Assisi

History of Assisi

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History of Assisi

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History of Assisi

Basilica of St. Francis and the Sacro Convento of Assisi

The story of Assisi

Assisi is famous principally as the home of Saint Francis but of course it has a long and interesting pre-Franciscan history. Around 1000 BC, a wave of immigrants settled in the upper Tiber valley as far as the Adriatic Sea and also in the neighbourhood of Assisi. These were the Umbrians, a distinct people habitually living in small fortified settlements on high ground. From 450 BC these settlements were gradually taken over by the Etruscans. The Romans took control of central Italy after their victory at the Battle of Sentinum in 295 BC and, among many other things, they built the flourishing municipium Asisium on a series of terraces on Mount Subasio. Remains from Roman times can still be seen in Assisi: the city walls, the forum (now the Piazza del Comune), a theatre, an amphitheatre and the Temple of Minerva (now transformed into the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva). 

assisi temple of minerva

The Temple of Minerva
- now the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva

In 238 AD, Assisi was converted to Christianity by Bishop Rufino, who was martyred at Costano. According to tradition, his remains rest in the Cathedral Church of San Rufino in Assisi. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Assisi was besieged and conquered by the Goths (the Ostrogoths under king Totila destroyed most of the town in 545), retaken by the Byzantines and later fell to the Longobards and finally to the Frankish Holy Roman Empire. After a popular rebellion against the oppressive power of the Emperor Federick I Barbarossa was quelled by the imperial troops, Assisi was assigned to the Frankish Duchy of Spoleto in 1198 by the Pope Innocent III who confirmed the privileges of the church of Assisi with a papal bull and thereafter Assisi mirrored the fortunes of the Spoleto.

During the 11 C, Assisi began to exert its municipal freedom as a result of the religious and cultural awakening that was spreading rapidly all over Italy. Churches and monasteries were founded, castles were built or fortified and, for the first time, the plains below Assisi were turned to agricultural purposes, much aided by the exertions of Benedictine monks. The city, which had hitherto remained within the confines of the Roman walls, began to expand outside these walls in the 13 C. During this period the city was under papal jurisdiction. The Rocca Maggiore, the imperial fortress on top of the hill above the city, had been plundered by the populace in 1189, but was rebuilt in 1367 on orders of the papal delegate, Cardinal Gil de Albornoz. The thriving city had become an independent Ghibelline municipality in the 11 C. Constantly contending with the Guelph Perugia, it was during one of those battles, the battle at Ponte San Giovanni, that Francesco di Bernardone, (Saint Francis of Assisi), was taken prisoner, setting in motion the events that eventually led him to live as a beggar and renounce the world. Assisi eventually fell under the rule of Perugia and later under several despots, including the soldier of fortune Biordo Michelotti, Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan, Francesco I Sforza, another Duke of Milan, Jacopo Piccinino and Federico II da Montefeltro, lord of Urbino. As in much of Italy, the city went into a steep decline with the Black death in 1348 AD. The city came once again under papal jurisdiction under the rule of Pope Pius II (1458-1464).

Pope Innocent III approving the statutes of the Order of the Franciscans

Giotto's rendering of Pope Innocent III
approving the statutes of the Order of the Franciscans

The conquest of Umbria by Pope Paul III finally brought peace to Assisi. In 1569 construction of the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli was started. During the Renaissance and later centuries, the city continued to develop peacefully, as attested by the 17 C palaces of the Bernabei and Giacobetti.

Assisi is now a famous pilgrimage destination inextricably linked in legend with its native son, St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan order and shares honours with St. Catherine of Sienna as the patron saint of Italy. He is known by many as a lover of nature and his preaching to an audience of birds is one of the legends of his life.

Assisi was struck by the devastating twin earthquakes that shook Umbria in 1997, but the recovery and restoration have been remarkable, although much remains to be done. Massive damage was caused to many historical sites, but the major attraction, the Basilica di San Francesco, reopened less than two years later.

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