James Jeffrey

The mystical power of Assisi

A visit to the true spiritual heart of Italy

  • From Spectator Life

In the courtyard of the bishop’s palace, the young man who would become Saint Francis stripped naked in front of his parents and various town and church officials. He handed his clothes with a bag of money on top to his father, saying: ‘I give these back to you. From now on I have one father; the Father in Heaven’.

Deep in the basilica is a striking painting depicting a six-winged Seraphim angel bestowing the stigmata with what looks like lasers

It was a turning point in his life (not to mention devastating for his parents). He would become known as Il Poverello – ’the little poor man’ in Italian’ – famous across the world for embracing a radical simplicity and humility in the pursuit of the divine Godhead, and for turning his back on ‘the economic system of calculated wealth’, as Donald Spoto describes in Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi

It was also a turning point for the town that Francis called home. The legend of the saint’s life became inextricably intertwined with Assisi’s reputation. It became Italy’s most significant pilgrimage site after Rome. Some argue Assisi is the true spiritual heart of Italy – Saint Francis, after all, composed the first poem in the Italian language.

Assisi is a walled enclave laid out along a spur of Mount Subasio that soars above the town as part of the Apennine Mountain chain running through the region of Umbria (as beautiful as Tuscany next door, just cheaper and with fewer tourists on the whole). A classic hilltop town, it has all the attractive and atmospheric elements you expect to find amid twisting narrow alleys, archways and endless vantage spots from which to gaze at the serene valley below stretching into the distance.

But there is something else that sets Assisi apart, in addition to all the nuns and friars walking around.

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