Page 9, 26th September 1986

26th September 1986
Page 9
Page 9, 26th September 1986 — The animal man of Assisi

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Organisations: World Wildlife Fund
Locations: St Francis


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The animal man of Assisi

ASSISI , . what could be more fitting for the scene of the 25th anniversary year of the World Wildlife Fund? When Prince Phillip came here on September 26, as President of the fund, the city of St Francis, who called all living creatures his brothers and sisters, opened its arms in a twoday seminar to the leaders of five of the world's great religions, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Judaism and Islam.

Taking animals seriously is even now, a bizarre notion to Italians who still speak of the 12th century saint as if he had lived within the time limits of their own generation. "You see," they will say. "He was a little mad. Imagine! He used to coo to pigeons!"

But nothing has endeared St Francis more to the British people than this love of animals.

He was the son of a rich linen draper but adopted a life of austere poverty, owning nothing and inspiring many of his friends to follow him, including the rich and wellborn Clare, whose life of prayer and austerity matched his.

Because of him, more than two and a half million people are said to come to this small Umbrian town every year, invading its hushed tranquillity with cars and buses and the aviary-like sounds of a dozen foreign tongues.

Now, in September, the green heart of Italy is bathed in that limpid light that the painters captured on canvas. The name 'umbra' means 'shadow' and on those undramatic greys and green there lies a strange haze giving the landscape a great sense of peace.

The tranquil country, clothed in olive groves and pinewoods is ribbed by fertile valleys, slim poplars and fig trees festooned by climbing vines.

Assisi, built of pink ochre and grey stone, spreads like a fan over the slope of Monte Subasio. To travel here, like a pilgrim across that wide stairway of hillside with its high flowering pastures and come down the spur to the city is a memorable experience.

Once upon a time there was an Assisi that had not heard of St Francis a quarrelsome little commune plundering its way to prosperity like fifty similar towns throughout Tuscany and Umbria.

Today, this almost unimaginable past is embodied in the Rocca, the old fortress high above Assisi that you see as you come over Subasio. From it you are reminded of the centuries' ferment the villages built on hilltops for defence, the towns of high security, bounded by three sets of walls, Etruscan, Roman and medieval.

But down in Assisi everywhere, one walks with the memory of the saint. It has remained indeed, a medieval city with its tiny lanes, some so narrow as to seem only outdoor stairways curving between the houses. The old walls and bell towers, the churches, convents and monasteries remain.

Many of the 13th century houses have a 'door of death', often bricked up today, standing a few feet above pavement level and used to carry out the corpses. The dead man who had entered the house in the usual way now remained behind with his spirit becoming a kind of household god.

Every building appears to be a museum. To the left of the Cathedral of San Rufinus, the first bishop of the city, is the house where St Clare was born. To the right is the church that has grown up around the birthplace of Francis.

Down in the valley is the tiny monastery of San Damiano with its little court where Francis wrote his Praises of the Creation, and below the town is the ostentatious Church of Santan Maria degli Angell, where the saint died in 1226.

But dominating the whole is the huge Basilica built on two levels just after the saint's death. It is an enormous artistic treasurehouse of Byzantine riches with marvellous frescoes and paintings, stained glass and porphyry font.

The two who rejected the world's wealth and privilege so vehemently would marvel, today, at the glittering facade of the places where they are venerated.

But, three miles up on Monte Subasio lies the 'Hermitage', the place dearest of all to Francis where he would withdraw to pray and reflect and which more than other holds his spirit.

It stands in a dense gully of olive groves, oaks and small green fields and as you approach down a narrow lane that leads to a stairway, you are hailed by that most unusual sound in most of Italy the fearless singing of larks and thrushes.

From the stony parapet, the view looks over the ravine to the plain. Inside, the stone staircases and grottoes tunnelled into the rock feel cold on the most scorching of days.

Cold, too, is the stone bench far below, that was the bed of St Francis. In one of the carved choirstalls of a tiny chapel, I watched an incredibly ancient Franciscan praying, his radiant face oblivious to all but the dream of his founder.

But up from the plain came the twisting serpent of tourist traffic foreign buses, cars, taxis and scooters.

And yet . . . when the Italian President, with the religious leaders, the government head and political chiefs, the astronauts and cosmonauts and security officials who will throng the Piazza and the stony streets this month, have gone, then Assisi will become once again the place of silence and birds' the city of St Francis.

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