On the Road with Francis of Assisi: A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond

Paperback | December 12, 2006

byLinda Bird Francke

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On the Road with Francis of Assisi offers a unique and lively travelogue of parallel journeys: that of Francis of Assisi on his way to sainthood in the thirteenth century, and that of author Linda Bird Francke, who followed his path through the beauty of central and coastal Italy–and even on to Egypt.

Francke tells the compelling story of Saint Francis through the many places he visited. She and her husband, Harvey Loomis, used as their guidebooks medieval texts, including the first official biography of the saint, completed in 1229, just three years after he died. Theirs was not a spiritual journey but one based on admiration for a man whose legend continues to inspire and fascinate millions around the world.

From Assisi–a small Umbrian town that now draws two million visitors a year, making it second only to Rome as an Italian pilgrimage destination–Saint Francis crisscrossed Italy for twenty years. And so too does the author travel through the “green heart” of Italy to such hill towns and cities as Siena, Bologna, Venice, Gubbio, and Rome, and to the many mountaintop Franciscan sanctuaries from La Verna and Le Celle di Cortona in Tuscany to the Rieti Valley.

Along the way, Francke movingly depicts the many miracles Francis performed and draws us into the splendid beauty of the landscape that inspired the saint’s love for nature and regard for all living things. Unlike Francis, however, whose asceticism caused him to add ashes to his food to deaden its earthly pleasure, Francke and her husband indulge in the fabled Umbrian cuisine, from wild boar to the region’s famed black truffles, and the incomparable local wines.

On the Road with Francis of Assisi embraces the spirit and person of its legendary subject, and invites the reader to marvel at his spiritual intensity and follow in his footsteps through the timeless beauty of Italy.

From the Hardcover edition.

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On the Road with Francis of Assisi offers a unique and lively travelogue of parallel journeys: that of Francis of Assisi on his way to sainthood in the thirteenth century, and that of author Linda Bird Francke, who followed his path through the beauty of central and coastal Italy–and even on to Egypt.Francke tells the compelling story ...

Linda Bird Francke, a former editor at Newsweek and award-winning journalist, is the author of Ground Zero: The Gender Wars in the Military and Growing Up Divorced. She lives in Sagaponack, New York, with her husband, Harvey Loomis.From the Hardcover edition.
Format:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 7.95 × 5.2 × 0.67 inPublished:December 12, 2006Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0345469666

ISBN - 13:9780345469663

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Mozart Amongthe GiottosAssisi, where Francis and Clare are born and Francis spendshis indulgent youth1Assisi looks like an enchanted kingdom from theroads crisscrossing the Spoleto Valley. The small,medieval hill town hovers on the side of Mount Subasio,not so high as to seem inaccessible and not so low as toseem commonplace. The massive thirteenth-centuryBasilica of St. Francis rises above the city walls at thewestern end of the town and is visible from miles away,a luminous, milky beige by day, dramatically lit by night.The thirteenth-century Basilica of St. Clare lies fartherdown the hill, at the other end of Assisi, a smaller but noless imposing building whose striped façade of Subasiostone is pink and white.The approach to Assisi is tantalizing. The roadclimbs and curves, bringing us closer to the town’s walls,then circling us away. Up and up, then around, until wethink that we must have missed Assisi altogether, that itwas a fantasy after all, and then, finally, parking lots, oneafter another, filled with the jarring reality of cars andmultinational tour buses.My husband, Harvey, and I are just two of the closeto five million people who visit Assisi each year. Most areclergy and pilgrims from all over the world who cometo pray in the birthplace of Assisi’s endearing—andenduring—native saints: Francis, Italy’s patron saint andthe founder of three ongoing Franciscan orders; and Clare, Francis’s spiritual companion and the first and sainted member ofhis Order of Poor Ladies. The combination makes Assisi second only toRome as an Italian pilgrimage destination.Almost as many visitors are tourists who come just to see the extraordinaryearly Renaissance frescoes in the Basilica of St. Francis by the leadingartists of the time—the Sienese painters Simone Martini and PietroLorenzetti; the Florentine Cimabue, whose portrait of a stark, suffering St.Francis in the lower basilica is the world’s most familiar, and accurate,image of the saint; and, of course, the incomparable early-fourteenthcenturyFlorentine artist Giotto.Giotto’s twenty-eight larger-than-life frescoes of the life and legend of St.Francis in the upper church of his basilica are the most popular and perhapsthe best-known narrative fresco cycle in the world. The familiar storymarches around the walls: Francis, naked, confronting his father; Francis,preaching to the birds; Francis, expelling the devil from Arezzo; Clare biddingfarewell to Francis after his death. On and on. One memorableevening my husband and I go to the basilica for a free, standing-room-onlyperformance of the Mozart Requiem conducted by a Franciscan friar duringwhich, unbelievably, I end up perching on a box of programs directlyunder Giotto’s famous depiction of Francis receiving the stigmata.Clare’s basilica used to be just as brilliantly frescoed, but no more. Astern German bishop had the frescoes obliterated in the seventeenth centuryto protect the Franciscan nuns cloistered there from any contaminationby visiting tourists. The austere interior walls of Clare’s basilica stillbear fragments of the frescoes, but they are all that remain, in the words ofone Franciscan historian, “of a decoration that was once as abundant asthat of San Francesco.”Frescoes aside, there is an overriding and alluring presence of Francis and Clare throughout the cobbled hill town. Both saints were born here, Francis in 1181 and Clare in 1193. And both are buried here, in their respective basilicas.I spend time in both their crypts, sitting in a pew and listening to themuffled and unceasing sound of the rubber-soled shoes of tourists and pilgrimsalike on the stone floors. Few of those moving quietly around Francis’sstone sarcophagus know the dramatic events that overtook his remainson the road with francis of assisi after his death in 1226. His body was first kept in his parish church of San Giorgio, some say sitting up and visible to all, his eyes open and staring, his stigmata wounds prominently displayed.Whether that is true or not, what is undeniable is that four years after hisdeath and two years after he was officially canonized as a saint, his bodywas transferred under heavy guard to his semiconstructed basilica on whathad been known in Assisi as the Hill of Hell, where criminals were executed,which was quickly renamed the Hill of Paradise.The fear was so great that his body might be stolen for its limitless valueas a source of relics by the marauding, rival hill town of Perugia, or simplyby thieves, that his coffin was hidden, tunneled somewhere deep in therock below the basilica, and the access to it sealed. His body would lie inthat secret spot for the next six hundred years, until it was discovered in1818.Few of the people gathered in front of Clare’s crystal coffin, lookingsomewhat uneasily at her realistic effigy clothed in a brown habit and ablack cowl and displayed with darkened face, hands, and bare feet, areaware that her body, too, was kept at San Giorgio after her death in 1253,twenty-seven years after Francis died; that she, too, would be transferred,five years after her canonization in 1255, to her new pink and white basilicabuilt on the foundations of San Giorgio. Clare, too, would lie hiddenuntil her body was discovered in 1850 and placed some years later in thecrypt.I have always been fascinated by the relics and artifacts people leavebehind after their deaths, like the army of terra-cotta warriors chosen byEmperor Qin Shi Huang in China, or the rather gruesome slice of aseventeenth-century callus I saw enshrined in a church in Guatemala fromthe remains of Pedro Hermano, a Franciscan friar so devout that he walkedonly on his knees. The relics left behind by the saints of Assisi are an odd lotas well, and understandably spare, in that Francis and Clare chose to ownnothing in life. What relics there are, however, are bookmarks to their lives.On a prior visit to Assisi, I had breezed through Francis’s relics displayedin the lower church of his basilica, having no idea of their significance.On this visit, having immersed myself in his legend, I find themfascinating.There is a letter Francis wrote in his own hand, one of only two in existence,giving his blessing to Brother Leo, one of his first and most faithfulfriars. Leo was so moved by the gift that he carried the increasingly fragileblessing next to his heart until he died, forty years later.Francis’s quest to convert the Muslim “Saracens” in the Holy Land, orbe martyred trying, is represented by a silver-and-ivory horn given to himin 1219 by the sultan of Egypt. In what turned out to be a futile gesture, thehorn was ceremoniously shown to Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime ministerand a Chaldean Christian, as an icon of peace by the Franciscan leadershipin February 2003, when he made a high-profile visit to Assisi duringthe countdown to the Iraq war.Another treasured relic is the framed Franciscan Rule of Life, datedNovember 29, 1223, which Francis dictated to Brother Leo at a hermitagein the Rieti Valley and which still governs the Franciscan Order today.Also displayed are some linen cloths and a tunic, which by themselvesseem forgettable but which actually represent one of the more curious aspectsof Francis’s life.The linens were brought to Francis on his deathbed by a young widow,Lady Jacopa di Settesoli, with whom he often stayed in Rome and whomhe had asked to see one last time before he died. (Her spontaneous arrival inAssisi without having received his message is considered a miracle.) LadyJacopa is said by all his early biographers to have been “highly pious,” sopious that Francis gave her the honorary title “Brother” Jacopa. As proofof her treasured role in his life, she is buried near him in his basilica, alongwith four of his early friars, Leo, Angelo, Masseo, and Clare’s cousinRufino.Then there are his clothes—a patched, coarse gray habit, a pair of histattered leather sandals, a piece of leather that is said to have covered thewound in his side from the stigmata. That seems a stretch. Could they reallyhave been worn by him over eight hundred years ago? But perhaps I ambeing too rational instead of losing myself in the legend.Still, I feel the same way looking at relics in the Cappelli di SantaChiara in Clare’s basilica. Another patched, uneven habit belonging toSt. Francis and a tunic and cape that look far too big for the man Celanodescribes as of “medium height, closer to shortness.” Then there is a white,on the road with francis of assisi full-length gown identified as belonging to Clare, but its proportions are grotesquely big, which she couldn’t have been. She is described by Celano, who knew her and wrote her biography as well, as a “lovely young girl” in her early years, and there would have been little opportunity for her to gain weight in her later years. Clare fasted three full days a week until Francisordered her not to, and then she ate little more than crusts of bread. As for the relic of her blond curls displayed in a glass box . . .The religious relics are more convincing, among them a breviàrio orprayer book used by St. Francis and the grata di S. Chiara, a filigree ironscreen with a central opening through which Clare and her cloistered “sisters”discreetly received communion from a male priest. Upstairs, in theglassed-in Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, are the most important relicsof all: another and undeniably authentic book of the Gospels used byFrancis with an inscription by Brother Leo; and the original, six-foot-tall,colorfully painted Byzantine crucifix that, legend holds, spoke to Francis inthe little ruined church of San Damiano in 1205 and started him on hislife’s mission.I leave the relics, feeling rather guilty at having any uncharitablethoughts. I have grown very fond of Clare and Francis in the course of myresearch, and looking at some of their personal artifacts, especially their oldclothes, makes me feel like a voyeur rummaging, uninvited, through theirclosets.I don’t have a clear, physical impression of Clare, but I do of Francis.To Celano’s everlasting credit, he provides a detailed portrait of Francis inhis biography of the saint. Beyond his short stature, which a later examinationof his bones would pinpoint at only five foot three, three inches shorterthan the average medieval Italian man, Francis had a “cheerful countenance,”a “round” head, a face “a bit long,” a forehead that was “smoothand low,” “black” eyes, hair, and a beard, “not bushy.” His eyebrows were“straight,” his nose “symmetrical, thin and straight,” his ears “upright, butsmall,” his temples “smooth,” his lips “small and thin,” his teeth “set closetogether, even, and white.”Celano goes on to describe this appealing-sounding man as having a“slender” neck, “straight” shoulders, “short” arms, “slender” hands, “long”Mozart Among the Giottos fingers, “extended” fingernails, “thin” legs, and “small” feet. “His skin was very delicate, his flesh very spare,” Celano ends.As we move on to see the other vestiges of Francis and Clare dottedaround Assisi, it is extraordinary to think that we are walking on the samestreets they did and seeing at least a few of the same medieval structuresthey did. The first-century Temple of Minerva in Assisi’s central Piazzadel Comune, for example, is clearly visible in one of Giotto’s frescoes inFrancis’s basilica. Now a secular Franciscan church, the pagan temple intheir time was used as the local jail.Not surprisingly, some visitors to Assisi, and not only the many pilgrimsand religious groups, feel a deeply spiritual presence on these streets. Onefriend of mine spent a month here after being treated for cancer and returnedhome in a newly serene state of mind. Another friend, a Muslimdiplomat, told me he had experienced a spiritual awakening in Assisi secondonly to one he had felt during a pilgrimage to Mecca.But another aspect of Assisi is undeniably commercial. As uncomfortablea reality as it might be, Francis, and to a lesser extent Clare, is a profitableindustry for Assisi. The only one, in fact. Besides the manyrestaurants and hotels supported by visitors to Assisi, shops all over townsell multisized replicas of the San Damiano cross, religious medals withFrancis’s likeness on them, and his signature tau cross carved out of olivewood, which many visitors wear on leather cords around their necks.Pottery shops sell ashtrays and plates with scenes from Francis’s life onthem, and at least one bakery sells “Pane di San Francesco,” a local breadlaced with the limoncello liqueur so popular in Italy. One shop even sellsUmbrian wine with replicas of the saints by Simone Martini on thelabel—St. Francis on the red wine, St. Clare on the white.The Francis we have come to know as a saint would have been disgustedby the money changing hands in his name. The Francis we know less wellas a young man, however, would have welcomed the exchange and perhapseven profited from it.Francis was born into an emerging merchant class to a mother who isthought to have been French and a successful Assisi fabric merchant,Pietro di Bernadone. Pietro amassed a sizable fortune bringing home em-broidered silks and velvets and damasks from France, fashioning them intostylish clothes in his workshop, and selling them to the nobles and affluentburghers of Assisi. Consumerism was taking hold in the late twelfth century,a trend that marked the accumulation of fancy clothes and dress forstatus, rather than simpler clothes for warmth and practicality. Pietroadded more to his coffers by investing in land around Assisi, amassing somany farms, orchards, meadows, and forests that it is believed he was oneof the hill town’s larger landowners.No one is absolutely sure where the Bernadone family lived in Assisi.Some historians believe they lived in a house known as the T.O.R. CasaPaterna near the Piazza del Comune. Others believe the family home wason the Vicolo Sup. San Antonio, also near the Piazza del Comune. Thechoice of that location is supported by the presence of a tiny, charmingshrine with fading frescoes that has been called the Oratorio di SanFrancesco Piccolino since the thirteenth century and that, with unsubtlereligious symbolism, bears a placard in Latin stating Francis was bornhere—in a stable.The most generally recognized location of the Bernadone home, however,and the one marked on tourist maps, is under the seventeenth-centuryChiesa Nuova, just south of the Piazza del Comune. With some excitementwe walk the short distance to the house from the oratorio but find itssemiexcavated remains quite dull. There is archaeological value in the subterraneansection of the ancient cobbled street on which the house frontedand the presumed remains of Pietro Bernadone’s shop where Francisworked for his father selling cloth. But we don’t sense any presence there ofFrancis.More interesting is the suggestion of a porta del morto, or “door of thedead,” in the house’s old vaulted brick-and-stone exterior wall. One ofAssisi’s intriguing medieval trademarks, the small and elevated porta delmorto is thought to have been opened only to transfer dead bodies outside,but it probably also had a more practical use, as a security measure. Mosthouses in Assisi had two entrances—one on the street level, which openedinto the stable or whatever business the family was in, the other, higher,leading into the living quarters and reached by wooden steps that weretaken up at night for safety. Quite a few houses in Assisi still have a porta delmorto, though the “doors” have long since been either cobbled over orglassed in as windows.The only hint of Francis we find at the house he presumably lived in forthe first twenty years or so of his life with at least one younger brother, Angelo,is the iron-barred carceri or cell displayed inside the Chiesa Nuova atground level. It was in this “dark cellar,” according to the Legend of theThree Companions, that Pietro locked up his rebellious son for days on endto dissuade him from his spiritual conversion. But I’m getting ahead of thestory.Pietro was away on one of his months-long buying trips to France whenFrancis was born. Francis’s mother, Lady Pica (whether she really was anoble “Lady” or even French has never been determined), took her son tobe christened at either Santa Maria Maggiore, the first cathedral in Assisi,or the “new” cathedral, dedicated to San Rufino, Assisi’s patron saint,which was then under construction.I would like to think that Francis was baptized in the charmingeleventh-century Santa Maria Maggiore, adjacent to the Bishop’s Palace onthe equally charming, small, tree-lined Piazza del Vescovado. The oldcathedral’s simple stone Romanesque façade, with its one rose window,and the faded frescoes in its barrel-vaulted nave seem much more in keepingwith the simplicity of Francis than the cavernous San Rufino, Assisi’scurrent cathedral, which took another hundred years to complete.Redone in the sixteenth century, San Rufino’s Gothic interior seemsquite cheerless by comparison with the warmth of Santa Maria Maggiore.But whether Francis was baptized there or not, San Rufino would play amajor role in the legend of Francis and Clare. A splendid pair of sculptedstone lions guard the doors to the cathedral, and during his conversion,Francis is said to have stood on top of the lions to preach to the incredulouspeople in the cathedral’s piazza. His makeshift pulpit would have beenclearly visible from the house Clare grew up in, and perhaps the adolescentClare first saw him from a window and was stirred by his message of peaceand love—unlike the people who initially jeered at him and thought thisson of Assisi had gone mad.Francis was certainly in San Rufino in later years. He would preachoften in the cathedral, and he undoubtedly entered San Rufino, as we do,through a door in its original and splendid twelfth-century stone façade.He may also have walked on the cathedral’s original, uneven stone floor, aportion of which is visible beneath protective glass.But what tips the scales toward San Rufino as the site of Francis’s baptismis that just inside the entry, on the right, is the marble baptism font atwhich Francis was baptized, as was Clare eleven years later. Lady Picahad her son baptized Giovanni or John, after John the Baptist, but thename was short-lived. Pietro evidently did not want his son named after adesert saint, and when he returned from France, he changed his son’s nameto the more businesslike Francesco or Francis, which means “the Frenchman.”Francis, by all accounts, was a wild and spoiled youth who cut quite afigure in Assisi. An indulged member of the nouveau riche, Francis alwayshad a purse full of money, which he lavished on food and drink with hisfriends, and on stylish clothes for himself. According to the Legend of theThree Companions, “He would use only the finest materials and sometimeshis vanity took an eccentric turn, and then he would insist on the richestcloth and the commonest being sewn together in the same garment.”Needless to say, there are no marked sites in Assisi that record the ne’erdo-well youth of Francis, save for the streets themselves, which he prowledlate into the night with his friends, singing and carrying on and undoubtedlywenching in the spirit of the times. He wasn’t just part of the pack; heled it. “He was the admiration of all and strove to outdo the rest in thepomp of vainglory, in jokes, in strange doings, in idle and useless talk, insong, in soft and flowing garments,” writes Thomas of Celano. Francisagreed. In his Testament, written in the Bishop’s Palace in Assisi shortlybefore he died, he refers to the first twenty-five years of his life as a time“while I was in sin.”Francis received his rudimentary schooling in reading and writingLatin at the church of San Giorgio, over which the Basilica of St. Clarewas constructed, just a few streets from his family home. Little remains ofthe old church except, perhaps, the back wall of the basilica’s glassed-inChapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Francis was definitely not a Latin scholar. There are missteps in the two surviving letters in his own hand, which evidently made him sympathetic to the errors made by the better-educated friars who took his dictation.“And what is no less to be admired,” writes Celano, “when he had causedsome letters of greeting or admonition to be written, he would not alloweven a single letter or syllable to be deleted, even though they had often beenplaced there superfluously or in error.”He did, however, speak fluent French, then the universal language ofcommerce. He also sang in French, and well. All his early biographerspraise his voice—“strong, sweet, clear, and sonorous,” says Celano. Therewere limitless songs, both bawdy and chivalric, for him to choose from. Itwas the time of the French troubadours, who traveled all over Italy, entertainingthe nobility (the majores) in their castles and the common folk (theminores) at tournaments and religious festivals, of which there were nofewer than 150 a year in Assisi. The troubadours sang the stories of braveknights and heroic deeds, passing on the legends of Charlemagne andRoland and the legendary court of King Arthur; his bravest knight,Lancelot; and Lancelot’s forbidden love, King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere.A whole class of Italian jongleurs emerged to interpret the French into anargot of Franco-Italian, and everyone on the streets, including Francis,learned the stories of heroism, sacrifice, and courtly love.Standing in the Piazza del Comune, it is easy to imagine the troubadoursand jongleurs captivating the medieval crowds, who had no othersource of entertainment. In the busy but peaceful piazza, it is harder toimagine the violence and bloodshed that marked twelfth-century Assisi.Francis grew up in a time of civil foment and bloody confrontations betweenfeuding families, rival hill towns, peasants and nobles, and most particularly,Church and State. The State was not the Italy we know but theHoly Roman Empire, which kept a tight grip on most of the region, includingthe prosperous but increasingly rebellious Assisi. Assisi had beencaptured by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1160, twenty years beforeFrancis was born, and its people had chafed under the imperial yoke eversince. Assisians wanted their independence and had risen up against theimperial forces in 1174 but had been defeated. It was only a matter of timebefore the people would try again. Looming above the piazza at the top of the hill town is the Rocca Maggiore, the restored twelfth-century military fortress from which the German forces of the emperor, supported by most of Assisi’s nobility, kept one eye on Assisi, the other on the road from Assisi’s always threatening archrival, the Papal town of Perugia, fifteen miles to the west. All the while the frustration and fury of Assisi’s middle-class citizens continued to fester, directed not only at the emperor’s forces in the Rocca but at Assisi’s feudal lords, who levied taxes and tariffs on the merchants like Pietro Bernadone while giving the growing burgher class few political rights.Francis was seventeen when the people rose again in 1198, and thoughthere is no record of his having taken part in the ransacking of the garrison,few of his biographers doubt that he and his friends were eager participants.It was a bloody moment in Assisi’s history. The townspeopleslaughtered the imperial forces, tore down the fortress stone by stone, thenturned their wrath on the nobility. Some feudals threw in their lot with thenewly formed independent commune of Assisi, but others did not.In the ensuing class warfare, which lasted for two years, many of the nobilitywere massacred and their estates sacked. The more prudent feudalsfled to nearby Perugia; they included the noble Offreduccio family withtheir six-year-old daughter, Clare, who left just before their house next tothe Cathedral of San Rufino was razed. The canny Bernadone bought upas much of the nobles’ deserted land as he could, presumably at bargainprices.We leave the main piazza to clamber up to La Rocca after fortifyingourselves with cappuccino at a sunny outdoor trattoria. Standing on thefourteenth-century reconstruction of the fortress, we can see what a brilliantvantage point it had been for the imperial forces—every building andchurch in Assisi is clearly visible. So is the road to Perugia and, in the distance,the nobility’s temporary sanctuary itself. Also visible are the survivingcrenellated gates or pòrte through the twelfth-century city walls that thevictorious Assisians quickly built after the siege of La Rocca with thestones from the dismantled fortress. All of Francis’s biographers agree thathe must have learned the art of stonemasonry by helping to construct thosewalls, a skill he would rely on during his conversion.Mozart Among the Giottos · 13Fran_140006234X_3p_01_r1.c.qxp 9/6/05 1:18 PM Page 13We retrace our steps to join the swarms of tourists and pilgrims millingabout the fountain in the sun-warmed piazza in front of the Basilica of St.Clare. It is late on a mid-October afternoon, and the smell of roastingchestnuts gives a pungent flavor to the crystal-clear air. A newspaperkiosk is doing brisk business in multinational journals and magazines onone edge of the piazza, while on another, a brightly painted van pumpsout the Toreadors’ Theme from Carmen. Drawn by the music, childrencluster around the van to covet an eclectic offering of toys laid out on theground—a rooster with a peacock tail, an old Barbie wearing an Italianflag as a miniskirt, a replica of the milk-heavy wolf who nursed Romulusand Remus.It is a beautiful afternoon. The sun turns Assisi’s stone and stuccohouses, with their enviable balconies and roof gardens, into impossiblywarm shades of tan and ocher—“a beige tweed city,” I write in my notes.In contrast, the view beyond the city walls and across the Spoleto Valley isa mélange of color—the rich green of fall crops, the dark brown corduroyof tilled fields, the pink and purple hills on the far side of the valley as abackdrop. Just an arm’s length away, over the piazza’s marble-columnedbalustrade, groves of ancient olive trees begin their steep, stepped descenttoward the valley, and white butterflies flit among the ripening fruit.Francis could easily have stood on that very spot eight hundred yearsago, looking out over that same valley. Assisi was much smaller in his day,and San Giorgio lay outside the city walls, but the elevation would havebeen the same. Francis would have seen many more trees back then; the valleyfloor was thick with oak forests and wetland marshes, which have sincebeen drained. But on a day as clear as ours, he might have seen Perugia—with no realization as a schoolboy of what was to come.Three years after the citizens of Assisi waged their war of independenceagainst feudalism and the empire—and risked excommunication by PopeInnocent III for not turning the city over to Papal protection—Perugia declaredwar on Assisi. The displaced nobles of Assisi who had fled to Perugiawanted not only vengeance but compensation for their losses, which thecommune of Assisi refused to honor. The furious nobles persuaded Perugia,a longtime rival of Assisi, to teach the hill town’s upstarts a lesson. SoFrancis, then twenty-one, and his friends prepared for the glorious victorythey would inflict on Perugia, their heads filled no doubt with the glories ofheroism and bravery in battle that had been sung to them by the troubadoursand the jongleurs.What a sight it must have been when the church bells in Assisi soundedthe call to arms in November 1202 and the commune’s citizens mustered infront of San Rufino to march against Perugia. One of Francis’s modern biographers,Julien Green, imagines the scene. The cathedral’s piazza wasablaze with the flags of each quarter of the town that would lead the columnto war. Behind them would come the infantry, armed with swords,pikes, and crossbows; then the men on horseback encircling a wagondrawn by white oxen, draped in Assisi’s flag and bearing a traveling altarcomplete with a crucifix, lighted candles, and priests saying mass.Francis, though not an aristocrat, rode through the city gates with thenoble knights because his family was rich enough to own a horse. He nodoubt was wearing some sort of splendid battle dress, underscoring hisearly biographers’ observation that he often dressed better than his socialposition “warranted.” The fanfare of trumpets that sent Assisi’s army on itsway must have been thrilling to young Francis, who thought his heraldicbattlefield fantasies were about to fulfilled. They weren’t.We drive the fifteen minutes from Assisi to the hill above the ancient villageof Collestrada on the border between the two warring hill towns, ajourney that took the men of Assisi four hours. The battlefield on whichthe armies met is now a shopping mall, with no hint of the carnage thattook place there. Already tired, Assisi’s men were no match for the furiousforces from Perugia, who had only to sweep down from their town andcross the Tiber River at Ponte San Giovanni. The sons of Assisi werequickly overwhelmed. Then slaughtered. The displaced nobles in Perugiarode down the Assisians fleeing for cover throughout the valley and thewoods and hacked them to death.Ironically, it was Francis’s pretension that saved his life. The Perugiansspared the nobles and took them prisoner for the ransom they would fetch.Francis, mistakenly identified as a noble by the clothes he wore, his manners,and especially the fact he had a horse, was spared as well. That meantmoney in the bank to the Perugians and a year of hell for Francis.We follow him from the industrial town of Ponte San Giovanni to Perugia, where he would spend the next twelve months or so in a dungeonsomewhere under the town, without light, without sanitation, without adequatefood or clean water, without a change of clothes in the cold of winterand the heat of summer.He almost died.From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Advance praise for On the Road with Francis of Assisi“The marvelous and moving story of Francis of Assisi comes to life in this thoroughly engaging and evocative book. The actual towns and churches produce a map of a journey you would give anything to make, in the saint’s very footsteps. The book is a pleasure from beginning to end.”–James Salter, author of Last Night“This entertaining and enlightening biographical travelogue describes vividly Francis of Assisi’s growth from a wild and spoiled youth to a selfless itinerant preacher, passionate defender of the poor, and lover of all living things, who became one of the most beloved of religious figures, even among nonbelievers.”–Mario Cuomo“In retracing the travels of the medieval saint who rattled all of Christendom, Linda Bird Francke has marvelously woven together the realities of the thirteenth century with those of the twenty-first in a way that will delight and inform readers, whether they are tramping the hill towns of Umbria or dreaming at home in their armchairs.”–Peter Steinfels, co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in AmericaFrom the Hardcover edition.