As you exit the upper level of the Basilica di San Francesco, one of the most important sacred and artistic sites in all of Italy, note the aperture in the 13th-century wall on your left. After your explorations of the 10,000 square meters of medieval fresco splendor in the Basilica, immerse yourself in the natural splendor and serenity of the Bosco di San Francesco (the Woods of St. Francis), 64 hectares (just over 150 acres) neglected for years and salvaged by the FAI (Fondo Ambientale Italiano), the National Trust in Italy, established in 1975. The FAI has cleared the woodland, creating paths through it and planted over 1000 trees.
(And many thanks to the FAI for their photos in use here):
Trekking through woods of juniper, European maple, oaks, hornbeam and beech, you’ll see bursts of fuchsia cyclamens in the early spring.
Trails lead down to the area inhabited by Benedictine nuns in the 13ht- and 14th-centuries for the Benedictine presence in the Assisi area was diffuse: the churches of San Damiano, Santa Maria degli Angeli and St. Francis retreat, the Hermitage, all have Benedictine links. And the oldest church in Assisi is Benedictine, San Pietro (11th-c).
Only crumbling walls of their convent remain, though clearly they were high fortification walls, a necessary protection for the residence of a group of women outside the Assisi walls. Until clearing of the area and restoration work by the FAI – which acquired the Bosco di San Francesco property in 2008 thanks to a donation – that wall was overgrown with vegetation, that Benedictine monastero (convent) hidden away.
The ruins of the convent flank the small 13th century Romanesque church, Church of Santa Croce, restored in 2011 by the FAI. That church is perched along the banks of the Tescio River, a tributary of the Tiber:
The Basilica di San Francesco rises in the distance above the Bosco di San Francesco.
A 14th century bridge leads over the Tescio and local legend says there was a bridge here prior that Frederick Barbarossa on horseback rode, enroute to Rome to be crowned in 800.
The Church of Santa Croce was little more than a small chapel, serving the people of an unpopulated area of the countryside, land set in a rocky gorge, below the woods with few open fields for cultivation. Its importance, however, must have grown over the years as evidenced in the late 17th- restoration when the church was restored due to a collapse of a wall of the apse. At that time, Girolamo Marinelli frescoed the presbytery with “Adorazione della Nuda Croce” depicts Saint Helena (mother of the Emperor Constantine and traditionally associated having found the True Cross) and St. Catherine of Alexandria. Christ is not on the cross for this fresco motif was called ““lignum crucis” (“wood of the cross”) and depicted adoration of the Cross itself – and in fact, the church is dedicated to the Holy Cross.
During the 2011 restorations, traces of plaster were found on the walls, evidence that the church was probably once frescoed. The church was part of a large complex, the Hospitalis Pontis Gallorum, that is a place of refuge and shelter for pilgrims (hospitalis) – under care of the Benedictine sisters (as of the mid 13th-century – built near the bridge called “Ponte dei Galli.”
The small church dedicated to the Holy Cross seems to look across the Tescio at the mill – operational until the early 20th-century. Restored by the FAI, the mill is now an osteria serving meals to guests:
Take the path from the molino along the Tescio River for a ten-minute walk through the woods to see Michelangelo Pistoletto’s land art wonder, Terzo Paradiso: 121 olive trees in double rows forming three ample circles linked together, the largest circle in the center surrounding a 12-meter pole, representing the union between sky and earth. Pistoletto wishes the observer to walk the serpentine rows thus becoming a part of this work and reflecting on a desired serene existence between man and nature, here symbolized as the third reign – that is the Third Paradise: