italy 6: monastic umbria and the churches of assisi, ravenna, pomposa

Capitoline She-Wolf, Etruscan, 500 BC (© Museo Capitolino, Rome)

Central Italy: the Etruscans and Umbria

The Etruscans inhabited central Italy from 1000 to 700 BC, building 12 city-states in the region, all near metal deposits. The first city-state established by them and their stronghold was Perugia. An extremely civilised, happy, peace loving people, they ate abundantly, twice a day. The women were treated equal and were present at debates, sporting functions and festivities. A large part of Etruscan life was spent preparing for afterlife. They built barrel tombs five to six meters under the ground with shafts leading down to them. These tombs were discovered later totally by accident and till date much of their civilisation and why it came to an end remain a mystery.

The inside walls of the Etruscan tombs were painted with scenes from everyday life and stocked with household goods. The paintings reflect a lifestyle focused on festivities and celebration rather than military affairs. Each family had its own dedicated tomb. The first member of the family to pass away was cremated with the ashes placed in an urn inside. The last member was buried and the tomb, thereafter, sealed. Fourteen kilogrammes of gold have been discovered in these tombs and for the very first time in history, the double flute makes its appearance amongst their appurtenances.

Stemming from a need for safety and health, the Etruscans were also the first people to build hill-top towns in Italy. They developed the arch and worshipped virgins, traditions the Romans later adopted after conquering and assimilating them into their empire. By the way, the state ‘Tuscany’ is named after the Etruscans. D.H. Lawrence, the English novelist and poet (1885-1930) loved Italy. In his book ‘Etruscan Places’ published after his death in 1931, he tried to explain the civilisation’s abrupt disappearance by “You can’t dance to the music of the double flute and conquer nations at the same time.”

During the 12th to 14th Centuries, a politically divided yet prosperous period, these hill-top towns flourished. The low-lying areas were used for agriculture, especially in the central parts of the country. Presently, this area is the largest producer of wheat in Europe, second only to France.

A beautiful and historically rich state in central Italy is Umbria, the green heart of the country, with an economy based on olive oil and tobacco. The state is also famous for its dark chocolate called ‘peruga’ or kisses. Landlocked with no outlet to the sea, Umbria is named after the Umbrians, an ancient tribe. Orvieto, meaning ‘the old place’, is an old historical city here. Its main attractions are a 70-meter deep well with two staircases leading down, called the well of St. Patrick’s, and its cathedral. Built over a period of 200 years, the latter has 60 mosaics, and was worked on by 30 architects and 90 artists to house a miracle of god. According to history, blood started to drip from the religious articles of a bohemian whilst he was saying mass. The bohemian immediately took these objects to the Pope who declared it a miracle of the Lord, and ordered for a church to be built to enshrine them.

Umbria was extremely popular with the Popes during the Middle Ages. The State of the Catholic Church ruled it in addition to ruling Rome. 20,000 saints have been born in this state alone through the pages of history—Benedict, Francis, Clare, Valentine, to name a few. To be a saint ‘officially’ is no easy task. To start with, one needs to be dead for five years at least after which a thorough check is made on one’s life. Secondly, one has to have performed at least two genuine miracles during one’s lifetime. Only then is one pietafied and, thereafter, canonised by the Pope in St. Peter’s. Pope John Paul II has canonised the largest number of saints as of now: 370 in total. The pietafication of Mother Teresa is currently in progress. Over 37,000 documents have been submitted to the Vatican Council to prove a miracle enacted by her. Once a saint dies, they become the patron saint of their home town, and the day they died is dedicated to them. Statues are taken from the local church and paraded through the streets. Padre Pio, one of the most controversial saints is to be canonised on 16 June, the Sunday after my return. St. Catherine of Siena and St. Francis of Assisi are the patron saints of Italy.

Another interesting saint is Saint Nicholas, more commonly known as Santa Claus, who was born in Paris around 300 AD. He is claimed to have miraculously recreated three children that had been butchered. His day was 6 December. The Dutch settlers took this custom to the United States of America and moved his day to coincide with the day of the three pagan kings, 25 December, and so we ended up having Santa Claus for Christmas!

St. Francis and Assisi

‘St. Francis holds up the Church’ by Giotto, fresco, Upper Church of Basilica di San Francesco, 13th Century

O Lord make of me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred let me put love,
Where there is resentment let me put forgiveness,
Where there is discord let me put unity,
Where there is doubt let me put faith,
Where there is error let me put truth,
Where there is despair let me bring happiness,
Where there is sadness let me bring joy,
Where there is darkness let me bring light.
O Master grant that I may desire rather:
To console than to be consoled.
To understand rather than to be understood.
To love rather than to be loved.
Because it is in giving that we receive;
In forgiving that we obtain forgiveness;
In dying that we rise to eternal life.
~ A Franciscan prayer

Born as Giovanni in 1182 into a rich family in Assisi, St. Francis was the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and a French lady. When he was born, his father was returning from one of his long trips to Provence in France and re-named him Francesco (Francis), the little Frenchman. Francesco’s early years were spent in drinking and womanising. When Assisi declared war against Perugia, Francis was the first to enlist. But he was soon taken prisoner and jailed for a year. On his return he became seriously ill and spent a lot of his time in solitary walks and meditation, and eventually felt the need to give away his possessions to the poor, much to the disapproval of his father.

Not far from Assisi’s city walls was the little church of St. Damian, albeit in ruins. Legend has it that a voice from the crucifix spoke to Francis, “Go and repair my house which has fallen into ruin.” Those words remained with him for the rest of his life. Despite realising that its meaning did not limit itself to the church building per se he sold draperies from his father’s shop and with the proceeds bought the material for its restoration. His father was enraged with the theft. Having to now choose between a renunciation of worldly goods and a return to his old life, Francis chose renunciation. Wearing a peasant cloth, he started helping lepers and preaching to the poor. Rejecting material trappings, he turned to the love of god through poverty and chastity. In 1209, the religious order of Friars Minor was born, orally authorised by Pope Innocent III after he dreamt that the Lateran Basilica was about to collapse and that a poor little man called St. Francis had supported it. During this period Clare of Assisi met Francis several times and decided to follow in his footsteps. She went on to forsake all worldly goods and founded the order of the Poor Ladies.

At Greccio, Francis prepared his nativity scene in memory of the birth of Christ, giving rise to one of the most beautiful Christian traditions. Legends claim that he got his messages from the birds and he is, hence, also the patron saint of animals. In 1224, on Mt. La Verna, he received the Holy Stigmata. Exhausted by privation and penance, he was entrusted to St. Clare and her sisters at San Damiano where he died on 3 October 1226. After two years he was canonised. Assisi went on to become the centre of the Franciscan order and Christian art. After St. Francis’ death, numerous artists flocked to Assisi, viewing his life as being parallel to that of Christ. Assisi, today, is a well-preserved medieval town and centre of the peace movement. A few years ago, Pope John Paul II brought together religious leaders from all over the world here to determine common aims and objectives.

The entire city of Assisi, along with its basilicas, is built of pink stone from the mountain it is built on, Mt. Subasio, and gets its reddish hue from the iron content within. The lower Church of the Basilica di San Francesco, completed in May 1235 houses the remains of the saint, whilst the walls of the upper church are covered with 28 frescoes by Giotto. The artist painted scenes from the life of St. Francis on the basis of St. Bonaventura’s account. Giotto accurately followed the text, but his innovative pictorial technique and poetic vision have given the 28 scenes the status of masterpieces all over the world. The inner surfaces of the roofs are painted blue, decorated with golden stars in the early Gothic style, whilst the arches are bordered in geometric and floral patterns.

Assisi is lined with churches, monasteries and convents. Monks and nuns scurry down its cobbled roads. Passing through the Piazza del Comune (Town Hall square), I walked on to the Gothic Basilica di Santa Chiara, Basilica of St. Clare, built on simpler lines than that of Basilica di San Francesco. But of all the churches, the most beautiful was the ‘Oratorio dei Pellegrini’ which I stumbled upon by chance. With just a handful of pews for prayer, the tiny little room with its high roof was decorated with the most incredible frescoes. The vivid colours against the white background gave the little shrine an air so pure and yet so deep. So rich and yet so simple. Much like what all of Assisi is all about.


As I made my way to Venice I stopped at Ravenna, a small town renowned for its mosaics, the finest ever produced. In early times, soon after the legalisation of Christianity, places of worship called basilicas were built throughout Italy. These buildings, built over a tomb of a martyr, were made on the same lines as Roman public buildings with columns inside, and always faced east, towards the Holy Land. Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire during the time of Honorius (5th Century) since Rome was being continuously attacked by invaders. In the 6th Century Ravenna itself was invaded by the Byzantines. This led to the blending of the art and architecture of two opposing styles, Byzantine and Romanesque, and the creation of the round dome on a square foundation and the bell tower.

The Romans had earlier used mosaics mainly for the purpose of decorating floors. The early Christians developed this art a step further by using the technique to illustrate Christian stories on their church walls. With the advent of the Byzantines this art became even more elaborate and colour started being introduced to create a feeling of depth. Made of coloured stones set against a gold background, they embodied the very spirit of peace. Placed high up in the walls and facing the east, the sun’s early rays turned the mosaics in these basilicas into a vision of heavenly beauty.

Ravenna has three magnificent churches. The bishops of Ravenna are all buried within them. I visited the Basilica di San Apollinare in Classe (by the river) where the remains of the martyr Apollinare, who lived during Roman times, are buried. The Roman emperor Augustus had his Adriatic fleet moved here during his reign. Since then the river has receded some six kilometres.


Pomposa’s claim to fame is its abbey—a monastery headed by an abbot where the monks worked, prayed and lived together in poverty. At night they would lay down in ‘their coffin of rest’, and if god willed their spirits would rise again the next morning. There was no place for worldly goods or private lives for the inhabitants. This concept of monastic life started with St. Benedict of Umbria who established the schedule and order for the monks. The abbot, the leader of the abbey, controlled all the daily activities of the commune, including prayer and art and was responsible for the discipline of its members which he enforced by whipping if he deemed necessary. Some monasteries were so rigid in their rejection of worldly life that even communication by speech was forbidden with only hand movements allowed. The growth and development of Christian art and architecture started in these monasteries.

Monasticism had a slow start in Italy, picking up only after the first millennium when it became popular again and part of pilgrimage routes. Over time these monasteries started receiving gifts from outsiders and accumulating a lot of land from its followers. They also took on the role of dispensers of justice and became points of reference for the general public. During the Renaissance the materialism of the abbeys reached dizzying heights with the abbots being selected on the basis of political rather than religious criteria. They, subsequently, became corrupt with mistresses and lovers often colouring their lax moralities. This decay led to many leaving the Church in protest, leading to the formation of the Protestants, who asked for a reformation. The Roman Catholic Church replied with a counter reformation. These movements affected all aspects of the Church. The monasteries never regained their former glory that they had during the Middle Ages when they were looked upon as points of salvation on earth. Many of these establishments have now been converted into flats, offices and shops and are only an echo of their past.

Note: My camera got damaged whilst travelling through Greece and Italy. I have, hence, instead used photos from various guides and museum books for my Italy web pages as per the credits.


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