Thursday, July 07, 2011

A city set on a hill

A saint and his setting 
Part 1: A child grows up

On a grey, wet and windy day in Normandy, with gardening out of the question, what could be more enjoyable than to bask (at least in memory) in the hot sunshine of Italy and think back over our pilgrimage to Assisi.   Not that the sun always shines there, but as it happens I've been fortunate with the weather on all my visits, so that my indelible image of Assisi is of white or pink or golden limestone, glowing against the bluest of skies.

I’ve been fascinated by Francis, both his life and his writings, for some years now and it is this, as much as the beauty of Assisi or the warmth of the Italian sunshine, which keeps drawing me back to the place where he lived.

The sun must have shone just as often and as warmly in the Assisi of the late twelfth century.  It was there, in 1181 or 82, that a baby boy was born to Pietro Bernadone, a wealthy cloth merchant of the town, and his French wife, Pica.

Image via Wikipedia

Pietro was away on a journey to France at the time of his son’s birth and his deeply religious wife had her child baptised Giovanni, in honour of Saint John the Baptist. This didn’t please Pietro, however, and on his return he renamed his son "Francesco" the little "Frenchman", perhaps because of his wife’s nationality, or his own love of France.

The house where Francesco or Francis was born no longer exists, though traces can still be seen in the fabric of the church which was later built over his childhood home. However the cathedral of San Rufino, in whose font he was baptised, still stands proudly in upper Assisi, looking, from the outside at least, much as it must have done when baby Francis was taken there over 800 years ago.  

Chiesa Nuova  - Image via Wikipedia

San Rufino

Centuries after Francis’ death and rapid canonisation, the pious belief grew up that, like the Jesus he had spent his adult life following so closely, Francis too had been born in a stable, in his case the stable of his family home. Today, one can visit a tiny, windowless, mediaeval chapel, close to the site of his parents’ house, which legend says was created from that same stable.

Francis, cushioned by his comfortable and financially secure home, grew up to be a popular and carefree, even wild young man, much given to throwing parties for his friends and having a good time. However, the Italy in which he was growing up was politically much less secure and stable, as rapid social change undermined the feudal order.

In 1198 or 99 the people of Assisi attacked and destroyed the Roccas, the feudal castles, which in their rebuilt form still dominate Assisi.  The nobles who had lived there fled to Perugia, another hill town less than 15 miles away across the valley, and soon war broke out between Assisi and Perugia.

Francis, like many of his contemporaries, went off to fight for Assisi against her enemy. In 1202, at the age of about 20, he was captured and spent a year in prison in Perugia, but the experience seems not to have affected him too deeply, for, once released and back in Assisi, he continued his carefree and often expensive life. All this changed in 1204, when Francis became gravely ill and, as he slowly recovered, began for the first time to think seriously about his life.

Spoleto  -  Image via Wikipedia
The following year he left his home and his father’s business to fulfil his ambition to be a soldier and perhaps achieve knighthood. Travelling to join his lord, who was on his way to fight in the Fourth Crusade, Francis stopped at Spoleto, another ancient hill town above the Tiber valley.  Here, it is said, he saw a vision and at once turned back towards home, convinced that whatever God wanted him to do with his life, it would be in Assisi.

To be continued…


  1. Hello Perpetua:
    As a result of reading this, so far, we are possibly better informed about the life of St. Francis than ever before.

    So often, largely through looking at paintings, one finds oneself identifying the attributes of the Saints and then, with insufficient reflection, passing on rather than pausing to consider the life and times of the person and placing him or her in a context. Which is exactly what you have done for us here.

    We shall much look forward to Part II.

  2. How could you stop there?
    I was hanging on every word, (and picture). Thankyou so much for this huge amount of new - to me - information.
    He has long been my favourite Saint because of the association with animals.
    Please don't say that was a myth.
    More soon please!

  3. I find myself hoping it rains tomorrow in Normandy...maybe we'll get part 2?
    What am I saying?...obviously I hope you have a lovely sunshiny day to continue your gardening; (maybe just a little drizzle in the afternoon.)
    Lovely pictures and an engaging account. Thank you. Ax

  4. Thanks, Jane and Lance. I didn't want my posts about Assisi to turn into a travelogue, as for DD and myself it was very much a pilgrimage. Hence the idea of using our photos to illustrate the life of a man we both admire and love and to explore a little the fascination he has for so many people.

  5. Oops, sorry, Ray, didn't mean to leave you in suspense :-) To be honest, with the thundery showers we've been having all afternoon, the computer has been switched on and off more often than traffic lights, so it took me ages to get as far as this. I'll try mot to shatter your image of Francis, but there is so much more to him than just the association with animals and birds.

  6. Annie, having just looked at tomorrow's forecast, I fear your wish is likely to come true :-) No sooner did my dear mother-in-law go home on Monday than the weather broke and it's rained every day since then...

    Glad you enjoyed part 1 and I promise not to make you wait too long for part 2.

  7. On our visit to Assisi the weather was fine while we were there, but as we left the clouds began to gather and to darken and we ended up driving through one of the most dramatic thunder and lightening storms I've ever witnessed! The story of St. Francis is miraculous on so many levels, but my favorite part of the story is when he is compelled to appear before the Pope -- but I will leave that for you to tell! :-)

  8. Wow, that must have been almost apocalyptic, Broad.

    You're right about the story of St Francis. There's so much to it and by no means all can be illustrated by my photos. I can see Ghiotto's frescos coming in useful here....


I welcome your comments and will always try to respond to them. Thank you for reading.