views updated Jun 08 2018


Located in central Italy in the Umbrian valley on the slopes of Monte Subasio, Assisi gained fame as the home of SS. francis and clare (both of whom are buried there) and came to be a major pilgrimage center. In the 20th century many artists and writers made it their home.

History. In ancient times the site was inhabited by the umbri, a local population with Etruscan ties, and later under the Romans Assisium it acquired the status of a municipium. Although Assisi became a diocese probably in the 3d century, the first recorded bishop, Aventius, was a legate of the Ostrogoths of Justinian after Totila took the town (c. 545). The passions of SS. Victorinus, Felicianus, Sabinus, and Ruffinus (early martyr bishops) are late and unreliable. St. Ruffinus, whose cult is mentioned by St. peter damian, became Assisi's first patron.

From the late 8th to the 12th century, Assisi was subject to the Lombard Duchy of Spoleto. Bishop Ugo (103652) was a civic leader of the newly independent Ghibelline commune. The first of Assisi's numerous wars with its belligerent Guelf neighbor Perugia occurred in 1054. Assisi was dominated by the Hohenstaufens from 1160 to 1198 when the citizens revolted against the German rulers and razed their fortress (rebuilt by Cardinal Albornoz in 1367). Under the litigious Bishop Guido II (120428), who approved the foundation of the first and second orders of Franciscans, the prosperous diocese owned half the area of the commune. In the 14th and 15th centuries Assisi fell under the Visconti, Montefeltro, and Sforza families, suffered internal conflicts, was sacked several times, and gradually lapsed into three relatively uneventful centuries (15351860) as part of the States of the Church. St. Gabriel possenti was born there in 1838.

The communal library is rich in medieval MSS from religious houses suppressed in 1866. Since 1902 Assisi has been the headquarters of the International Society of Franciscan Studies and since 1939 of the pious society Pro Civitate Christiana. The First International Congress on Pastoral Liturgy met there in 1956.

Before and after his election to the papacy, john paul ii visited Assisi several times. He joined Christian and other religious leaders for the World Day of Prayer for Peace held there Oct. 27, 1986, and again in 1999.

Architecture and Paintings. In the center of the city there are the remains of an amphitheater from Roman times and the hexastyle Corinthian pronaos of the Temple of Minerva (1st century b.c.). Among the medieval secular buildings the Piazza del Comune, the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo (12121305) and the Palazzo dei Priori (1337) are notable, but Assisi's architectural glories are its major Romanesque and Gothic churches: (1) S. Maria Maggiore, or Vescovado, the first cathedral, re-built in 1163 by Giovanni da Gubbio, who also enlarged (2) the second cathedral, S. Rufino, with its striking Lombard Romanesque facade; (3) the Benedictine Abbey of S. Pietro, rebuilt in 1253; (4) the Basilica of S. Chiara, erected in 1257 in place of the earlier S. Giorgio over the tomb of St. Clare; and (5) the Gothic Basilica of S. Francesco (122853) designed by Brother elias of cortona which includes the single-naved upper and lower churches, the crypt tomb of St. Francis (reopened in 1818 and restored in 1925), a sacristy rich in the saint's relics, and the vast Sacro Convento and papal residence, with portico (1300), cloister (1476), and l8th century refectory. Outside the city are the modest 11th century oratory of S. Damiano and the 13th century convent where St. Clare lived. On the hillside above the city is the Eremo delle Carceri (Hermitage), given to St. Francis by Benedictine monks and enlarged by St. bernardine of siena; and in the valley below the city, Basilica of S. Maria degli

Angeli (15691676, rebuilt in 1836) which encloses the Portiuncula Chapel, sometimes described as the "cradle of the Franciscan Order." It was a place of retreat and prayer much favored by St. Francis.

The frescoes in the upper and lower churches of the Basilica of S. Francesco provide an invaluable record of the fresco styles of the 13th and 14th centuries in central Italy. Each level of the basilica consists of a simple nave, transept, and a sanctuary. During the 14th century, chapels were added to the nave of the lower church. Faded remnants of the earliest frescoes, episodes from the life of Christ and of St. Francis, are in the nave of the lower church. In the right transept, frescoes of the 14th century hem in an earlier painting by Cimabue depicting an enthroned Madonna with St. Francis. The juxtaposition of Christ and St. Francis occurs again in frescoes painted by Giotto's workshop and Pietro Lorenzetti in the transepts and the crossing vault. The frescoes in the St. Nicholas and the Magdalen chapels, added in the 14th century, are the work of pupils of Giotto. The St. Martin chapel was decorated by Simone Martini.

The walls of the upper church are divided into two registers. The upper register is covered with frescoes begun during the late 13th century. The earliest, in the sanctuary and transepts, are by Cimabue and assistants. On the upper half of the nave walls in two registers are stories from the Old and New Testaments. These are chiefly the work of artists of the Roman school, Torriti and Rusuti and their assistants, the anonymous Isaac Master, and the young Giotto.

The crowing decoration in the upper church are the 28 scenes from the life of St. Francis in the lower register. Framed by a painted colonnade, a stoa pictile, they have been variously attributed to Giotto and assistants, to the St. Cecilia Master, and to a 14th century Umbrian.

Preservation and Restoration. In 1944 the Germans designated Assisi a hospital town at the request of the Holy See, and thus it escaped damage during World War II. At the end of September 1997, a series of earthquakes, the first on September 27, devastated the city, causing extensive damage to homes and public monuments. The Basilica of San Francesco, the Church of Santa Chiara and other buildings were closed for two years and more while repairs were made and the paintings restored.

Bibliography: f. s. attal, "Assisi città santa: Come fu salvata: dagli orrori della guerra," Miscellanea francescana 48 (1948) 332. a. cristofani, Le storie di Assisi (4th ed. Venice 1959). a. fortini, Assisi nel media evo (Rome 1940). w. hugo, Studying the Life of St. Francis of Assisi (Quincy, Ill. 1996). b. kleinschmidt, Die Basilika San Francesco in Assisi, 3 v. (Berlin 191528); Die Wandmalereien der Basilika San Francesco in Assisi (Berlin 1930). f. lanzoni, Le diocesi d'Italia dalle origini al principio del secolo VII (an. 604), 2 v. (2d ed. Faenza 1927), 1:461480. f. j. mather, The Isaac Master (New York 1932). m. meiss, Giotto and Assisi (New York 1960). e. rymond, In the Steps of Saint Francis (Chicago 1975). i. b. supino, La Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi (Bologna 1924). l. tintori and m. meiss, The Painting of the Life of St. Francis in Assisi (New York 1962). p. urbani, Patriarchal Basilica in Assisi, Saint Francis, Artistic Testimony, Evangelical Message, ed. enel (Milan 1991). g. weigel, Witness to Hope (New York 1999).

[r. brown/

e. t. dewald/eds.]


views updated May 18 2018

Assisi a town in the province of Umbria in central Italy, famous as the birthplace of St Francis, whose tomb is located there.