco – the place where he spent the last years of his life, praying and sleeping on a stone bed.
Near Assisi there’s another interesting place to visit: the Baroque Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, one of the largest sanctuaries of the world. It was built between 1569 and 1679 around a little stoned church called Porziuncola, to better welcome the large number of pilgrims.
The Porziuncola is a tiny chapel that was given to San Francesco by Benedictines and, after his restoration with his own hands, it became the headquarter of the Franciscan Order, here founded in 1209.
Around and outside Umbria
At first, San Francesco preached the word of God in the surroundings of Assisi, but then his apostolic pilgrimage reached the rest of Umbria; this is why every corner of the region preserves the signs of his transit.
Near Narni, for example, there is the Monastery of Lo Speco – the most ancient Franciscan place in the Nera river valley: he arrived there in 1213 and used to spend his time in solitude in a narrow fissure in a rock. Passing through the Viale del Perdono, one arrives to a little sanctuary with a beautiful 15th century courtyard and the Chapel of San Silvestro, where there is the well: there – according to the tradition – San Francesco turned water into wine, miracle represented in two frescoes of the oratory. A big, beautiful and relaxing park conserves the famous chestnut of San Francesco: the legend says it was born from his walking stick, that he planted there before leaving the Speco.
Another testimony of his pass in the lower Umbria is the Benedictine Hermitage of Santa Illuminata, situated between the little villages of Alviano and Guardea: here there is a little cave with a stone bed where he used to rest and pray, and even if we can see just some ruins of the hermitage by now, the luxuriant vegetation and the relaxing silence make it a place where to find peace and calm.
The pilgrimage of San Francesco crossed the Umbrian border, and there are two other places to visit if you want to follow his footstep: Greccio, in Lazio, and La Verna, in Tuscany. Do you know why?
Greccio, in the province of Rieti, is the little town where San Francesco decided to celebrate the Nativity by creating the first living presepio, during the Christmastime of 1223; here you can visit his hermitage, situated on a rocky hill, and the Presepe’s chapel inside, decorated by frescoes of the 14th century and where the altar is situated upon the stone used as manger in the first Nativity scene.
La Verna is situated in the province of Arezzo,and it’s the place where he received the stigmata in 1224; its sanctuary is composed by several places of prayer: from the paved Piazza del Quadrante one can reach the beautiful Basilica Maggiore, preceded by a long colonnade and a bell tower, containing important works of art like beautiful potteries by Andrea della Robbia. The original nucleus of this complex was the little church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built after the Virgin appearance to San Francesco; the Corridoio delle Stimmate (i.e. stigmata’s aisle) was edified at the end of the 16th century and decorated with the scenes of San Francesco’s life, every day the friar’s procession took place here and reach the Cappella delle Stimmate (i.e. stigmata’s chapel), where he received the stigmata.