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Cornell in Rome

College of Architecture, Art and Planning

The Hidden City of Assisi

On Saturday, March 5th, Art History Professor Lila Yawn took a group of Cornell Students to the little town of Assisi, north of Rome. After two hours on Cornell’s double-decker bus, our first impression of the famous Assisi was a rainy parking lot and an escalator. Yes, Assisi is so steep that many outdoor sidewalks have been replaced with escalators. Hopping on this moving staircase as the drizzle pelted my umbrella, I began to ask myself just where was this impressive medieval city, the home of St. Francis, that I had learned so much about?

Reaching the sloping plateau of the upper town, we began to wind through the cobbled streets in search of the Basilica of St. Francis, an early Gothic style structure that whose construction begun immediately following the death of St. Francis in 1100s.
Upon reaching the entrance of the Basilica, we found dozens and dozens of shiny new black sedans parked side by side in the portico-lined piazza in front of the church. A wedding? A funeral? We quickly discovered that these were the province’s new taxicabs, which were quickly blessed by a Priest with the transit commissioner at his side.

Inside the Cathedral we viewed the famous fresco cycle that tells the story of St. Francis’ life, the apse artwork, and the entire lower basilica of the church that housed the remains of St. Francis in an impressive stone tomb. Interestingly, Saint Francis was revolutionary in the Christian world as one of the first men to take vows of utter poverty, starting the monastic Order of the Franciscans. So it is a little ironic that this man – who didn’t wear shoes (or anything other than burlap robes) and begged for all of his meals – would be celebrated with one of the most elaborately decorated basilicas built in Italy during the Middle Ages. But the Basilica was made less to memorialize St. Francis, and more as a gift to the pilgrims who traveled long distances just to glimpse the hometown of the famous saint. This “architecture of marvel,” as my professor described it, hoped to instill wonder and awe into the traveling pilgrim.

Leaving Assisi, I realized that while I had been looking for a medieval city, I had found something even more rare. Assisi is not a place frozen in time. It is a city of the 21st century that carries on the legacy of its own history. What I thought was a bizarre escalator entrance to the city, was  actually a simple way to facilitate pilgrims of all ages who wanted to see St. Francis. My favorite part of the trip, the blessing of the taxis, blended the old city and the new city and also revealed the continuity of faith so pervasive in Assisi. The medieval city is still there, all you need to do is look for it.

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