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Rediscovering Assisi

Visitors and residents are renewing their love affair with the historic place as the scaffolding comes down, revealing a city revitalized three years after devastating earthquakes.

Residents are used to the sight of tourists jamming the narrow, twisting streets of this hilltop city, made famous by its local hero, St. Francis.

But lately the people of Assisi have had something to marvel at themselves, as one of Italy's most historic and picturesque cities has undergone a dramatic reconstruction effort.

Almost three years after a devastating double earthquake shook Assisi on consecutive days, the major restoration work is nearing completion.

Dozens gathered one morning last month in the Piazza del Commune, the main square, to watch as workers carefully dismantled a huge crane after completing work on the magnificent medieval town hall. The three-hour operation involved redirecting the entire flow of traffic through the city.

While traffic through Assisi's well-preserved streets makes getting around a bit of a problem, that is also part of its big attraction. Within its walls, old Assisi, in the heart of Umbria, remains a museum unto itself.

Aside from the cars and commercial activity, Assisi has changed little physically since the days of St. Francis. His compelling story remains the life and soul of the contemporary city. It is dominated by the Basilica built in his honor, and in the humble church of San Damiano where in 1209 he underwent his conversion, heeding a call from God to "rebuild my Church."

That made the September 1997 earthquakes all the more tragic. The humble tale of the saint and the Franciscan order he founded give Assisi a special place in the Christian world. Without him, and the monuments to him and his followers, Assisi is perhaps just another pretty Umbrian town on a hill. The stunning workmanship of its monuments, coupled with the devotion of the medieval artists who decorated it, make it a point of pilgrimage.

Even residents talk about the town with a special reverence. One man was moved to tears when he related how the commander of the German garrison during World War II refused to defend it against the Allied advance _ in order to save Assisi from bombardment. Disgraced in the eyes of Hitler's army, the commander returned after the war to become a friar.

The second of the two earthquakes brought about 180 square yards of painted frescoes crashing down over the altar in the basilica. The falling stucco killed two friars and two surveyors who were inspecting damage caused by the quake the day before. The frescos included a figure of St. Jerome by Giotto, together with supporting figures of St. Francis and St. Clare, attributed to Giotto's followers.

Most major historic buildings in the city suffered serious damage, as did homes in Assisi and the surrounding countryside. Officials said it would take 10 years before all the buildings were fully repaired.

"To see only scaffolding and no more monuments was hard to take," said Giancarlo Ronci, a retired tourism official. "A lot of people had to leave their homes ... to stay with relatives."

Painful as that experience has been, residents are now rejoicing over the return of familiar sights as buildings emerge from the scaffolding. The $20-million restoration effort has even enhanced the exterior of some monuments, revealing new colors in the stonework and previously overlooked carvings.

Most impressive is the main basilica itself, two great churches built one on top of the other against the northern spur of the hill upon which the city is perched.

The lower church, which contains the tomb of St. Francis and was decorated by some of the greatest painters of the 13th and 14th centuries, reopened in 1998. But the magnificent upper church, with its high Gothic windows and superb medieval decorations, remained closed until late last year.

The medieval structure has been reinforced to withstand future shocks. The ceiling as well as several thousand square yards of damaged frescoes have been restored through a combination of computer imaging and traditional techniques, proving that Italy is a world leader in art restoration.

The artisans and technicians recreated one key medieval painting thought to have been destroyed: the figure of St. Matthew by Cimabue. The painting, which had graced the ceiling of the Upper Church for nearly 800 years, crashed into rubble when the earthquakes hit. Art historians said the work was irreplaceable.

Visitors to the reopened basilica will find Giotto's 28 frescoes on the life of St. Francis fully cleaned and renovated. The decorated altar, badly damaged when the roof collapsed, has been restored, as have the organ and choir stalls.

But at the other end of town, work on the equally ancient Basilica of Santa Chiara, or St. Clare _ St. Francis' faithful companion _ is lagging behind. In frustration, the nuns, who belong to the closed order of the Poor Clares and avoid contact with the outside world, were forced to bend their vows in order to lobby for state restoration aid.

St. Clare founded the Poor Clares at age 17. The basilica was built after her death in 1253. At its heart is the striking, neo-Gothic tomb in the crypt, built over the saint's remains.

There has been some local grumbling as the tourist attractions have taken precedence over equally damaged private homes. "Giotto is safe, but the people are not" ran one headline in the newspaper La Nazione.

Local officials concede that the reconstruction of homes has been hampered by bureaucracy, with building inspectors insisting that all new plans should incorporate features designed to withstand future tremors.

Scaffolding still clings to many buildings along the narrow streets. Most residents lacked insurance, and some were paying off debts incurred in rebuilding following an earthquake in 1984. Government assistance only covers 30-40 percent of the latest repairs.

Tourism has steadily returned to Assisi. However, because of the restoration work, it is one of the least-crowded towns in Umbria. Good prices are available at the small hotels that dot the town. With traditional trattorias now hard to find in Umbria _ increasingly being displaced by more expensive restaurants _ Assisi seems to be defying the trend with several friendly dining spots.

IF YOU GO

STAYING THERE: Hotel Umbria is charming and is in a quiet street just off the Piazza Commune. Call (39-075-812240); the Web site is http:// www.caribusiness.it/ carifo/az/hotelumbra

EATING THERE: At Pizzeria Otello, try the Otello pizza with eggplant and anchovies, or the torta al testa, stone-baked bread with prosciutto.

Assisi's own sparkling white wine is excellent. The Rubesco is one of Umbria's finest light red wines. The San Giovese del Umbria is also an excellent red wine, less acidic than the Chiantis of Tuscany.

FOR INFORMATION: Go to the Web site http:// www.assisionline.com. A biography and images of Assisi can also be found at the Web Museum of Art: http:// www.kfki.hu/arthp/tours/ giotto/assisi.html.

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