Assisi and the Festa di San Francesco

 

Saint Francis of Assisi is, as you probably know, the Catholic posterboy for everything good in Christianity. Born in a wealthy family, he forsake all worldly riches to pursuit a life of poverty and celebration of God’s work. He advocated helping the poor, loving the environment and protecting animal life. He also preached against wealth within the Church – and this is exactly why regular people always worshipped him, while the Vatican traditionally considers him just a nice footnote in its history of economic conquest. Assisi is not a family name, anyway, but the place where he was born and where he founded the Franciscan monastic order in 1208. It is a beautiful small town in Umbria, central Italy, and the destination of countless pilgrimages since the canonization of the saint, in the year 1228. Assisi and Francis have always been inextricably entwined, and there is no denying that the town grew into a small yet very profitable industry exploiting the name of the monk.

This is not to say that it doesn’t deserve a visit. As a matter of fact, it is indeed fascinating to experience the places where such an important part of Christianity was born. The town itself has retained much of its ancient flavor, thanks to the two imposing castles watching upon it and the many churches built in memory of the saintly history of the place. The biggest one is called of course Basilica di San Francesco, and is actually composed of two churches (upper and lower) and the original monastery. Even if it was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1997, it is now restored with all its artistic masterpieces, including frescoes by Giotto and Cimabue. The most touching attraction is however just out of town, in a canyon where Francesco used to go and preach to the birds and other wild animals. It is called Eremo delle Carceri, and it is now home to another small monastery. This is also where the saint composed most of his famous Cantico delle creature, the oldest poetry in Italian language we know of. It is a simple and moving piece celebrating the whole creation, including death, and it marks a paradigm shift in Christianity as it appreciates the work of God instead of despising earthly life as religion used to.

Today Assisi sees year-long pilgrimages from all over the world, but to appreciate its unique relation to religion you should visit it on the 4th of October, at the apex of the Festa di San Francesco. This is a celebration of the saint’s life and works, during which many rites – both holy and secular – are performed with the participation of literally the whole town. The highest point of the multi-day event is the arrival of the oil that is used to keep the votive flame in the Franciscan crypt alive. The oil is offered by a different Italian region every year, and is thought to feed the one true source of light on the Christian path. In exchange for such an important present, the monastery gives to every single participant the traditional gift of a small olive branch, as a symbol of peace and faith. The final event is then the recitation of the Cantico, allowing visitors the unique chance to actually hear one entire town preaching in unison.