Pietro di Bernardone was a successful silk merchant in Assisi, Umbria. Like every normal man and businessman, he wanted to have a son who would continue the family business letting his father relax under the tender sun of Italy when time and age would demand their tribute. But his wife, a French noblewoman, Pica de Bourlemont, gave birth exclusively to girls. There were already six of them, when upon his return from another business trip to Provence, France, Pietro found out about the birth of his first son. History is silent on how many months the father was absent.
Pietro was so happy that he named his boy Francesco (Francis) because he adored France. Apparently, France was a brilliant country even in the 12th century. Francis grew to be a smart, fun, and good-looking boy, very attractive to the girls, and his father’s wealth made this attractiveness irresistible. The young man had nothing against such a destiny and was enjoying the life of a rich loafer until his father put him to work in their shop. In this, Francis was also successful. It was no wonder, because most of his buyers were women.
Then came a war, captivity, illness, and another war. At some point, Francis started to feel that something was wrong with his life. It lacked meaning and purpose. Little by little, he realized that he didn’t want to be rich. He wanted to be poor like Jesus Christ, and he had to bring as many people as he could back to the way of Christ.
Francis renounced his father and his patrimony, traded his rich clothes for a cloak and a staff, and went to the vicinity of Assisi to talk with people about penance, brotherly love, and peace. Later, he exchanged his clothes for a brown robe with a hood (cappuccio in Italian), a white cord as a belt, and sandals. Brown and white, the mix that now is known to every coffee fan. This is cappuccino. When Francis got permission from the Pope to create a new religious order of poor monks, this brown and white outfit became their “uniform.” The center of Franciscans was the Porziuncola, a little chapel of St. Mary of the Angels near Assisi. Francis lived, preached, and died in a hut near this chapel. Today, it is covered by the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli.
What about Francis’ father? I think he wasn’t happy with the fact that his son lived in a hut, worked for peasants for food, talked with animals, levitated, and raised the dead. If he had known that his own name would live on in history thanks to his son, and that his son would become one of the patron saints of Italy, and the city of Assisi would be a world-famous religious (and touristic) center, and even an enormous city in distant America would be named after his son, maybe he would have changed his mind. But maybe not. Like every good businessman and as a father he wanted only two things: to transfer his family business to the hands of the son, and to marry all the daughters successfully and with a good dowry.
When you park your car near the foot of the hill where the city of Assisi is located (GPS of the comfortable pay parking car lot (43.065876, 12.618932) and walk up the stairs, you will find yourself at the Via Borgo Aretino. This is the way to a temple, the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. This basilica was built after canonization of Francis in 1228 on the top of the hill that was called the “Hill of Hell.” In those times, it was a place for the execution of criminals. Of course, Pope Gregory IX couldn’t build a temple on a place with such an unholy name, therefore the hill was renamed the “Hill of Paradise.” Do you feel how thin the border is between hell and paradise? Now, when you go along the Via Borgo Aretino, you go up to heaven.
Assisi is a very clean and cozy city in cappuccino style: white walls of houses and brown roofs. Depending on the time of the day, the color of the walls changes from white to rosy. Here, you will not find shabby facades so typical for almost every city of Italy. From the first step, you understand that this city is far from poor, and property prices can’t be low here. The way to the temple is full of restaurants, cafes, and souvenir shops with items connected to the theme of Franciscans. The citizens of Assisi adore their saint but prefer not to follow his precepts. It is understandable. Who wants to walk in sandals year around in a region that sometimes has snow?
It must be said that deviation from the principles of poverty among followers of St. Francis started already during his lifetime. When he returned from Egypt and Syria, where he tried to christen a sultan, he found that some of his brother monks not only had good foot wear, but houses too. He was upset. No, he was so furious that he tried to destroy one house, but quickly understood that he was just wasting his time. There were and still are few people in the world who are able to settle voluntarily for only robe and sandals even if the climate is mild enough to allow it.
Several years ago, I stayed in a hotel in the city of Netanya, Israel. One evening, there was a problem with Wi-Fi in my room and I went down to the lobby to check email and social media. A group of young people (25-35 years old) did the same on the neighboring divan. They were well dressed and well equipped, chatting or emailing in their iPhones and iPads and shining with very good wristwatches. “Young businessmen,” I thought. “Probably, they came in for a conference.” At least, they looked just like that.
Next morning, when I was eating in a breakfast room together with numerous guests (this hotel was big), several young monks entered the hall. They wore brown robes with hoods, white cords as a belts, and sandals. Wow, real Franciscans! Pilgrims! Beggars! However, they were so stylish. It was their finest hour. Everyone’s eyes were on them, especially those of the women.
Then I realized they were my yesterday’s “businessmen.” Apparently, iPhones were under their brown robes.
If you are a Christian, you should visit Assisi, the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, and the Basilica di Santa Chiara. And don’t forget to look at the place were St. Francis lived, preached, and died: his favorite chapel, the Porziuncola that is covered by the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. It is located outside of the walls of Assisi, on the neighboring field (GPS: 43.055821, 12.579276).
If you don’t believe in God, you still should visit Assisi, the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi, the Basilica di Santa Chiara, the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and take a stroll along the cozy streets of the brown and white city, so untypical for Italy.
Rick Steves about Assisi (two minutes).