Assisi and Santa Maria Novella

Sunday morning, after very few hours of sleep, six of the girls (Abby, Jill, Caroline, Jackie, Naomi and Lauren) and I hopped an 8:02 train out of Florence heading to Assisi for a day trip. We had tried to go the day before, but the weather would not have permitted us to actually see the beauty of the small city so we delayed the trip hoping for better weather on Sunday. The weather seemed iffy as we departed from Firenze but I didn’t mind much (actually I feel asleep on the train fairly quickly). All that mattered was that after a weekend of failure, where I did not make a single day trip or even afternoon trip on which I planned, it felt extremely fulfilling to be going somewhere other than the hotel or other than Florence.

The train took two hours but Abby and I bonded, being the only two awake, over our shared taste in music. Somehow the topic of Jimmy Eat World (my favorite band) came into discussion. They’re releasing a new album in a couple of weeks for which I cannot wait even though I have not even heard a single song from it! More importantly, though, they are touring in the UK while we are here. And as a fairly big Jimmy Eat World fan, I see it as my duty to go see them. Abby agrees and we’re trying to arrange something involving contacting an anonymous third party who could very well get us backstage passes! Yes, be jealous!

Back to reality, we arrived in Assisi around 11:45 after taking a bus from the station to the bottom of the city. We had a fairly terrible map that did not even name streets so we started to navigate based on the assumption that up is better. Assisi itself is situated into a hillside, well I guess a mountainside, that overlooks a valley. From the top of the city you can see for miles at the surrounding farms and towns in the distance dotting the green fields with red roofs and earth toned crops. Behind the city there are mountains covered in what appear to be evergreens which continue upwards interrupted by any human development. The sky was overcast but the clouds broke and traveled through the valley quickly creating an ever changing source of light by which we could view the city. At times it would be dark and eerie where the ancient city appeared ominous and Medieval; at others the sun would poke through bringing out the hopeful, Renaissancesque aspects of the city. It even rained, with one spectacular downpour, at intervals throughout the afternoon.

A view of San Francesco from the bottom

The city itself is stunning. The narrow streets wind up the mountain bordered by old houses, churches and gardens. There are pedestrian staircases leading in between streets and upwards from the base of the city. From the looks of the city, minus the imposition of cars, nothing has changed since 1650. Behind high walls against the stairs and streets lie impressively simple, yet elegant homes, which somehow etch out enough space in the crowded mountain city to grow crops and plants. Here and there olive trees break through the red-orange of the buildings. Vines wind their way across the walls and facades of buildings. The city, like the buildings in it, is simple, elegant and apparently content in its ancient majesty.

We visited three sites within the city walls; The Church of Santa Clara, Rocca Maggiore (the Assisian Fortress above the city from where they could defend against invaders) and the Church of Saint Francis. First, Santa Clara where we could view the remains of the revered Franciscan and other relics. Being a Sunday, mass was in service and surprisingly I could understand some of that which the Friar said. I find that even indirectly my Italian is improving. I can pass people on the street and pick up on their conversation. It’s a cool feeling. I’m nowhere near fluent or even as good as I will be when it comes time to return to America, but I am certainly getting better which settles me.

After Santa Clara (which to me was more impressive for its view of the valley than for the church itself) we headed to the top of the city to venture into the Rocca Maggiore. From the top of the city the view was gorgeous and pictures do not do the world justice (something I’ve noticed with increasing frequency during my adventure). In the far distance in front of the city were mountains and immediately behind were mountains, both unbrokenly green against the gray sky. The city of Assisi itself looked organic. From the vantage point of the Rocca Maggiore the city seemed to grow out of the mountain. When man built the city they did not stomp on nature or try to conquer it. Rather they built into, allowing the city to be absorbed in nature so that the two could live symbiotically. Such a marvelous city did not need to destroy that which nature had provided for us, but instead used those gifts as aesthetic and practical advantages for it.

Once we had our fill of dazzling views (and the largest flying ant colony I have ever seen!) we attempted to find a restaurant that Katie, another girl abroad with us, had highly recommended. We knew nothing but the name, but figured that Assisi was not large enough to get lost. After a half hour of searching and repeatedly asking (in Italian of course) where to find this restaurant we finally threw in the towel. We ended up picking the best looking restaurant near Saint Francis’ church which turned out to be quite the fabulous idea! I ordered a type of pasta (I forget the exact name) with a truffle sauce. I envisioned a creamy sauce because almost every other truffle sauce that I have ever had for pasta has been with cream, but this came out simply truffles. The nearly linguini like, but thicker and with more body, pasta was cooked perfectly and surrounded by a sauce of olive oil and truffles. From the sight of it I knew that my mouth should prepare for a special experience. The first bite almost made me cry as that indescribably rich, explosively mushroomy yet still subtle flavor and aroma of truffle filled my mouth. There are few things, if any that I have better than that bite of pasta. I ate slowly, savouring the ambrosia which had been served my way for 8 euro. I knew it would end, but avoided that thought as I chewed every last morsel deliberately.

Walking to the Top of Assisi

Not only was my food exquisite, but Abby’s mashed potatoes were the best that I’ve ever had. They were intensely potatoey yet managed to avoid the dryness that one usually associates with potato. Jackie, without knowing it since she doesn’t read Italian, had a piece of roast pork that actually tasted like pig! Food here, amazingly enough, tastes as it should. Chicken and pork taste like chicken and pork. The flavors are defined, each one sticking out from the others. The strength of these foods is incredible. They can complement a dish or be the main attraction. They can have flavors heaped onto them without being lost in the mix. When eating these foods, especially in the case of the meats, you can easily imagine that it lived a good life. The chicken and the pig had ample time to meander around the farm eating that which they desired, walking where they desired, sleeping, mingling with the other animals and generally living the kind of life intended by nature. The taste of the product seems to be nature’s reward for treating her gifts in a respectful and proper manner. If we attempt to live somewhat within her confines (not to be absolute ‘naturalists’ but to at least pollute and maim as little as possible) then she will allow us to fully receive the spectacular possibilities of nature.

How is this different from the States? I honestly think that it is in the farming methods of Europe vs. America. We mass farm, while they farm on smaller scales with more natural methods that don’t look towards size and speed of growth. Instead they look for quality and taste and it shows. We seem to want to ignore nature and conquer her “limitations,” in our attempt to scientifically produce as much cheap food as possible regardless of the health, taste or environmental impact of our creations. One can say the same about American cities and small towns. Instead of building into nature or with nature, Americans had a habit of annihilating forests, rerouting rivers, devastating lakes and blowing up mountains to construct in a manner we desired. We refused to bend to nature and try to live with her. Instead of marvelous cities like Assisi which are intertwined seemingly naturally into the elements around it, our cities (though they certainly can be beautiful) have pushed nature away as to ‘maximize’ human productivity.

After lunch we strolled up the hill to see Saint Francis’ church. Again, like Santa Croce, the Franciscans maintained the decree of Saint Francis extraordinarily well. As Saint Francis had hoped the church was beautifully decorated with frescoes lining the walls, including some by Giotto. There were statues and stained glass windows. The inner ribs of the church appeared to be lined with marble and led up to the cerulean ceiling which I believe meant to represent a night or early evening sky. Another church and another amazement. It astonishes me the amount of art produced in those times compared to the amount today.

Even ignoring the beauty of the church Saint Francis’ had another element of incredible power; the tomb of Saint Francis. As we descended into the tomb from the higher church a certain presence began to be felt in this holy space. Again, I’m in no way religious but that did not prevent me from understanding the power of the site into which I entered. People make pilgrimages here. They pray fervently to this man. He is one of the most important people in one of the largest religions in the world. Regardless of whether or not one believes in Christianity, he cannot deny that Saint Francis tremendously affected the lives of millions, if not billions, of people. And as such I could feel that importance in my body. It’s easy to pick up on the excitement, the awe of others who do believe, who do see this man as a receptacle for the word of God. Something deeply interesting about man goes on at these sites. People try to feed off the energy of a dead person; what does that say about what they would have done if he were still alive? I could do nothing but be moved by their faith. Who am I to judge about their beliefs? How can I say that I’m right and they’re wrong? Neither belief can be proved or disproved meaning that neither side has the authority to tell the other that they are wrong. Hence why religion, in the end, is private.

Outside of Saint Francis' Church

The power of faith and the power of emotion, though, are blatantly apparent when observing St. Francis’ tomb. The tourists snapping pictures and talking while others are silently praying or thinking stand out grotesquely. You want to grab their cameras and throw them to the ground. Even I wanted to do it! It seemed so disrespectful to those who genuinely believed. The power of this site was in its ability to move people either towards hope or charity or love. It was not meant to be a side show, some attraction where people can go just to say they have. It carries with it a specific message, the message of Saint Francis (which in all honesty is a fairly strong message), and means to continue delivering that message to those who visit. His tomb is there to inspire people to achieve better and more morally. And in some aspects I’m sure it works which can only prove the power of that holy place.

Yesterday we returned to the world of “class” (ha) but my day was quite strange. I accomplished a lot in the morning; I sent letters, got a cell phone, did my laundry and read my textbook. For class we went to the other side of the river (L’Altro Arno) to look at Saint Carmine Church where we looked at early Renaissance frescoes and learned how to distinguish them from Gothic art. Very interesting and probably pretty useful for art historians. I won’t get into the details because let’s be frank; I’m not an artist and my mind struggles with artistic conceptions that fail to use the spoken or written language. Still it was quite intriguing.

Santa Maria Novella

Then we headed to the Santa Maria Novella where Rocky showed us what he called perhaps the most important piece of artwork in the history of man; The Holy Trinity by Masaccio. It’s a fresco which is the first to use linear perspective which gives the painting real dimensions. It exists in space because the painting seems three dimensional. Not only that, but Masaccio was so masterful that it is possible to measure the dimensions of the space in which the figures of the painting reside. What?!?!?! I mean literally with provable mathematical skill you can see that this painting has volume and exists in its own sort of reality. Wow…I just don’t know what to say. Rocky could teach a whole course on this one painting and I wish I could take it. I’m sorry that I cannot properly explain it further, but I don’t have the proper conception of the skills or techniques used. I can ask Rocky if he has written an essay, and if so I will post it in the blog with his permission.

Once done with class, though, the day turned sour. The guys and I were already apprehensive about eating dinner at the hotel because though free, the meals have lately been terrible. We almost made the what would have been wise decision to skip and get some cheap (likely terrible) Chinese food, but instead headed down to our back room for the meal. It was nearly inedible. We were pissed. This is Italy! We’re supposed to being the best food of our lives! What is this crap? Fish sticks? Are you kidding me? Salad that is brown? Gnocchi swimming in cream (and I mean swimming) that was made from a box? Nope, not happening anymore. I refuse to eat crap while in this country. Sorry if that sounds snobbish, but I can find cheap food in the city that will taste much better. If they would only let us have a fridge…

So the dinner put me in a bad mood, but what put me in a worse mood is that it seems I will be spending the night in Milan on Sunday because I will almost certainly miss the last train back to Florence when my flight from Madrid gets in. Looking back on it with a better frame of mind, it is no big deal, but in an already frustrated state it was a bit devastating. I felt like a waste of life last night and unfortunately vented my frustration towards Courtney.

Oh well, one bad day is no big deal. I still love this place, but cannot wait to get to Parma. Living out of a suitcase feels…unnatural. I need to settle. I need to unpack. I need to feel home and I know that I will in Parma. My host mom and I talk on a regular basis and she seems wonderful. Parma will beyond a doubt be an experience that will be amazing. I cannot wait to be thrown into Italian culture instead of living on the fringe of it where I can only use my Italian in isolated situations or where I literally force the person to whom I’m speaking to use Italian (by not responding in English). We’re in Italy, but we’re not. Assisi felt like I was actually in Italy as I’m sure Parma will as well.

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