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A Timeless Journey Through Umbria and Tuscany, and Beyond

Written by Linda Bird FranckeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Linda Bird Francke


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On Sale: November 15, 2005
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-58836-488-3
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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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.


Mozart Among
the Giottos
Assisi, where Francis and Clare are born and Francis spends
his indulgent youth
Assisi looks like an enchanted kingdom from the
roads 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 to
seem commonplace. The massive thirteenth-century
Basilica of St. Francis rises above the city walls at the
western 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 farther
down the hill, at the other end of Assisi, a smaller but no
less imposing building whose striped façade of Subasio
stone is pink and white.
The approach to Assisi is tantalizing. The road
climbs and curves, bringing us closer to the town’s walls,
then circling us away. Up and up, then around, until we
think that we must have missed Assisi altogether, that it
was a fantasy after all, and then, finally, parking lots, one
after another, filled with the jarring reality of cars and
multinational tour buses.
My husband, Harvey, and I are just two of the close
to five million people who visit Assisi each year. Most are
clergy and pilgrims from all over the world who come
to pray in the birthplace of Assisi’s endearing—and
enduring—native saints: Francis, Italy’s patron saint and
the founder of three ongoing Franciscan orders; and Clare, Francis’s spiritual companion and the first and sainted member of
his Order of Poor Ladies. The combination makes Assisi second only to
Rome as an Italian pilgrimage destination.
Almost as many visitors are tourists who come just to see the extraordinary
early Renaissance frescoes in the Basilica of St. Francis by the leading
artists of the time—the Sienese painters Simone Martini and Pietro
Lorenzetti; 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-fourteenthcentury
Florentine 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 perhaps
the best-known narrative fresco cycle in the world. The familiar story
marches around the walls: Francis, naked, confronting his father; Francis,
preaching to the birds; Francis, expelling the devil from Arezzo; Clare bidding
farewell to Francis after his death. On and on. One memorable
evening my husband and I go to the basilica for a free, standing-room-only
performance of the Mozart Requiem conducted by a Franciscan friar during
which, unbelievably, I end up perching on a box of programs directly
under Giotto’s famous depiction of Francis receiving the stigmata.
Clare’s basilica used to be just as brilliantly frescoed, but no more. A
stern German bishop had the frescoes obliterated in the seventeenth century
to protect the Franciscan nuns cloistered there from any contamination
by visiting tourists. The austere interior walls of Clare’s basilica still
bear fragments of the frescoes, but they are all that remain, in the words of
one Franciscan historian, “of a decoration that was once as abundant as
that 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 the
muffled and unceasing sound of the rubber-soled shoes of tourists and pilgrims
alike on the stone floors. Few of those moving quietly around Francis’s
stone sarcophagus know the dramatic events that overtook his remains
on 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 his
death and two years after he was officially canonized as a saint, his body
was transferred under heavy guard to his semiconstructed basilica on what
had 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 value
as a source of relics by the marauding, rival hill town of Perugia, or simply
by thieves, that his coffin was hidden, tunneled somewhere deep in the
rock below the basilica, and the access to it sealed. His body would lie in
that secret spot for the next six hundred years, until it was discovered in
Few of the people gathered in front of Clare’s crystal coffin, looking
somewhat uneasily at her realistic effigy clothed in a brown habit and a
black cowl and displayed with darkened face, hands, and bare feet, are
aware 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 basilica
built on the foundations of San Giorgio. Clare, too, would lie hidden
until her body was discovered in 1850 and placed some years later in the
I have always been fascinated by the relics and artifacts people leave
behind after their deaths, like the army of terra-cotta warriors chosen by
Emperor Qin Shi Huang in China, or the rather gruesome slice of a
seventeenth-century callus I saw enshrined in a church in Guatemala from
the remains of Pedro Hermano, a Franciscan friar so devout that he walked
only on his knees. The relics left behind by the saints of Assisi are an odd lot
as well, and understandably spare, in that Francis and Clare chose to own
nothing 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 displayed
in the lower church of his basilica, having no idea of their significance.
On this visit, having immersed myself in his legend, I find them

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 faithful
friars. Leo was so moved by the gift that he carried the increasingly fragile
blessing next to his heart until he died, forty years later.
Francis’s quest to convert the Muslim “Saracens” in the Holy Land, or
be martyred trying, is represented by a silver-and-ivory horn given to him
in 1219 by the sultan of Egypt. In what turned out to be a futile gesture, the
horn was ceremoniously shown to Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s deputy prime minister
and a Chaldean Christian, as an icon of peace by the Franciscan leadership
in February 2003, when he made a high-profile visit to Assisi during
the countdown to the Iraq war.
Another treasured relic is the framed Franciscan Rule of Life, dated
November 29, 1223, which Francis dictated to Brother Leo at a hermitage
in the Rieti Valley and which still governs the Franciscan Order today.
Also displayed are some linen cloths and a tunic, which by themselves
seem forgettable but which actually represent one of the more curious aspects
of 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 whom
he had asked to see one last time before he died. (Her spontaneous arrival in
Assisi without having received his message is considered a miracle.) Lady
Jacopa is said by all his early biographers to have been “highly pious,” so
pious that Francis gave her the honorary title “Brother” Jacopa. As proof
of her treasured role in his life, she is buried near him in his basilica, along
with four of his early friars, Leo, Angelo, Masseo, and Clare’s cousin
Then there are his clothes—a patched, coarse gray habit, a pair of his
tattered leather sandals, a piece of leather that is said to have covered the
wound in his side from the stigmata. That seems a stretch. Could they really
have been worn by him over eight hundred years ago? But perhaps I am
being too rational instead of losing myself in the legend.
Still, I feel the same way looking at relics in the Cappelli di Santa
Chiara in Clare’s basilica. Another patched, uneven habit belonging to
St. Francis and a tunic and cape that look far too big for the man Celano
describes 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 or
prayer book used by St. Francis and the grata di S. Chiara, a filigree iron
screen with a central opening through which Clare and her cloistered “sisters”
discreetly received communion from a male priest. Upstairs, in the
glassed-in Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, are the most important relics
of all: another and undeniably authentic book of the Gospels used by
Francis with an inscription by Brother Leo; and the original, six-foot-tall,
colorfully painted Byzantine crucifix that, legend holds, spoke to Francis in
the little ruined church of San Damiano in 1205 and started him on his
life’s mission.
I leave the relics, feeling rather guilty at having any uncharitable
thoughts. I have grown very fond of Clare and Francis in the course of my
research, and looking at some of their personal artifacts, especially their old
clothes, makes me feel like a voyeur rummaging, uninvited, through their
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 in
his biography of the saint. Beyond his short stature, which a later examination
of his bones would pinpoint at only five foot three, three inches shorter
than the average medieval Italian man, Francis had a “cheerful countenance,”
a “round” head, a face “a bit long,” a forehead that was “smooth
and low,” “black” eyes, hair, and a beard, “not bushy.” His eyebrows were
“straight,” his nose “symmetrical, thin and straight,” his ears “upright, but
small,” his temples “smooth,” his lips “small and thin,” his teeth “set close
together, 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 dotted
around Assisi, it is extraordinary to think that we are walking on the same
streets they did and seeing at least a few of the same medieval structures
they did. The first-century Temple of Minerva in Assisi’s central Piazza
del Comune, for example, is clearly visible in one of Giotto’s frescoes in
Francis’s basilica. Now a secular Franciscan church, the pagan temple in
their time was used as the local jail.
Not surprisingly, some visitors to Assisi, and not only the many pilgrims
and religious groups, feel a deeply spiritual presence on these streets. One
friend of mine spent a month here after being treated for cancer and returned
home in a newly serene state of mind. Another friend, a Muslim
diplomat, told me he had experienced a spiritual awakening in Assisi second
only to one he had felt during a pilgrimage to Mecca.
But another aspect of Assisi is undeniably commercial. As uncomfortable
a reality as it might be, Francis, and to a lesser extent Clare, is a profitable
industry for Assisi. The only one, in fact. Besides the many
restaurants and hotels supported by visitors to Assisi, shops all over town
sell multisized replicas of the San Damiano cross, religious medals with
Francis’s likeness on them, and his signature tau cross carved out of olive
wood, which many visitors wear on leather cords around their necks.
Pottery shops sell ashtrays and plates with scenes from Francis’s life on
them, and at least one bakery sells “Pane di San Francesco,” a local bread
laced with the limoncello liqueur so popular in Italy. One shop even sells
Umbrian wine with replicas of the saints by Simone Martini on the
label—St. Francis on the red wine, St. Clare on the white.
The Francis we have come to know as a saint would have been disgusted
by the money changing hands in his name. The Francis we know less well
as a young man, however, would have welcomed the exchange and perhaps
even profited from it.
Francis was born into an emerging merchant class to a mother who is
thought 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 into
stylish clothes in his workshop, and selling them to the nobles and affluent
burghers of Assisi. Consumerism was taking hold in the late twelfth century,
a trend that marked the accumulation of fancy clothes and dress for
status, rather than simpler clothes for warmth and practicality. Pietro
added more to his coffers by investing in land around Assisi, amassing so
many farms, orchards, meadows, and forests that it is believed he was one
of 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. Casa
Paterna near the Piazza del Comune. Others believe the family home was
on the Vicolo Sup. San Antonio, also near the Piazza del Comune. The
choice of that location is supported by the presence of a tiny, charming
shrine with fading frescoes that has been called the Oratorio di San
Francesco Piccolino since the thirteenth century and that, with unsubtle
religious symbolism, bears a placard in Latin stating Francis was born
here—in a stable.
The most generally recognized location of the Bernadone home, however,
and the one marked on tourist maps, is under the seventeenth-century
Chiesa Nuova, just south of the Piazza del Comune. With some excitement
we walk the short distance to the house from the oratorio but find its
semiexcavated remains quite dull. There is archaeological value in the subterranean
section of the ancient cobbled street on which the house fronted
and the presumed remains of Pietro Bernadone’s shop where Francis
worked for his father selling cloth. But we don’t sense any presence there of
More interesting is the suggestion of a porta del morto, or “door of the
dead,” in the house’s old vaulted brick-and-stone exterior wall. One of
Assisi’s intriguing medieval trademarks, the small and elevated porta del
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. Most
houses in Assisi had two entrances—one on the street level, which opened
into the stable or whatever business the family was in, the other, higher,
leading into the living quarters and reached by wooden steps that were
taken up at night for safety. Quite a few houses in Assisi still have a porta del
though the “doors” have long since been either cobbled over or
glassed in as windows.
The only hint of Francis we find at the house he presumably lived in for
the 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 at
ground level. It was in this “dark cellar,” according to the Legend of the
Three Companions,
that Pietro locked up his rebellious son for days on end
to dissuade him from his spiritual conversion. But I’m getting ahead of the
Pietro was away on one of his months-long buying trips to France when
Francis was born. Francis’s mother, Lady Pica (whether she really was a
noble “Lady” or even French has never been determined), took her son to
be 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 charming
eleventh-century Santa Maria Maggiore, adjacent to the Bishop’s Palace on
the equally charming, small, tree-lined Piazza del Vescovado. The old
cathedral’s simple stone Romanesque façade, with its one rose window,
and the faded frescoes in its barrel-vaulted nave seem much more in keeping
with the simplicity of Francis than the cavernous San Rufino, Assisi’s
current cathedral, which took another hundred years to complete.
Redone in the sixteenth century, San Rufino’s Gothic interior seems
quite cheerless by comparison with the warmth of Santa Maria Maggiore.
But whether Francis was baptized there or not, San Rufino would play a
major role in the legend of Francis and Clare. A splendid pair of sculpted
stone 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 incredulous
people in the cathedral’s piazza. His makeshift pulpit would have been
clearly visible from the house Clare grew up in, and perhaps the adolescent
Clare first saw him from a window and was stirred by his message of peace
and love—unlike the people who initially jeered at him and thought this
son of Assisi had gone mad.
Francis was certainly in San Rufino in later years. He would preach
often 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, a
portion of which is visible beneath protective glass.
But what tips the scales toward San Rufino as the site of Francis’s baptism
is that just inside the entry, on the right, is the marble baptism font at
which Francis was baptized, as was Clare eleven years later. Lady Pica
had her son baptized Giovanni or John, after John the Baptist, but the
name was short-lived. Pietro evidently did not want his son named after a
desert saint, and when he returned from France, he changed his son’s name
to the more businesslike Francesco or Francis, which means “the Frenchman.”
Francis, by all accounts, was a wild and spoiled youth who cut quite a
figure in Assisi. An indulged member of the nouveau riche, Francis always
had a purse full of money, which he lavished on food and drink with his
friends, and on stylish clothes for himself. According to the Legend of the
Three Companions,
“He would use only the finest materials and sometimes
his vanity took an eccentric turn, and then he would insist on the richest
cloth 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 prowled
late into the night with his friends, singing and carrying on and undoubtedly
wenching in the spirit of the times. He wasn’t just part of the pack; he
led it. “He was the admiration of all and strove to outdo the rest in the
pomp of vainglory, in jokes, in strange doings, in idle and useless talk, in
song, in soft and flowing garments,” writes Thomas of Celano. Francis
agreed. In his Testament, written in the Bishop’s Palace in Assisi shortly
before 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 writing
Latin at the church of San Giorgio, over which the Basilica of St. Clare
was constructed, just a few streets from his family home. Little remains of
the old church except, perhaps, the back wall of the basilica’s glassed-in
Chapel 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 caused
some letters of greeting or admonition to be written, he would not allow
even a single letter or syllable to be deleted, even though they had often been
placed there superfluously or in error.”
He did, however, speak fluent French, then the universal language of
commerce. He also sang in French, and well. All his early biographers
praise his voice—“strong, sweet, clear, and sonorous,” says Celano. There
were limitless songs, both bawdy and chivalric, for him to choose from. It
was the time of the French troubadours, who traveled all over Italy, entertaining
the nobility (the majores) in their castles and the common folk (the
minores) at tournaments and religious festivals, of which there were no
fewer than 150 a year in Assisi. The troubadours sang the stories of brave
knights and heroic deeds, passing on the legends of Charlemagne and
Roland 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 an
argot 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 troubadours
and jongleurs captivating the medieval crowds, who had no other
source of entertainment. In the busy but peaceful piazza, it is harder to
imagine the violence and bloodshed that marked twelfth-century Assisi.
Francis grew up in a time of civil foment and bloody confrontations between
feuding families, rival hill towns, peasants and nobles, and most particularly,
Church and State. The State was not the Italy we know but the
Holy Roman Empire, which kept a tight grip on most of the region, including
the prosperous but increasingly rebellious Assisi. Assisi had been
captured by the emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1160, twenty years before
Francis was born, and its people had chafed under the imperial yoke ever
since. Assisians wanted their independence and had risen up against the
imperial forces in 1174 but had been defeated. It was only a matter of time
before 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 though
there 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 townspeople
slaughtered the imperial forces, tore down the fortress stone by stone, then
turned their wrath on the nobility. Some feudals threw in their lot with the
newly formed independent commune of Assisi, but others did not.
In the ensuing class warfare, which lasted for two years, many of the nobility
were massacred and their estates sacked. The more prudent feudals
fled to nearby Perugia; they included the noble Offreduccio family with
their six-year-old daughter, Clare, who left just before their house next to
the Cathedral of San Rufino was razed. The canny Bernadone bought up
as much of the nobles’ deserted land as he could, presumably at bargain
We leave the main piazza to clamber up to La Rocca after fortifying
ourselves with cappuccino at a sunny outdoor trattoria. Standing on the
fourteenth-century reconstruction of the fortress, we can see what a brilliant
vantage point it had been for the imperial forces—every building and
church 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 surviving
crenellated gates or pòrte through the twelfth-century city walls that the
victorious Assisians quickly built after the siege of La Rocca with the
stones from the dismantled fortress. All of Francis’s biographers agree that
he must have learned the art of stonemasonry by helping to construct those
walls, a skill he would rely on during his conversion.
Mozart Among the Giottos · 13
Fran_140006234X_3p_01_r1.c.qxp 9/6/05 1:18 PM Page 13
We retrace our steps to join the swarms of tourists and pilgrims milling
about 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 roasting
chestnuts gives a pungent flavor to the crystal-clear air. A newspaper
kiosk is doing brisk business in multinational journals and magazines on
one edge of the piazza, while on another, a brightly painted van pumps
out the Toreadors’ Theme from Carmen. Drawn by the music, children
cluster around the van to covet an eclectic offering of toys laid out on the
ground—a rooster with a peacock tail, an old Barbie wearing an Italian
flag as a miniskirt, a replica of the milk-heavy wolf who nursed Romulus
and Remus.
It is a beautiful afternoon. The sun turns Assisi’s stone and stucco
houses, with their enviable balconies and roof gardens, into impossibly
warm 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 is
a mélange of color—the rich green of fall crops, the dark brown corduroy
of tilled fields, the pink and purple hills on the far side of the valley as a
backdrop. Just an arm’s length away, over the piazza’s marble-columned
balustrade, groves of ancient olive trees begin their steep, stepped descent
toward the valley, and white butterflies flit among the ripening fruit.
Francis could easily have stood on that very spot eight hundred years
ago, 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 have
been the same. Francis would have seen many more trees back then; the valley
floor was thick with oak forests and wetland marshes, which have since
been 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 independence
against feudalism and the empire—and risked excommunication by Pope
Innocent III for not turning the city over to Papal protection—Perugia declared
war on Assisi. The displaced nobles of Assisi who had fled to Perugia
wanted not only vengeance but compensation for their losses, which the
commune of Assisi refused to honor. The furious nobles persuaded Perugia,
a longtime rival of Assisi, to teach the hill town’s upstarts a lesson. So
Francis, then twenty-one, and his friends prepared for the glorious victory
they would inflict on Perugia, their heads filled no doubt with the glories of
heroism and bravery in battle that had been sung to them by the troubadours
and the jongleurs.
What a sight it must have been when the church bells in Assisi sounded
the call to arms in November 1202 and the commune’s citizens mustered in
front of San Rufino to march against Perugia. One of Francis’s modern biographers,
Julien Green, imagines the scene. The cathedral’s piazza was
ablaze with the flags of each quarter of the town that would lead the column
to war. Behind them would come the infantry, armed with swords,
pikes, and crossbows; then the men on horseback encircling a wagon
drawn by white oxen, draped in Assisi’s flag and bearing a traveling altar
complete with a crucifix, lighted candles, and priests saying mass.
Francis, though not an aristocrat, rode through the city gates with the
noble knights because his family was rich enough to own a horse. He no
doubt was wearing some sort of splendid battle dress, underscoring his
early biographers’ observation that he often dressed better than his social
position “warranted.” The fanfare of trumpets that sent Assisi’s army on its
way must have been thrilling to young Francis, who thought his heraldic
battlefield fantasies were about to fulfilled. They weren’t.
We drive the fifteen minutes from Assisi to the hill above the ancient village
of Collestrada on the border between the two warring hill towns, a
journey that took the men of Assisi four hours. The battlefield on which
the armies met is now a shopping mall, with no hint of the carnage that
took place there. Already tired, Assisi’s men were no match for the furious
forces from Perugia, who had only to sweep down from their town and
cross the Tiber River at Ponte San Giovanni. The sons of Assisi were
quickly overwhelmed. Then slaughtered. The displaced nobles in Perugia
rode down the Assisians fleeing for cover throughout the valley and the
woods and hacked them to death.
Ironically, it was Francis’s pretension that saved his life. The Perugians
spared 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 meant
money 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 dungeon
somewhere under the town, without light, without sanitation, without adequate
food or clean water, without a change of clothes in the cold of winter
and the heat of summer.
He almost died.

From the Hardcover edition.
Linda Bird Francke

About Linda Bird Francke

Linda Bird Francke - On the Road with Francis of Assisi
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.


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 America

From the Hardcover edition.

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