Visible for miles around, Assisi sweeps along the flanks of Monte Subasio like a pink ship sailing over the green sea valley below. On any given summer’s day, you’ll see coachloads perusing stands selling friar-shaped salt and pepper shakers, intermingled with flocks of serene Franciscans and nuns from Africa or Missouri or Bavaria, having the time of their lives visiting a place that, more than Rome, is the symbol of a living faith. And it’s true that something simple and good and joyful has survived in Assisi in spite of the odds.

Tragically, in September 1997, earthquakes brought the roof of the Basilica of St Francis down, killing two friars and two journalists who were examining the damage caused by the day’s first shock. The builders had given the basilica the flexibility to withstand earthquakes, but restorers over the centuries had been too lazy to haul out all the rubble they had created in the breathing space between the frescoed vaults and the walls; ultimately, the weight proved too great.

Assisi Umbria by Franceso Baistrocchi Unsplash
The Franciscan structures of Assisi have been given UNESCO status © Francesco Baistrocchi, Unsplash

Although the damage hit a wide area in Umbria and the Marche, for most of the world these were the ‘Assisi earthquakes’. Millions poured in for restoration, with priority given to a ‘Jubilee list’ of monuments on the official pilgrimage route of the Holy Year 2000. Assisi vowed it would reopen by Christmas 1999, and it did – an impressive feat, especially in Italy where projects on that scale usually take decades to complete. It was the first major monument anywhere with anti-seismic bundles of wires of ‘shape-memory alloys’ made of titanium and nickel woven in the walls. Invented by the aeronautics industry in 1951, the alloys are used in shock absorbers – in this case, a very big shock absorber, which should give the basilica 50% more ‘give’.

Today Assisi is in better condition than ever. Even buildings that were not actually damaged have been restored. It’s an ill wind … and since 2000, UNESCO designated Franciscan Assisi a World Heritage Site.

What to see and do in Assisi

Basilica di San Francesco

In transforming the Franciscans into a doctrinally safe arm of Catholicism, the popes had the invaluable aid of Francis’s successor, Vicar-General Brother Elias, an organisation man, something of an epicurean and friend of Frederick II. Elias’s methods caused the first split within the Franciscans. This monumental complex, begun the day after Francis’s canonisation in 1228 when Gregory IX laid the cornerstone, was a major cause of contention. Nothing could have been further removed from the philosophy of Francis; yet nothing could have been more successful in perpetuating his memory and teaching.

St Francis Basilica Assisi Umbria by canadastock Shutterstock
The Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, Italy’s first Gothic church, is a treasure trove of medieval art © canadastock, Shutterstock

From the beginning, the popes were entirely behind the basilica. They paid for it by promoting a sale of indulgences, and to this day it belongs to the Vatican (although thanks to the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Italian State is responsible for the upkeep). Elias himself may have supplied the design – the lower basilica does have an amateurish, clumsy form. The beautiful campanile dates from 1239; the completed basilica was consecrated by Innocent IV in 1253. Behind it, on huge buttressed vaults, is the enormous 15th-century convent built by Sixtus IV, now a missionary college. The usual approach is through the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco, lined with arcades where medieval pilgrims bought their souvenirs.

‘I would give all the churches in Rome for this cave,’ wrote Hippolyte Taine, 19th-century French critic and one of the first moderns to appreciate this jewel. Because of its partially underground location, the lower church has no façade, but it does have a grand Renaissance portico of 1487 to protect the Gothic portal. Whoever was responsible, the church was designed to hold the saint’s body, and with its low, dimly illuminated vaults, it certainly resembles a crypt. It is confusing at first in its overwhelming detail, and a bit claustrophobic, yet tucked in here are some of Italy’s finest 13th- and 14th-century frescoes. 

San Francesco Church Assisi Umbria by Enrico Aliberti ItalyPhoto Shutterstock
Make sure you explore inside to glimpse sight of some of Italy’s finest medieval frescoes © Enrico Aliberti Italy Photo, Shutterstock

In contrast with the lower church, the upper church with its big rose window and false front gable is strikingly bright and airy, filled with frescoes that emphasise its perfectly balanced proportions. This is Gothic reduced to its basics. The medieval Italians, who never really took to the northern style and regarded flamboyant vaults, spires and buttresses as barbaric, nevertheless did appreciate the possibilities the new building techniques offered to create a single open space.

The upper church, whoever designed it, became the great prototype of Italian Gothic, the model for countless Franciscan and Dominican churches: here all the features emphasised by northern architects are minimalised to provide a perfect framework for the frescoes in a revolutionary synthesis of art and architecture. The space, the simplicity and the easy-to-‘read’ illustrations were just what a preaching order required. Although the frescoes steal all the thunder, give a few minutes to the beautiful 13th-century stained glass, considered the finest in medieval Italy.

Getting to Assisi

By train

Assisi is a 23km/30min train journey from Perugia or Foligno, the main junction from Rome, Terni or Ancona. The station [121 A3] is near the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, 4km from the centre of Assisi; BusItalia C buses run every half hour to the city (€1.30 from bars or tabacchi, or €2 on board) stopping at Piazza Matteotti, Largo Properzio and Piazza Giovanni Paolo II.

By bus

By bus SULGA buses from Rome Fiumicino airport go to Assisi’s Piazza San Pietro (€23.50 one way, €40 return); other convenient buses link Assisi with Perugia, Bettona and Gualdo Tadino.