In front of the majestic 13th-c. Basilica di San Francesco, the life-size crèche figures in medieval garb (in harmony with medieval Assisi), set the Christmas theme for visitors about to enter this wondrous church. “No more exquisite monument to the Lord has yet been built”, wrote a thirteenth-century historian of the Basilica di San Francesco. What’s changed?
I’ve made countless visits to this marvel during our thirty-five years here, and I quite simply fell in love with this three-level Basilica when I had to scrutinize it, absorb it, analyze it in every detail during two years of intense study prior to the rigorous exams required for authorization as a Guida Regionale dell’Umbria. I passed those exams in 1997 – and then, the earthquake struck on September 26th of that year. Che tragedia! Like all of the Assisani, I was heart-broken when the earthquake caused a collapse of two sections of the vault of the upper level, la Basilica Superiore di San Francesco, requiring the closing of the Upper Church for two years of structural restoration: nearly one million almost-invisible hairline cracks were sealed in the Upper Church and the vault was emptied of two thousand tons of stone rubble and then re-packed. The pictorial restoration – the attempt at re-piecing the thousands of fresco pieces of the two shattered vaults – went on for years. The results of patient work on “the world’s most precious and puzzling puzzle” can be viewed now: the vaults are back in place, the frescoes looking like moth-eaten Persian rugs, perhaps – but restorers gave back to the world all that they could. Un miracolo.
Inumerable visits or not to the Basilica, I was unprepared for the wallop of emotions when entering the Upper Church this mid-December Saturday: the stained glass windows, the azzurite blue star-studded vault and the Giotto fresco cycle (early 14th c) of the Vita di San Francesco lining the nave were highlighted splendidly in brilliant light. Every light source was on (not usual as the lighting is in rotation to conserve energy) and additional spotlights lined the upper cornice just under the stained glass windows, throwing bright light upwards onto the starry vault – and the post-earthquake fresco restoration – and downwards on to Giotto’s scenes of the life of San Francesco.
Gazing on the masterpieces enhanced by this brilliant lighting, I was transported to the settimo cielo (“seventh heaven” – and yes, the Italians, too, have this expression!). Not only: no one cared if I photographed that day! The Basilica guards in uniform just smiled and wished me “auguri, Anna!” (We guides are used to hearing them on their mikes, admonishing visitors “Silenzio! No foto, no video“).
The sublime visual scene was highlighted by musicians tuning their violins as the church filled with national, regional and local political figures, elegantly-dressed women (fur coats seen!), and suave men. Emotions high for my husband Pino and me as an usher showed us to our seats. This “by-invitation-only” twenty-fifth annual Concerto di Natale in the Basilica Superiore was about to start. So what were WE doing at this concert which will be nationally (and internationally) broadcast on RAI Uno on December 25th? Well, it pays to work for the Franciscans: Pino is a builder and his workers are now restoring the office of Padre Enzo Fortunato, Franciscan press attachÃ© for the Basilica. Pino was in Padre Enzo’s office one day last week as orders were going out: “That’s it: no more invitations – seven-hundred-and-forty are out and we’re at our limit.” Pino said jokingly to Padre Enzo, “…..but are you sure there aren’t two more?” Padre Enzo – or San Francesco! – made it happen.
Passing right under the restored fresco over the door, the Cardinal, representing the Pope and preceded by preceded by proud young carabinieri in their dress uniforms with plumed hats, walked solemnly past us down the center aisle to the front of the crowded Basilica. National, regional and local politcal figures headed to their seats, passing the Giotto fresco depicting the first crÃ¨che, created by San Francesco who put together a “living manger” scene in Greccio (north Latium) in 1223, to bring alive the Christmas gospel for the locals.
And then the “Natale con Francesco” concert filled the Basilica as orchestra and choirs let loose: Bach, Vivaldi, Grieg, the music of Leonard Cohen, traditional Christmas music sung by Michael Bolton and Noa’, the Basilica choir joining voices with a children’s choir. Sublime music in a sublime space.
Footnote: Yes, tragic was the damage to the Basilica Superiore di San Francesco but more tragic was the loss of life: two art restorers and two friars died at the door, trying to escape, as the vault over the door collapsed. One restorer, Bruno Brunacci, was a friend.
For detailed article on the fresco restoration of that vault, see http://www.annesitaly.com/Insights/AssisiUmbria/fresco.html
For more on Umbria’s Christmas traditions, see http://www.annesitaly.com/?p=895
Read more on earthquake restoration in Assisi – and not only
Read about the celebration of the “living Nativity” scene throughout Umbria at Christmastime
Read about Christmas simplicity in Assisi
Read about the Italian Epiphany tradition
Read about an astounding Naples Christmas tradition
Read about an Assisi Christmas tree of solidarity
Click here to read about the Assisi Christmas concert
Read about Assisi rooftop art – and Christmas traditions