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labour, and seeing no human face from the outside world except through
an iron grating. So early as 1267 their connection with the franciscan
brotherhood ceased; the brethren no longer heard their confessions or
begged for them through the land as St. Francis had decreed; they
lived under the patronage of the Pope, who declared their convent to
be under the especial jurisdiction of the Holy See, and on the feast
of St. Francis called upon the nuns to send a pound of wax candles in
sign of tribute. As the Pope had often in olden times become master of
Assisi so now he obtained the rule over her monastic institutions,
gaining the temporal allegiance of the religious, as he had gained
that of the citizens.

[Illustration: SANTA CHIARA]

Upon entering the church of Santa Chiara out of the sunshine, we are
struck with a sense of the coldness of its scant ornamentation, a want
of colour, and a general idea that artists in first directing their
steps to San Francesco had not had time to give much thought to the
church of the gentle saint. Giottino is said by Vasari to have painted
frescoes here, and they may be those ruined bits of colour in the
right transept where it is only possible to distinguish a few heads or
parts of figures here and there in what seems to be a procession,
perhaps the Translation of St. Clare from San Damiano to San Giorgio.
It is said that their present condition of ruin is due to the German
bishop Spader who, fearing that the nuns might see too much of the
world through the narrow grating because of the number of people who
came to see the frescoes, had them whitewashed in the seventeenth
century. The people came less, the nuns were safer, but Giottino's (?)
frescoes are lost to us and we do not bless the memory of the German
bishop of Assisi. The frescoes of the ceiling he did not touch, and
we have in them some interesting work of an artist of the fourteenth
century whose name is unknown, but who undoubtedly followed the
Giottesque traditions, though not with the fidelity or the genius of
the artist who painted the legend of St. Nicholas in San Francesco. In
decorating the four spandrels he has been influenced by the allegories
of Giotto, and the angels are grouped round the principal figures in
much the same manner; they kneel, some with hands crossed upon their
breasts, but they are silent worshippers with not a single instrument
among them. The saints who stand in the midst of the angels in Gothic
tabernacles are the Madonna with a charming Infant Jesus who grasps
her mantle, and St. Clare; St. Cecilia crowned with roses, and St.
Lucy; St. Agnes holding a lamb, and St. Rose of Viterbo; St.
Catherine, and St. Margaret with a book in her hand. The artist has
used such soft harmonious colours and bordered his frescoes with such
pretty medallions of saints' heads and designs of foliage that one
wishes he had been given the whole church to decorate and thus saved
it from its present desolate appearance.

The large crucifix behind the altar, a characteristic work of that
time, has been ascribed to Margaritone, Giunta Pisano, or Cimabue. It
was painted, as the inscription says, by the order of the abbess
Benedicta, who succeeded St. Clare and was the first to rule in the
new convent, but the artist did not sign his name. The chapel of St.
Agnes contains a Madonna which Herr Thode with far-seeing eyes
recognises through all its layers of modern paint as Cimabue's work.
There is also a much retouched, but rather charming picture of St.
Clare, painted according to its inscription in 1283. She stands in her
heavy brown dress and mantle, a thick cord round her waist, and on
either side are scenes from her life. The small triptych of the
Crucifixion on a gold ground is an interesting work by the artist of
the four frescoes of the ceiling, and a nearer view of some of the
peculiarities of his style is obtained. It is impossible to mistake
the long slender necks, the curiously shaped ears with the upper part
very long, the narrow eyes, straight noses and small mouths, sometimes
drooping slightly at the corners, which he gives his figures. He is
another of those nameless painters who came to Assisi in the wake of
the great Florentine.

The visitor would leave Santa Chiara with a feeling of disappointment
were it not for the chapel of San Giorgio, the original place so often
mentioned in connection with St. Francis and now open to the public.
The crucifix of the tenth century, so famous for having bowed its head
to St. Francis in the church of San Damiano bidding him to repair the
ruined churches of Assisi, is to be removed from the parlour, where it
is temporarily kept, and placed behind the altar. The chapel, with a
groined roof, is square, small and of perfect form, and ornamented
with several frescoes. On the left wall is a delightful St. George
fighting the dragon in the presence of a tall princess, her face
showing very white against her red hair. There is a naïve scene of the
Magi, whose sleeves are as long and whose hands are as spidery as
those of the princess; and above is an Annunciation. Behind the
curtain in the fresco a small child is standing who is evidently the
donor, but some people believe he represents the Infant Jesus, which
certainly would account for the surprised attitude of the Virgin. This
wall was painted in the sixteenth century by some artist of the Gubbio
school, but his name we have been unable to discover. Quite a
different character marks the frescoes upon the next wall, which would
seem to be the work of an Umbrian scholar of Simone Martini, or at
least by one more influenced by the Sienese than the Florentine
masters. There is a softness and an ivory tone in the paintings of the
saints, a languid look in their eyes, a sweetness about the mouth
peculiar to the Umbrian followers of Simone, who like him succeed less
well with male than with female saints. Here the Madonna, seated on a
Gothic throne against a crimson dais, with a broad forehead and blue
eyes, her soft veil falling in graceful folds about her slender neck,
is unusually charming. The St. George with his shield is perhaps less
disappointing than St. Francis, but then Simone fails to quite express
the nature of the Seraphic Preacher. We turn to St. Clare of the oval
face and clear brown eyes, and feel that the painter had a subject
which appealed to him, even to the brown habit and black veil which
makes the face seem more delicate and fair. Above are the Crucifixion,
Entombment and Resurrection, suggesting in the strained attitudes of
the figures a follower of Pietro Lorenzetti. Some remains of frescoes
upon the next wall resemble those in the nave of the Lower Church, and
probably also belong to the second half of the thirteenth century.
Indeed the architecture of the chapel bears a striking resemblance to
San Francesco, so that although this is the original building of San
Giorgio which existed long before the Franciscan Basilica, it was in
all probability remodelled by Fra Campello, who may have given it the
pretty groined roof.

But above all the works of art and all the views of church or convent,
the pious pilgrim treasures the privilege of being able to gaze upon
the body of the saint in the crypt below the high altar reached by a
broad flight of marble stairs. St. Clare had been buried so far out of
sight and reach that her tomb was only found in the year 1850, after
much search had been made. Five bishops, with Cardinal Pecci, now
Pope Leo XIII, and the magistrates of the town, were present at the
opening of the sepulchre; the iron bars which bound it were filed
asunder, and the body of the saint was found lying clad in her brown
habit as if buried but a little while since; the wild thyme which her
companions had sprinkled round her six hundred years ago, withered as
it was, still sent up a sweet fragrance, while a few green and tender
leaves are said to have been clinging to her veil. So great was the
joy at discovering this precious relic that a procession was organised
"with pomp impossible to describe."


On the Sunday at dawn every bell commenced to ring calling the people
to high mass, and never, says a proud chronicler, were so many bishops
and such a crowd seen as upon that day. At the elevation of the Host
the bells pealed forth again announcing the solemn moment to the
neighbouring villages; soon after the procession was formed of lay
confraternities, priests and friars, and little children dressed as
angels strewed the way with flowers. The peasants, with tears raining
down their cheeks, pressed near the coffin, and had to be kept back by
some of the Austrian soldiers then quartered in Assisi. First they
went to the Cathedral, then to San Francesco, "the body of St. Clare
thus going to salute the body of her great master. Oh admirable
disposition of God." It was evening before they returned to the church
of Santa Chiara, where the nuns anxiously awaited them at the entrance
of their cloister to place the body of their foundress in the chapel
of San Giorgio until a sanctuary should be built beneath the high
altar. It was soon finished, ornamented with Egyptian alabaster and
Italian marbles, and the body of St. Clare was laid there to be
venerated by the faithful.

As pilgrims stand before a grating in the dimly lighted crypt the
gentle rustle of a nun's dress is heard; slowly invisible hands draw
the curtain aside, and St. Clare is seen lying in a glass case upon a
satin bed, her face clearly outlined against her black and white
veils, whilst her brown habit is drawn in straight folds about her
body. She clasps the book of her Rule in one hand, and in the other
holds a lily with small diamonds shining on the stamens. The silence
is unbroken save for the gentle clicking of the rosary beads slipping
through the fingers of the invisible nun who keeps watch, and as she
lets the curtain down again and blows out the lights there is a
feeling that we have intruded upon the calm sleep of the "Seraphic


[101] As the hated enemies of the Baglioni the Fiumi are often
mentioned in the chronicles of Matarazzo, and they played an important
part in the history of their native city. They were Counts of
Sterpeto, and the village of that name on the hill to the west of
Assisi above the banks of the Chiaggio still belongs to the family.

[102] One of the first of the franciscans was Rufino, a nephew of
Count Favorino's, whose holiness was such that in speaking of him to
the other brethren St. Francis would call him St. Rufino.


_Other Buildings in the Town_

The Cathedral of San Rufino. Roman Assisi. The Palazzo Pubblico.
The Chiesa Nuova. S. Paolo. Sta. Maria Maggiore. S. Quirico. S.
Appolinare. S. Pietro. The Confraternities (Chiesa dei
Pellegrini, etc.). The Castle.

Assisi is the only town we know of in Italy where the interest does
not centre round its cathedral and a certain sadness is felt, which
perhaps is not difficult to explain; St. Francis holds all in his
spell now just as he held the people long ago, so that the saints who
first preached Christianity to the Assisans, were martyred and brought
honour to the city, are almost forgotten and their churches deserted.
The citizens, though proud of their Duomo, with its beautiful brown
façade, hardly appear to love it, and we have often thought that they
too feel the sense of gloom and isolation in the small piazza, which
makes it a place ill-fitted to linger in for long. Men come and go so
silently, women fill their pitchers at the fountain but only the
splashing of water is heard, and they quickly disappear down a street;
even the houses have no life, for while the windows are open no one
looks out, and the total absence of flowers gives them a further look
of desolation. This part of the town was already old in mediæval
times, and the far away mystery of an age which has few records still
lives around the cathedral and its bell tower. San Rufino stands in
the very centre of Roman Assisi and its history begins very soon
after the Roman era, one might say was contemporary with it, as the
saint whose name it bears, was martyred in the reign of Diocletian.
All the details of his death, together with the charming legend about
the building of the cathedral, come down to us in a hymn by St. Peter
Damian, who, although writing in 1052 of things which it is true
happened long before, had very likely learnt the traditions about it
from the Assisans while he lived in his mountain hermitage near
Gubbio. The story goes back to the time when the Roman consul of
Assisi received orders to stamp out the fast-spreading roots of
Christianity, and began his work by putting to death St. Rufino, the
pastor of the tiny flock. The soldiers hurried the Bishop down to the
river Chiaggio and, after torturing him in horrible fashion, flung him
into the water with a heavy stone round his neck. Some say that the
Emperor Diocletian came in person to see his orders carried out. That
night the Assisan Christians stole down to the valley to rescue the
body of their Bishop and place it in safety within the castle of
Costano, which still stands in the fields close to the river but
almost hidden by the peasant houses built around it. Here, in a marble
sarcophagus he rested, cared for and protected by each succeeding
generation of Christians who had learned from tradition to love his
memory, and secretly they visited the castle in the plain to pray by
the tomb of the martyred saint. Their vigilance continued until the
fifth century, when the Christians had already begun to burn the Pagan
temples and build churches of their own. Christianity, indeed, spread
so rapidly throughout Umbria that other towns cultivated a love for
relics, and fearing that the body of St. Rufino might be stolen from
the castle in the open country, the Assisans took the first
opportunity of bringing it within the town. In the year 412 Bishop
Basileo, with his clergy and congregation met at Costano, to seek
through prayer some inspiration so that they might know where to take
the body of their saint. As they knelt by his tomb an old man of
venerable aspect suddenly appeared among them, and spoke these words
in the Lord's name: "Take," he said, "two heifers which have not felt
the yoke, and harness them to a car whereon you shall lay the body of
St. Rufino. Follow the road taken by the heifers and where they stop,
there, in his honour shall ye build a church." These words were
faithfully obeyed: the heifers, knowing what they were to do, turned
towards Assisi, and brought the relics, through what is now the Porta
S. Pietro, to that portion of the old town known as the "Good Mother"
because the goddess Ceres is said to be buried there. The heifers then
turned slowly round, faced the Bishop and his people, and refused to
move. For some obscure reason the place did not please the Assisans,
and they began to build a church further up the hill; but every
morning they found the walls, which had been erected during the
preceding day, pulled down, until discouraged, they submitted to the
augury, and returned to the spot chosen by the heifers. Before long,
over the tomb of the Roman goddess, arose the first Christian church
of Assisi, dedicated to San Rufino.


A few years ago the late Canon Elisei who has written many interesting
pamphlets on the cathedral, obtained permission from the government to
clear away the rubble beneath the present church; masses of Roman
inscriptions and pieces of sculpture were brought to light, together
with part of the primitive church of Bishop Basileo, and the whole of
what is known as the Chiesa Ugonia, from the Bishop of that name who
built it in 1028. With lighted torches the visitor can descend to the
primitive basilica and realise what a peaceful spot had been chosen
for this early place of worship, while picturing the Christians as
they knelt round the body of their Bishop, the light falling dimly
upon them through the narrow Lombard windows. The six columns, with
their varied capitals rising straight from the ground without the
support of bases, give a somewhat funereal aspect, recalling a crypt
rather than a church. The few vestiges of frescoes in the apse - St.
Mark and his lion, and St. Costanso, Bishop of Perugia - are said to
be, with the paintings in S. Celso at Verona, the oldest in Italy
after those in the catacombs at Rome. Ruins of other frescoes, perhaps
of the same date, can be traced above the door of the first basilica,
together with some stone-work in low relief of vine leaves and grapes,
but it is difficult to see them without going behind a column built in
total disregard of this lower building. The Roman sarcophagus is still
in the apse where the altar once stood, but open and neglected, for
the body of St. Rufino now lies beneath the altar of the present
cathedral. It is ornamented in rough high relief with the story of
Endymion; Diana steps from her chariot towards the sleeping shepherd,
Pomona has her arms full of fruit and flowers, and there are nymphs
and little gods of love and sleep. "It appeared to us," remarks one
prudish chronicler of the church, "the first time we beheld it, that
it was indecent to have present before the eyes of the faithful so
unseemly a fable; our scruples we however laid aside in remembering
that Holy Church is endowed with the power of purging from temples,
altars and urns, all pagan abominations, and from superstition to turn
them to the true service of God." No such scruples existed during the
early times, and there is an amusing story of how the people wishing
to place the marble sarcophagus, which had been left at Costano five
centuries before, in the Chiesa Ugonia, were prevented by the Bishop
who admired it, and had given orders that it should be brought to his
palace at Sta. Maria Maggiore. A great tumult arose in the town, but
although the people came to blows and the fight was serious on both
sides, no blood was shed. A further miracle took place when the
Bishop, determined to have his way, sent sixty men down to Costano who
were unable to move the sarcophagus which remained as though rooted in
the earth; and the event was the more remarkable as seven men
afterwards brought it at a run up the hill to the church of San
Rufino, where it remains to this day.

Already two basilicas had been built in honour of the saint, but the
Assisans dissatisfied with their size and magnificence, in the year
1134 called in the most famous architect of the day, Maestro Giovanni
of Gubbio, who before his death in 1210 had all but completed the
present cathedral and campanile. It is a great surprise when, emerging
from the narrow street leading from the Piazza Minerva thinking to
have seen all that is loveliest in Assisi, we suddenly catch sight of
the cathedral and its bell-tower. The rough brown stone which Maestro
Giovanni has so beautifully worked into delicately rounded columns,
cornices, rose-windows and doors with fantastic beasts, sometimes
looks as dark as a capucin's habit, but there are moments in the late
afternoon when all the warmth of the sun's rays sinks into it,
radiating hues of golden orange which as suddenly deepen to dark brown
again as the light dies away behind the Perugian hills.

All three doors are fine with their quaint ornaments of birds and
beasts and flowers, but upon the central one Giovanni expended all his
art. It is framed in by a double pattern of water-lilies and leaves,
of human faces, beasts, penguins and other birds with a colour in
their wings like tarnished gold. The red marble lions which guard the
entrance, with long arched necks and symmetrical curls, a human figure
between their paws, may belong to an even earlier period, and perhaps
were taken by Giovanni da Gubbio from the Chiesa Ugonia to decorate
his façade, together with the etruscan-looking figures of God the
Father, the Virgin and St. Rufino in the lunette above. Just below the
windows a long row of animals, such pre-historic beasts as may have
walked upon Subasio when no man was there to interrupt their passage,
seem to move in endless procession, and look down with faces one has
seen in dreams.

[Illustration: DOOR OF SAN RUFINO]

The interior of the cathedral is a disappointment; at first we accuse
the great Maestro Giovanni for this painful collection of truncated
lines and inharmonious shapes, until we find how utterly his work was
ruined in the sixteenth century by Galeazzo Alessi of Perugia. To
understand what the church was five centuries before Alessi came, it
is necessary to climb the campanile (only those who are attracted by
ricketty ladders and dizzy heights are advised to make the trial), and
when nearly half way up step out on to Alessi's roof, whence we can
view the havoc he has made. But he could not spoil Giovanni's
rose-windows, and through one of them we see the castle on its green
hill and the town below, cut into sections as though we were looking
at the Umbrian world through a kaleidoscope.

The outside of San Rufino is so lovely that we should be inclined to
advise none to enter, and thus spoil the impression it makes, were it
not for the triptych by Niccolò da Foligno, "the first painter in whom
the emotional, now passionate and violent, now mystic and estatic,
temperament of St. Francis' countrymen was revealed."[103] Here we
find a dreamy Madonna with flaxen hair, surrounded by tiny angels even
fairer than herself in crimson and golden garments folded about their
hips. The lunettes above are studded with patches of jewel-colour,
angels spreading their pointed wings upwards as they seem to be wafted
to and fro by a breeze. Four tall and serious saints stand round the
Virgin like columns; to the right St. Peter Damian busily writing in a
book, and St. Marcello, an Assisan martyr of the fourth century who
might pass for a typical Italian priest of the present day. On the
left is St. Rufino in the act of giving his pastoral blessing, and
St. Esuberanzio, another of Assisi's early martyrs, holding a missal.
They stand in a meadow thickly overgrown with flowers drawn with all
Niccolò's firm outline and love of detail. Fine as the picture is, it
cannot compare with the charming predella where the artist has worked
with the delicacy of a miniature painter. It represents the martyrdom
of St. Rufino; in the first small compartment the Roman soldiers on
horseback, their lances held high in the air, followed by a group of
prying boys, watch the Bishop's tortures as the flames shoot up around
him; and in the distance are two small hill-towns with the towers of
Costano in the plain. Then follows the scene where two young Assisan
Christians have come down to the Chiaggio to rescue the body of their
saint from the river. He lies stiffly in their arms, attired in his
episcopal vestments, and the water has sucked the long folds of his
cope below its surface. The last represents the procession of citizens
led by Bishop Basileo bringing St. Rufino's body from Costano, and is
one of the most exquisite bits of Umbrian painting. Niccolò has placed
the scene in early morning, the air is keen among the mountains, the
sun has just reached Assisi, seen against the white slopes of Subasio,
and turns its houses to a rosy hue, while the tiny wood in the plain
is still in deepest shadow. The white-robed acolytes mount the hill in
the sunlight followed by the people and the heifers which ought,
Niccolò has forgotten, according to the legend, to have led the way.
The picture is signed Opus Nicholai De Fuligneo MCCCCLX.

The only other fine things in the cathedral are the stalls of intarsia
work of carved wood, by Giovanni di Pier Giacomo da San Severino
(1520), a pupil of the man who executed the far finer stalls in San
Francesco. In the chapel of the Madonna del Pianto is a curious
wooden statue of the Pietà, how old and whether of the Italian or
French school it is difficult to say. A tablet records that in 1494
because of the great dissensions in the town this Madonna was seen to
weep, for which she has been much honoured, as is shown by the
innumerable ex-votos hung by the faithful round her altar.


The marble statue of St. Francis is by the French artist, M. Dupré (a
replica in bronze stands in the Piazza), while that of St. Clare is by
his daughter, who both generously gave their work to Assisi in 1882.
The statue of St. Rufino is by another Frenchman, M. Lemoyne.

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Online LibraryLina Duff GordonThe story of Assisi → online text (page 20 of 26)