Things to Do in Assisi
Birthplace of St. Francis and one of Italy’s most atmospheric hill towns, Assisi is best known for its glorious Basilica of St. Francis. The UNESCO-listed pilgrimage site is a treasure trove of medieval art. Visit the soaring upper church, the somber lower church, and Francis’ tomb in the crypt.
The Basilica of St. Clare (Basilica di Santa Chiara) in Assisi is dedicated to Saint Clare of Assisi, the founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, today known as the Order of Saint Clare. After she passed away in 1260, Saint Clare’s remains were transferred to the church and buried under the high altar. Her tomb was discovered again in 1850 and eventually, her skeleton was moved to a shrine in a newly built crypt of the basilica. It remains on display today in the east end of the crypt.
The exterior of the basilica is notable for its horizontal stripes of pink and white stone and its campanile, which is the tallest in Assisi. Inside, the walls of the dimly lit nave are now white, although they were covered in frescoes until the 17th century. Elsewhere in the church, frescoes dating to the 13th and 14th centuries still remain. To the south of the nave is a small chapel that holds the 12th century crucifix that is said to have spoken to Saint Francis of Assisi. The high altar is surrounded by a colonnade of 12 polygonal columns that date to the 15th century.
The lovely Mannerist Assisi Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels (Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli) was built on the plain below hilltop Assisi and was over a century in the making between 1569 and 1679. It was commissioned by Pope Pio V to accommodate the influx of pilgrims to worship at the Cappella Porziuncola, the hermitage where St Francis prayed in the early 13th century and founded the order of Franciscan monks.
Designed by Perugian architect Galeazzo Alessi, Santa Maria degli Angeli is one of the biggest Christian churches in the world, measuring a whopping 126 m (413.25 ft) long and 65 m (213.25ft) wide. It has a barnlike central nave and side aisles lined with chapels; frescoes by 18th-century artist Andrea Appiani adorn the walls of the basilica. The original 13th-century Cappella Porziuncola sits directly underneath the
great central dome, now protected from the elements for posterity. The Cappella del Transito is close by and marks the exact spot where Francis died in 1226; it displays the saint’s simple rope belt and a terracotta portrait by Andrea della Robbia, executed in 1490. Both chapels are frescoed with scenes depicting his visions.
Outside the basilica is the Rose Garden, all that remains of the forests of Monte Subasio that surrounded Francis’s hermitage. The adjacent 15th-century friary houses the Porziuncola Museum, founded by Franciscan friars in 1924 and exhibiting religious art and reliquaries from the 13th and 14th centuries.
The ancient columns of Assisi’sTemple of Minerva (Tempio di Minerva) dominate the town’s elongated medieval Piazza del Comune; the temple was built by private donation from two wealthy local residents during the reign of Augustus in the first century BC. When Rome converted to Christianity in the fourth century AD, the pagan temple – along with many others throughout the empire – fell out of use and was abandoned. By the sixth century a community of Benedictine monks had requisitioned it, and between 1215 and 1270 the building was HQ to the Comune of Assisi; still later it became a jail. Back in use as a Christian place of worship by the mid 16th century, the temple was rededicated to the Virgin Mary by Pope Paolo III and subsequently restored before being given over to a community of Franciscan friars.
Today the temple’s original Corinthian columns and pediment form the façade of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (literally St Mary ‘above’ Minerva), built in 1539 but with its glitzy interior given a thorough Baroque facelift a century later by local architect Giacomo Giorgetti.
The Basilica of St. Francis (Basilica di San Francesco), a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Assisi, is a popular European pilgrimage site. The complex of two churches commemorates Saint Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, who is buried here. Plans for the basilica commenced upon his death in 1226 and were completed in 1253.
Despite its modest white façade, flanked by four simple Doric pilasters, the Chiesa Nuova, or New Church, is one of Assisi’s most historically important churches, founded on the site of the house of Saint Francis’ home and birthplace. A church has stood on this spot since the 14th century, but the modern-day structure dates back to the early 17th century, when it was built under patronage of King Philip III of Spain, and has since become a significant landmark for pilgrims.
The most notable features of the Renaissance-style Chiesa Nuova are the colorful frescoes by Cesare Sermei and Giacomo Giorgetti that adorn the interiors and the adjoining museum and library that offer greater insight into the site’s unique history.
The clifftop town of Orvieto sits above a hidden warren of tunnels and caverns dug through soft tufa bedrock from the time of the Etruscans to the 20th century. Discover this underground network with a visit to Pozzo della Cava, an Etruscan well enlarged in the 16th century that leads to ancient caves, kilns, and a cistern.
Part of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli complex, the Porziuncola Museum (Museo della Porziuncola) is a repository of artwork and archival documents related to St. Francis. Pilgrims, art aficionados, and those wanting to take a deeper dive into the saint’s life and teachings will enjoy this small but exceptional collection.
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