Testo e Regia: Gigi Oliviero
Roberto Mezzabotta-Emilio Navarino
Montaggio: Valter Cappucci
Musiche: Gregorio Cosentino
Voce: Christopher Cruise
Produzione: Luma Film (Roma)
ASSISI -POETRY OF THE SOUL (English text)
Be praised, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially master brother sun, who brings day, and you give us light by him .
Be praised, my Lord, for sister moon and the stars: in heaven you have made them, clear and precious and lovely. Be praised, my Lord, for brother wind and for the air, cloudy and fair and in all weathers, by which you give sustenance to your creatures. Be praised, my Lord, for sister water, who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste. Be praised, my Lord, for brother fire, with whom you illuminate the night: and he is comely and joyful and vigorous and strong. Be praised, my Lord, for sister our mother earth
who maintains and governs us,
and puts forth different fruits, coloured flowers and grass ...
These wonderfully simple lines were written nearly 800 years ago by St. Francis, the humble 'poverello', or poor little man, of Assisi who, by preaching peace and love, created a spiritual movement which has no parallel in religious history .
They are from the 'Canticle of all Created Things' , written in 1225, a year before the saint 's death, and they form a kind of spiritual testament.
The region where Francis and his followers lived and laboured - Umbria and especially Assisi - is a gentle, beautifu1 area, situated at the heart of Italy; it is the ideal setting for our story: that of a little big man whose humble, simple words came to acquire eternal and universal meaning.
Assisi today is a little town situated on the slopes of Mount Subasio. The place seems almost to have been destined for the fame that has been its down the centuries: its countryside is wonderfully serene; its history, rich and vivid; its works of art of exceptional splendour . And then the whole place has a special air about it which inspires even the "lost hurried visitor with a deep sense of tranquility .
And yet the town's history was by no means always tranquil. Of very ancient origin, it belonged first to tile Umbrian people and then to the Etruscans, who fought over it for many years.
Roman expansion compelled the two peop1es to ally against the new invader, but in vain. After the battle of Sentinum in 295 B.C. , the superior civilization of Rome made its triumphal entry into 'Assisium', improving the fortifications of the town and enriching it with splendid buildings like the Temple of Minerva, whose pronaos can still be admired in the Piazza del Comune, next to the Palace of the Captain of the People.
But a new, even stronger power, based on principles, not on violence, was beginning its irresistible advance: Christianity.
The new doctrine started spreading in the 3rd century. For years it was fiercely repressed, and Assisi too had its martyrs: Vittorino, Savino and Rufino, to whom the fine cathedral was to be dedicated.
With the fall of the Roman empire, the new faith spread rapidly. Witness to this are the many churches which embellished the town over the years : the Benedictine church of San Pietro, whose Romanesque facade shows touches of Gothic ... the Baroque Chiesa Nuova, situated alongside the house of Francls's parents... Santa Maria Maggiore, which was Assisi's first cathedral, built over the remains of an ancient palaeo-Christian church.
But the town was not yet to find peace. The middle ages brought more centuries of oppression , struggles for power and bloody invasions: Totila's Ostrogoths, Narses's Byzantines, Alboin's Lombards and Charlemagne's Franks.
The beginnings of corporate life coincided with the town's resurgence. Around the year 1000 Assisi, first imperial Ghibelline and then papal Guelph, fought many a savage battle with nearby Perugia, in some of which Francis himself took part.
The massive Rocca Maggiore ore which dominates the town symboIizes
this period: the fortress dates back to the Lombard era and is an impressive example of medieval architecture.
Francis was born in Assisi around 1182 . Already there was some'-t thing mystic about his place of birth: it was a simple manger (now the oratory of San Francesco Piccolino); the first extraordinary analogy with the life of Jesus from whom Francis was to draw inspiration throughout his life of humility and suffering .
And yet his parents were certainly not poor. His father, Pietro di Bernardone, a wealthy cloth merchant was a member of that emerging bourgeois class who Ied the struggIe for civic liberties.
Their house was in the middle of the town, right by the present Piazza del Comune. His mother, Madonna Pica, was from Provence.
The son had the education of the young rich of those days: he learnt Latin and mathematics and, while still an adolescent, was introduced by his father into his business, with excellent results.
The young Francis had everything it took to be the leader of the young bloods of the town: he was rich, good-looking and possessed a lively intelligence and a gentle, generous nature. The wonderful environment in which he lived stimulated his love of nature: that nature which would become the centre of his mystic world, which would always remind him, in every living creature, of the ineffable presence of God.
Now history begins to be mixed with legend. We find the first premonition of the saint's future in one of Giotto's cycle of frescoes in the Upper Church of San Francesco. A simpleton recognizes in the young Francis the saint -to-be, and stretches out a cloak at his feet as a sign of veneration.
A gesture which Francis himself will repeat soon after, when he meets a knight who has fallen on hard times and gives him his cloak to keep him warm.
Already' he was dreaming of a different kind of life, and the signs became increasingly evident: long illnesses interrupting his craving for military glory, and premonitory dreams, all culminating in the magic moment at San Damiano.
The year 1206. After yet another premonitory dream, Francis goes to pray in solitude at this place (at the time just a ruined chapel outside the town) and hears a voice coming from the lips of a crucifix, a voice that will change his entire life: 'Francis, repair my house which, as you see, is falling into ruin'.
It was the magic moment of conversion. Torments, anguish, doubts melted away, and the young man, with a new-found energy, threw himself into restoring the ruined chapel,a prelude to the moral restoration which the Church had been waiting for and which Christ had demanded in this symbolic message.
To the understandable dismay of his parents, Francis undressed in front of his father and the bishop, renouncing, in this dramatic way, all wordly goods. Dressed only in a ragged sheepskin garment, he went out to fulfil his great task of preaching.
Here is the little friar in the most realistic image handed down to us by an artist. It was painted by Cimabue in a famous fresco, the Maestà. Francis was 25 and had given up a life of ease and pleasure to live in the most absolute poverty.
Of course he experienced appallingly difficult moments, but he didn't remain alone for long. Starting with Bernardo di Quintavalle, he was soon joined by a small group of friends and brothers who agreed to divide with him their only remaining possessions: faith and love . . .
The little community first settled down in the place taken up today by the majestic sanctuary of Rivotorto, a few miles south of Assisi.
The Sanctuary is now a much sought-after place of prayer for hordes of pilgrims; but in those days it must have an ideal spot for a community of friars who had made poverty, humility and prayer their rule of life.
Francis went into retreat in a wretched little hut here with his first followers in 1209-10; the hut itself, preserved as a national monument, still stands in the church which was built over it at the end of the 16th century.
The stay at Rivotorto was a fundamental moment In Franciscan history. The first Rule was written here, to be recognized by Pope Innocent III during the course of the brothers' first journey to Rome in 1209.
This event is portrayed in another of Giotto's superb frescoes. The Pope and the prelates tower above the kneeling, penitent friars and seem to dazzle them by the splendour of their gestures and robes; but in their expression one can also read incredulity and admiration for the humility and moral grandeur depicted in the saint's face.
Papal recognition of the Ru1e injected a new strength into the movement. Its fame increased rapidly and word went round about the first miracles.
We can see some of them portrayed in Giotto's cycle, such as the miracle of the spring, a marvellous example of spatial composition. The thirsty man gratefully drinks the water gushing from the rock at the saint's bidding; two friars and a patient ass look on incredulously; and Francis's ecstatic thanks lead the eye up to the peak of the mountain and on towards heaven itself.
In the fresco of the devils being driven from Arezzo we see a clear example of Giotto's revolutionary treatment of landscape. The kneeling saint orders brother Silvestro to expel the devils from the town. On the left an elegant church; on the right, a polychrome geometrical composition on of the walls and houses of Arezzo, the vivid colours emphasizing the three-dimensional quality of the scene.
The next painting commemorates the journey to Egypt in 1219 to preach the gospel . Arrested by the sultan, the saint challenges his priests to submit with him to trial by fire to show which is the true faith. Once again the expressions on the faces strikingly highlight the significance of the scene.
In 'The preaching before Honorius III ', the outstanding feature is the Pope himself, who listens attentively to the eloquent little friar, clearly having sensed his greatness.
And finally the most famous scene, 'The preaching to the birds', in which the gentle countryside recalls Francis's boundless love of nature and all living creatures,witnesses to the everlasting presence of God.
One of the consequences of this love was Francis's habit of choosing solitary places where he could pass some time in total asceticism.
Perhaps the most famous of these is the hermitage of the Carceri, an isolated oratory in a wonderful position on Mount Subasio. The Benedictines donated it to Francis and he went there often for spiritual nourishment. A visit to the hermitage today is a plunge into the Francsican dimension. Everything speaks of peace and mysticism: the choir, where hymns were sung to the Almighty ... the narrow cells for the few hour of rest.. the refectory just as it was 800 years ago... and finally the centuries-old olive tree where the saint preached so joyfully to the birds.
Another statue, set in beautiful countryside, takes us away from Assisi to another place beloved by the saint: Mount La Verna, to which Francis used to retreat between pilgrimages for so1itary meditation and prayer.
Today the place has become a much-visited sanctuary for pilgrims lured here by the Franciscan message; but there are still several spots which have remained as they were, witnesses to a mystic, fascinating past.
Here is the primitive bed, hewn out of the rock, where the saint rested... the paths he walked down... the cliff from which the devil who had tempted him fell. And it was on one of his visits here, in 1224, two years before his death, that St Francis received the stigmata.
The life of St Francis is inseparable from that of St Clare. She too came from a wealthy Assisi family who had given her an education rare for girls of those days. She read and wrote in Latin and had received from her mother, Ortolana, religious instruction of unusual depth.
The encounter with St Francis, whom she heard preaching during Lent in 1212 in the church of San Giorgio, sealed her determination to devote herself to the monastic life . Here we see her depicted in a splendid fresco by Cimabue describing her life in the church in Assisi which is dedicated to her.
At the age of 17, Clare refused the hand of a noble suitor, fled from home and, accompanied by her nurse, went to the Portiuncula, the little chapel to which the Franciscans now retreated to pray. Francis greeted her and, according to legend, cut off her "long hair and made her change her elegant dress for a rough tunic tied at the waist by a cord. The young girl then made the oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience and recognized Francis as her superior.
Her father, tried everything to get his daughter back, but she was adamant. Along with other women, amongst whom would eventually be included her mother and her two sisters, she retired to the convent of San Damiano (which had, as we know, been restored by Francis himself) where she founded the order of the Poor Clares and lived for over forty years in seclusion and prayer.
The convent's interior seems still impregnated with the quiet life of the nuns: the beautiful cloister where they walked in silence ... the refectory, with the same worn tables as then, a vase of flowers commemorating the place where the saint sat... the chapel with the crucifix which, many years earlier, had spoken to St Francis... the oratory and the choir where the nuns met for common prayer and hymns of praise... another smaller chapel... and finally the austere dormitory where St Clare, worn out by the privations of a life of penitence, died on the 11th of August, 1253.
She was canonized by Pope Alexander IV in 1255, and two years Iater work began on the great basilica dedicated to her and to which her mortal remains were transferred in 1260.
The basilica of St Clare is one of the most important churches in Assisi. In the Gothic style, it was built in imitation of the Upper Church of San Francesco.
Francis's life had come to an end many years before. He aIso had submitted his body to endless trials, to which were added his frequent pilgrimages and the wounds of the stigmata. More and more often he retired to the simple , secluded little chapel of the Porziuncula which has become over the years the symbol of the Franciscan order.
Since the 16th century the chapel has been covered by the basilicas, Santa Maria degli Angeli; but in Francis's time it was surrounded by a wood, and the saint loved the total peace and quiet of its setting. Here, in 1208, listening to the passage in the Gospel in which Jesus established the rule for his apostles, he adopted it for himself and his disciples; here he gave Clare her penitential tunic; not far from here, in a vision, he obtained from Jesus the plenary indulgence, the 'Perdono' of Assisi, for everyone who visited the chapel after confessing and taking communion.
And here the saint laid down the principles of his order (which by now had spread throughout Europe), in his constant struggle to keep it united and true to its fundamental precepts of love, poverty, obedience and chastity.
The interior of the chapel has remained almost exactly as it was. Entering it is an intensely moving experience: the sight of the simple stones, often put back in place by the friars themselves, is enough to recreate its original aura of peace and mysticism.
And it was here, on the night of October 3rd, 1226, that the saint died, welcoming sister death: having made them deposit him on the ground and exhorted them never to abandon the Porziuncola, which symbolized the very heart of his message.
The fame of St Francis and his order resounded round the world after his death. Only two years later, in 1228, he was canonized here in Assisi by Pope Gregory IX.
On that occasion the Pope also consecrated the altar of San Rufino, the building of which had begun nearly a hundred years earlier, and which now became the cathedral of Assisi.
This beautiful church is typical of Umbrian Romanesque, although the length of time and many hands that it took to build it militated against uniformity of style. The facade is especially interesting, with its splendid lions guarding the (central ) door, symbolizing Christ abolishing the practice of sacrifice: both the pagan human kind and the Hebrew version, represented by a goat.
Also to be admired are the great central rose window and the lunette of the main door, showing Christ enthroned between the sun and the moon: symbol of Christ the king... light in darkness.
The striking bell tower, its foundation a robust Roman cystern, is a perfect companion to the facade.
The wish to honour St Francis's memory with a suitable monument - and one where his remains might finally be laid to rest - led his followers to start work, immediately after his death, on the building of a great basilica.
It was probably brother Elias of Cortona, the Minister-General of the order, who initiated the proceedings in a place which used to be called the 'Hill of Hell', because criminals were executed there, but now became known as the 'Hill of Paradise'.
The basiIica consists of two churches , one on top of the other; the lower one , conceived as the crypt of the much Iarger upper church, was deliberately kept simple and austere, a fitting burial place for the saint.
Participation in the immensely ambitious project was extraordinary. The land was made available
by the town's wealthy families and the craftsmen worked at such speed that Francis' s remains were buried in the lower church onIy two years after work began.
Apart from the architectural side, the appeal of Francis's name brought almost competing with each other to create, within a few years, a complex of frescoes and works of art that has few if any equals in the world.
The Lower Church is entered through a solemn Gothic portal, above which soars the fine Romanesque bell tower.
Once inside, the first thing that catches your eye is an image of Francis which seems to invite you to admire your surroundings.
In Romanesque style the single nave is in the form of a Greek T, beloved by Francis as symbolizing the Cross.
Above it loom the great low vaults, supported by short pillarcolumns, which cause the whole church to be plunged into a mystical gloom.
What first greets the eye is the astonishing richness of the decorations and frescoes which cover "the walls and ceiling. There is practically not an inch which hasn't been used to portray dozens of scenes from the Bible or of the life of the saint.
At the end of the nave is the huge Cosmatesque high altar,made from a single slab of marble .
Above it, in the four arms of the vault, are the famous allegorical frescoes by the so-called 'maestro delle vele'.
The appeal of Francis's name brought the greatest artists of the day flocking to Assisi, almost competing with each other to create, within a few years, a complex of frescoes and works of art that has few if any equals in the world.
The result is truly spectacular, the many hands of the various artists having miraculously created a remarkably homogeneous style.
For example, all the paintings (as, we shall see, is also the case in the Upper Church) are skillfully integrated into the architectural structure, creating a seamless union between art
Also in the right transept are two famous frescoes by Giotto: the 'Birth of Christ' is a beautifully serene, happy composition. Only St Joseph, in a corner, looks a bit thoughtful. The Christ child is painted twice: once on his mother's knee and, below, with two women who are bathing him. The groups of angels all have different functions: some are singing in praise others talk with the shepherds, other s still adore the Virgin and child.
The 'Flight into Egypt' is a relaxed, narrative painting; the characters are reduced to their essentials, but many details bring the fresco to life.
As always with Giotto, the landscape is an integral part of the picture: the mountains and trees seem almost to bow before the small group of saints and the infant Jesus.
One of the two figures behind pushes the ass as if trying to hurry him along, and one of the two angels accompanying the group looks back, as though expecting Herod's soldiers to arrive any minute.
Simone Martini's 'Massacre of the Innocents' is an extraordinarily dramatic painting, in which each person reacts differently to the tragedy: the mothers, overcome with terror and despair; the soldiers, compelled against their will to carry out an evil order; the pathetic pile of tiny mutilated bodies.
The left transept is dominated by Lorenzetti’s powerful 'Crucifixion'. The deep blue sky forms a background to the tragedy; angels fly wildly about, seemingly maddened by grief; but the focal point is the body of Christ, with the two thieves appearing on either side for the first time in western art.
A masterpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti: the so-called ‘Virgin of the Sunset', showing the mother and the child between St John the Evangelist. The freshness of the expressions, the delicacy of line and the graceful colors against the gold back-ground make this one of the best-loved paintings of Italian art.
There are many theories about the gesture the Virgin is making. The most widely accepted is that the child is asking his mother who has loved her the most, and Mary in reply points to St Francis
In complete contrast, one of the first frescoes we come upon is St Francis preaching to the birds', a delicate work of the so-called 'Maestro di San Francesco’.
We leave the Lower Church through a lovely Renaissance cloister, built in the second half of the 15th century thanks to the generosity of the Franciscan Pope, Sixtus IV.
There is another, less visited, cloister in San Francesco, which was once used as a cemetery for the friars. Next to it is a beautiful garden which, in the shadow of the great bulk of the church, looks out over the gentle serenity of the Umbrian countryside.
(Inserire: Il complesso delle Basiliche si ingrandiva -> ideas)
The –upper Church, in Gothic style, took about 30 years to build and was consecrated in 1253 by Pope Innocent IV. It has become, over the centuries, one of the centres of world Catholicism, as well as an extraordinary museum of art.
The exterior is plain and devoid of decorations, as though to underline the simplicity of the Franciscan order and to serve simply as an entrance door to the astonishing artistic and spiritual treasures lying in wait inside.
Few places in the world can equal the mystic fascination and beauty of the Upper Church of San Francesco. One cannot enter it without immediately experiencing a sense of profound emotion.
The interior consists of one huge nave, flooded with light, in striking contrast to the gloom of the church below . Wherever the eye lingers, every corner of the architectural structure is covered with brilliantly coloured images and figures.
Here the pillars, arches and vaults lose their purely functional status and become an integral part of the aesthetic whole. One of the effects of this is to make an already big church seem even larger, thereby allowing an unhurried and unimpeded inspection of human figures and landscapes that speak directly to the mind and heart.
Here worked the greatest artists of the 13th century, and on these walls a revolutionary moment in the history of western art was immortalized: that brought about by Giotto.
The great Tuscan painter worked on the 28 paintings of the cycle depicting the life of St Francis from 1297 to 1299 and in doing so brought about a radical transformation in a tradition which had remained pretty well static since the fourth century A.D. Previously there had been a limited, repetitive series of subjects in which the human figure seemed more or less detached from the background and was painted in a flat, two-dimensional way.
Now Giotto, with his far more flexible technique, brings his figures passionately to life, making their gestures natural and indicative of the emotions they are feeling. The background also becomes real and three-dimensional, whether it be gently pastoral or dramatically architectural.
The end result is unique and astonishing. It's no longer a question of simply admiring a series of frescoes but of taking a leap back in time and absorbing, in an atmosphere of serenely gentle mysticism, the life and times of the great saint.
The fine stained glass windows in the transept filter the sunlight into a thousand colours . Built in the middle of the 13th century by German, French and Italian craftsmen, the 28 original windows, the oldest of their kind in Italy, are also remarkable for the subjects they depict, the range of colours employed and the technical skill of their construction.
Behind the altar, in the left arm of the transept, is Cimabue's 'Crucifixion' ,unquestionably a landmark in western art, even though the deterioration over the centuries due to the effect of humidity on the white lead used by the artist has made the painting look like an immensely powerful photographic negative.
But let us return to the basilica's chief attraction: the great series of frescoes with which Giotto covered both sides of the nave.
Giotto’s cycle is based on the ‘Legenda Major’ of St Bonaventura, written on the basis of what had been handed down by Tommaso da Celano, St Francis's most authoritative biographer, who drew his material from the lively oral tradition of the people of Assisi and the first-hand information of friars who had known the saint.
The cycle, which begins on the right of the altar, practically follows Francis's entire life.
In the 'Vision of the Palace', the saint dreams of a palace full of arms (an idealization of contemporary Italian Gothic) which, in its three-dimensionality, seems almost to burst from the wall.
The scenographic element is again at work in 'The Dream of Pope Innocent Ill'. Here too the architectural structure of the sumptuous papal chamber and the basilica itself which the saint is propping up (symbol of the spiritual rebuilding of the Church) is powerfully relevant.
In ‘St Francis in the Fiery Chariot', the figure of the sleeping saint with his head resting on his hands is a beautifully delicte touch; and the delineation of the hand of the friar in the centre of the painting is marvelously realistic.
In the 'Vision of the Thrones' , the thrones themselves form another clear example of three-dimensional perspective.
Note, in ‘St Francis in Ecstasy', the phosphorescent effect of the cloud which supports the saint ...
Whilst in the 'Greccio Crib' the artist takes us inside a church where we don't see the walls but only a part of the furnishings. Here again we can appreciate the artist's search for threedimensionality in the lectern and in the crucifix at the top, which is not a sacred image but an object of which we only see the bottom part, leaning towards the invisible nave and attached by rope to a beam.
In the 'Death of the knight of Celano' an object again strikes our attention almost more than the figures themselves: this is the table, covered with a white cloth, which falls over the edge to show the two bands embroidered with the so-called 'Assisi stitch' which is still used today.
The outstanding feature of the "Apparition to Pope Gregory IX' is the sophisticated rendering of the magnificent material hung above the pope's bed, which, while held in place by a system of rods and fluttering gracefully down, nevertheless creates an almost palpable impression of weight.
It seems probable that Giotto didn't paint all of some of the last frescoes, including 'The Grief of the Poor Clares at Francis' Death', leaving his assistants to fill in many of the details. But the master's hand is evident in the saint's face, serene even in death, in the folds of the nun's robes and especially in the facade of San Damiano.
St Francis's body was buried under the main altar in the Lower Church on the of May, 1230. Two centuries later the tomb was solidly walled up to prevent the Perugians from taking the coffin away.
In 1800 the body was exhumed, declared authentic and placed in a tomb which was accessible to the public . This tomb acquired its present appearance only in 1978.
With the increase in St Francis fame, his town grew too. Assisi has become one of the most famous and visited of all the places in the world an obligatory pilgrimage for all who fallen under the spell of the 'poverello' and cannot coming to see the places which marked the various stag… of his exceptional life.
Today the town is a delightful, welcoming place. Its many moments among them the main square, the Piazza del Comune with the impressive Palace of the captain of the People, the fac… of the Temple of Minerva and the Palace of the Priors are constant source of interes to visitors.
Also to be enjoyed are the old houses looking down onto streets, the doors, the shrines and the polyglot mass of t in search of the secret of the magic atmosphere which to haunt the place.
In this sense, Assisi really is a unique experience, the h… cal expression of a far-off, mystical poetry…
A poetry which can't be recited but which remains inside ~ the simple but highly-charged words of one of the greatest …tual poets of all time, which must still be listened to t… their wonderful message of love.
ASSISI -Revised Dialogue
St Francis's body was buried under the altar of the Lower Church (of San Francesco) on the 25th of May, 1230, and from that day countless millions of pilgrims have come to pay homage to him…
In a simple, mystical place, perfectly in harmony with his short, exceptional life ... A place where whoever chooses to listen can still hear the simple but highly charged words in which one of the greatest spiritual poets of all time conveyed his eternal message of love