Monday, 12 October 2015

Assisi - beyond the saintly kitch

Friday, 9th October

From our pitch at Camping Villaggio Assisi we had a great view of the ancient city spread  across the hillside a couple of kilometres to the west. Unlike many ancient hill towns in Italy, the immediate environs have not been developed much. The place is still more or less enclosed within the city walls built by the Romans on Etruscan foundations. The site is even more spectacular after dark when the entire skyline is floodlit.

The town itself has a split personality. The upper town is a haven of tranquillity, with narrow old streets that wind upwards towards the castle the overlooks the town.

quiet old streets in the upper town

This is not how most people experience Assisi. The campsite shuttle bus dropped us off at the coach stop just outside the gate next to Assisi's most famous monument, the huge Basilica of St Francis, which contains the tomb of the city's most famous son. The entire area is a melee of tour parties, emoting Americans, stunned, selfie-stick wielding Koreans mix with groups of nuns, monks, friars, fervent elderly Irish pilgrims, and SLR touting tourists. It's chaotic, but not directionless; inexorably the plankton of visitors is swallowed by the leviathan basilica. We were swept along with the throng and found ourselves in no time at all in the midst of the gloomy depths of the church.

retail hell next to the tour bus-stop

The Franciscan 'mother church'

pilgrims, sacred and secular

The place is a treasury of late medieval frescoes by leading 14th century Masters, including Giotto, Cimabue and Simone Martini. The panels by Giotto which recount the life of St Francis are especially famous as precursors of the Renaissance in their realism and psychological depth. Though I understand why they are important paintings, they are nevertheless works of propaganda, asserting a singular doctrine reflecting the deep-seated conservatism of a papacy that strove for centuries to control the spread of Ideas in Europe, and beyond. In truth, in terms ideological grip there is no difference between these frescoes and a Soviet poster of the worker as hero. Both are products of a totalitarian mindset.

That being said, Stalin was not given to sentimentality, whereas the Catholic church is. The plastic effigies, in all shapes and sizes, of saints and the Holy Family packed the shelves of  tacky souvenir shops that lined the Via Francesco achieved levels of kitch worthy of the Hello Kitty franchise.

A St Francis wine bottle stopper...
an opportuity tp follow in the Saint's footsteps

Yet all this tourist tat cannot quite manage to eclipse the wonderful architecture. In the main square,  the portico of a Roman temple to Minerva is incorporated into a later medieval church. The space is grand enough to accommodate the throng of tourists. Venture further up the hill from here and the streets are quieter.

spooky St Mary chalked on the pavement
not all the shops were dreadful

We found somewhere to have pizzas for lunch, then carried on up to the highest point of the old town. It's mainly residential, and we had the place to ourselves. Finally we exited the city through the upper gate and got a great view over the olive groves back towards the city and the castle of Rocca Maggiore.


Ancient residential district in the upper town.
Rocca Maggiore.

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