“Keeper of the Treasures”
Biblioteca Sacro Convento: An Ancient Library and the Materials it Preserves
by Suzanne Hoofnagle
Gray skies and damp air could not take the beauty or majesty out of last Wednesday afternoon’s winding stroll down to one of Assisi’s oldest libraries. There, Friar Carlo Bottero, head Librarian of the Franciscan library of the Sacro Convento waited, ready to share and explain the treasures held within, the purpose and the usefulness the ancient library.
Fr. Carlo’s commanding presence and fierce dedication to the library, in another world, might be comparable to a bouncer of the library of the ancient manuscripts. Intimidating at first glance, his passion for the library and its treasures, along with his smile and melodic Italian voice make him an approachable, friendly guide to navigating the thousands of books, texts, and manuscripts housed within the walls of the convento. Fr. Carlo is Keeper of the Treasures of Biblioteca Sacro Convento. “I have worked in the library, or Biblioteca as the Italians know it, for four years,” he says–a mere fraction of the 780 years the ancient library has existed, founded in 1230. The library is in the Convento (convent), which is attached to the Basilica honoring the remains of Italy’s patron saint, Francis of Assisi.
The original purpose of the Convento’s library was to acquire and be the repository for the biblical and liturgical texts, and especially the earliest writings relating to the Order of St. Francis, the Friars Minor. Originally reserved for the use and study of the friars, La Biblioteca nel Sacro Convento, was once divided into secret and public divisions. Now, according to Fr. Carlo, the Biblioteca is regarded as a public library and no secret divisions exist. “Now there is not a secret part. It used to be most of the books were open to most of the friars. Then you would have particular books–such as alchemy about medicine; or books about war buildings–that you needed permission to read. So it was called secret library. But now we have no more of this secret division,” says Fr. Carlo.
Though it is open to the public the library tourists visiting the Basilica are not allowed entry to the library or access to the manuscripts. “The main group of people that use the library are students of theology. Because the Theological Institute of Umbria is here, almost all 300 students study here. We work mainly with them. We also have many scholars who came just for manuscripts,” he says.
The manuscripts are ancient hand written texts that date back to the twelfth century. The importance and relevance of these texts are immeasurable. Among the Convento’s collection of manuscripts, is the oldest copy of the writing of St. Francis, codex 338 which includes his Canticle of the Creatures thought to be penned by the hand of Francis’ close friend and scribe, Brother Leo. The previous day, the IJSA class had the rare and special treat of seeing the codex. Fr. Carlo’s assistant, Stefano showed the class some of the Bibliteca’s most rare and priceless manuscripts, including St. Francis’ codex 338. “It is the most famous Franciscan manuscript in the world. You are very lucky because normally I don’t show that manuscript! I’m not going to beat Stefano [joking]. Because the binding is a bit damaged, every time you open, it is weakened. It is better not to show anymore. So you are very lucky. The last ones in the world to see it,” he says.
Fr. Bottero’s personal favorite and most adored manuscript in the
Biblioteca is the oldest copy of the book of Blessed Angela of Foligno, who was a 13th century mystic. “It’s very interesting for a lot of reasons. A mystic writes about her personal experience with God. She is one of the most important Franciscan mystics. She was married, but was made a widow. Then she began to serve lepers. She was a very good mystic. Her manuscript is one of the most important theological books [today], and we have the oldest copy. It was written when she was alive. One page has written, ‘today, blessed Angela died.’ They were copying the original that belonged to her. Then there are many particular stories I like in the manuscript very much,” Fr. Carlo explained.
The manuscripts’ theological, historical, and educational value alone is priceless. That, along with the thousands of pages, and illuminations in the Bibiloteca, make the monetary value of these relic texts inestimable. “It is impossible [to put a price]. In Italy if you have a manuscript that has just one illumination you must make its worth for 250,000 Euros,” said Fr. Carlo. Because of the value these manuscripts, Napoleon’s troops targeted the books when they invaded Italy in 1798. Many pages of some manuscripts contain square and rectangular holes where Napoleon’s soldiers cut out the gold illuminations, defacing these otherwise priceless treasures.
The convent maintains a discreet but thorough security system, consisting of video cameras, alarms, and smoke detectors and feelers to protect the ancient books both from human mischief and the effects of nature. However recently a small book was stolen from the library by (Fr. Carlo believes) a professional thief who stole manuscripts and books from all over Italy. He was caught and is serving a ten-year jail sentence for his crime.
Preservation of the manuscripts is a high priority of Fr. Carlo. Not everyone is allowed to touch and study the actual manuscripts themselves. To gain access to an ancient, he says, “you have to explain why you need to see it. You need to be justified. Normally, the manuscripts are not available. So you can read them on the internet. It is not a necessity to see the manuscripts if you just needed [to read] the text. If you have to study the book, as it was in the past, you can obtain it. But normally maybe two to three people a year need the book for this reason,” said Fr. Carlo.
The Italian government spent an €700,000 (approximately $860,000) to make digitalized copies of the manuscripts. Now anyone can study these versions of the ancient texts without causing unintentional harm by the natural wear and tear of human touch. Fr. Carlo concedes it is difficult for young people to study and understand the manuscripts. He himself cannot read all of the manuscripts. “I am more here because I know more of the technologies of using the library. I teach course on the internet, and the digital results of the libraries projects. I study this part of the library, bibliotecnology,” he said.
By making the treasures of La Biblioteca nel Sacro Convento accessible to the world Fr. Carlo is serving his order and calling. His work with the government to meld technology with ancient scripts, in order to preserve history, has opened up access to anyone who is interested and allows younger generations to interact with the great historical writings and treasures housed in Assisi’s Sacro Convento.
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An Anglican Franciscan
Brother Thomas Anthony serves the English-speaking Protestant community in Assisi
by Claire Kinnen
Brother Thomas Anthony answers the wooden door quickly and ushers me in off the cobblestone street into a simple but modern home. The room is dim and one’s attention is immediately drawn to the steady stream of sunlight let in by the window. Brother Tom, as he is known, is tall with a head of white hair and a pleasant face and is dressed in a brown habit. We settle down at the table and his sense of humor becomes apparent when I ask him how he came to Assisi, “I took a plane actually but that’s not answering your question.” He continues to explain that his order, the society of St. Frances, wanted a representative in St. Frances’s home, Assisi, Italy where he has been for the past four years. His story is much more layered then his self-effacing personality let on. Slow to speak, he takes several breaths between each sentence and is conscientious to be clear.
Born in Holland, Br. Tom says little of his childhood. He migrated to northeastern Canada in his early twenties where he eventually was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church. There seems to be a clear break between the time spent in his native land and in the places that play a part in his religious journey. At 41, during an “early mid-life crisis” he met Franciscans and felt he had found the community he was looking for. This prompted him to move to England to join the order of St. Francis.
The Franciscan order started in the Roman Catholic Church but there has been an Anglican/Episcopalian order since the turn of the last century. The largest difference between the Roman Catholic Order and the Anglican is the position of the pope and the matter of his authority. Roman Catholic Friars often see themselves as defenders of the pope but Br. Tom does not think this necessary. As he understands it, St. Frances originally desired the pope’s approval so his order would not be dismissed “as there were so many weird and wonderful movements at the time.” Saint Frances essentially had no other option but to insist on papal loyalty in order to continue living according to his calling.
But no matter what differences there may be, as the only Anglican Franciscan in Assisi, Br. Tom finds community with the Roman Catholic Franciscan Order.
“I’m always included in things Franciscan. There’s no distinction there. Maybe it’s because on my own I’m not much of a threat” he laughs. Based on Saint France’s emphasis on inclusion, to draw lines between Franciscans would be a contradiction. It is this communal aspect within the Franciscan order that stood out to initially Br. Tom before he became a friar.
Of course, Br. Tom never anticipated ending up as a local chaplain for Anglicans in Assisi walking the very streets that St. Frances walked and looking out onto the same Italian vistas.
His local congregation is “fiercely loyal” but small so he finds his duties to be few; “We pray regularly, of course, we have our own office book and so a daily prayer is very much a part of that. And otherwise I just live simply here.”
And live simply he does though not, perhaps, in the severe poverty that St. Francis himself experienced. There is little adorning the small compartment besides a collection of post cards and a calendar with photos of Canadian churches.
When asked if why he finds the order important, he humbly admits that important is not the word he would use. The reason behind the order is calling, “Religious orders, all of them are signs of the Kingdom. That’s why we live in poverty, chastity and obedience.”
And yet, Br. Tom will be the first to tell you that becoming a Franciscan is not a sacrifice. The way he talks of it makes it seem more of an exchange; giving up one thing for another. He elaborates, “You are, for instance, you take a vow of poverty which means my income- which now consists of several small penchants actually- goes to our order directly. So I have no possessions to my name but when you think how I have actually bought into a life of security because wherever I go, I’ll always have a room of my own, I’ll always have enough to eat and I’ll always probably someone to look after me. So that’s more security than most people have.”
He begins to chuckle as he remembers when there were few new people joining the order and the thought occurred to him that there would be nobody to push him around in a wheelchair. His face regains its serious composure when he says there is no need for such pessimistic thoughts, “You trust your life to God ultimately and He’ll provide.”
Though Br. Tom’s faith and lifestyle is simple, this by no means he is a simple man. His intelligence is evident in his thoughtfulness about the world and what he sees in it. He is conscious and concerned about the very public and controversial divide over gay clergy in the Episcopal Church. This is where the lack of hierarchy and practicing authority begins to complicate itself; various churches can take their own lead and leave the rest of the Anglican Church to sort through the aftermath. Br. Tom is sensitive to the divide, “When it comes to a personal level it becomes another story. In the abstract you can be against something or for something but when you meet it, it’s different.” He puts his hope in Canada where he sees the most effort to dialogue and resolve the complications as well as focus for other important issues.
For Br. Tom, focusing on other issues means looking at what is happening here in Italy and learning how to adjust to the Italian mentality. For example, clerical abuse to children is less of an issue in Italy. Not because Italians are fine to contend with it but because it does not surprise them, “There’s an anticlerical bias in Italy too so people can be quite, devout in their own way but that doesn’t mean they don’t see the faults in the church.”
Things that the average tourist in Assisi and Perugia would not notice such as drug abuse and prostitution are common and Br. Tom uses his connections in the Franciscan community to try and draw more attention and concern to them.
Yet, Br. Tom is realistic. He enjoys the advantage of being an Anglican Franciscan because he can live alone and make connections in the community that he might not if he would not otherwise. It is in these small events that Br. Tom finds himself tapping into what really matters, “All I can do is live my life as simply as I can and be as open as I can with everybody.”
Br. Tom is clearly not an extrovert but clearly enjoys people as evidenced by my visit to his Sunday service that is held in a small 14th century chapel. The sermon is much more of an open discussion between attendees with Br. Tom as the moderator. He jokingly calls it laziness but his style reflects his honesty and belief in dialogue. In many ways, it takes much more strength to lead with others by incorporating them in to your service, then in preparing a one-sided three-point message. After the service, members and visitors are invited for refreshments in the chapel’s courtyard and to join the regular-goers for an Italian mid-day meal at a nearby restaurant. Br. Tom makes his way through the sunlit trees making sure to visit with everyone. He is pleasant and makes one feel instantly comfortable. He is not pious but he has a gentle way of steering the conversation towards the profound. He is candid without being pushy, frank without being vulgar.
He is clear that he has no regrets in joining the Franciscan Order though he in no means advocates it. For Br. Tom, being Franciscan is what God wanted for his life. He adheres to a plan that is not his own. His decisions are made independently of him. What he considers important for the rest of the world is not to fit his mold or outlook or to be Franciscan but to find what God wants for them and their life.
Glass artist Massimo Cruciani and the power of place
by Elise D’Adamo
Assisi is a magical place full of inspiration and peace. Many people find this gem and are awestruck with its sweeping roads and ancient buildings. This is true for artist Massimo Cruciani, a glass artist who is originally from Rome and moved to Assisi thirty years ago. He was tired of the crowded atmosphere and the noise of the city. So he came to Umbria. He fell in love with the countryside and the beauty of everything in Assisi, and so moved permanently and began creating artwork based on the town and landscape.
Of course, a major inspiration for many people to come to Assisi is the legacy of Saint Francis. Cruciani had not even heard of Francis before he moved to Assisi and was not initially inspired by the saint. After hearing about him and learning about what Francis did, Massimo soon gathered inspiration for his glass art. His hand painted pieces of glass can at times depict a friar on his knees with his arms wide and small animals surrounding him. Cruciani appreciates that Francis cared about everyone and everything. “He was something else,” he said.
The landscape also inspires his work. He has fashioned many glass pieces with fields of vibrant poppies or sunflowers. The city, too, inspires him, and he has created many pieces with the levels of Assisi standing proud and glorious in their age. He travels all over the world and has gathered ideas from his many adventures. In his earlier years, he was a photographer and now has an entire book of his photos from his visit to Asia.
When asked about his favorite piece, Cruciani began talking about one of his more recent pieces of a city on the water. The actual city and the reflection of the city represent all of the well-known monuments from major cities in the world. “And the theme of the piece is the city of the world, the combination of different places in one city, yes, it is just an idea of what is coming. It’s a combination of saying that we can all live together,” he said. He is pleased about how it unites different places in the world and makes a claim for peace amongst all of God’s people. Echoing this theme, Massimo’s artwork is displayed all over the world in numerous galleries, including those in Assisi, Switzerland, Hong Kong, and California.
Massimo grew up in Rome. His mother was, “a very simple person. Very humble, very nice.” She was born in Rome, but his father was born near Assisi and later moved to Venezuela at 18 where he and his brother opened a spaghetti factory. He returned to Italy and began building houses. When Massimo was a small child, however, his father passed away at about the age of 50.
The artwork that Massimo has is beautiful and depicts scenery in a unique way. As the light plays off the colors delicately painted onto the glass, you can’t help but appreciate the natural beauty his work seeks to capture. He is able to take simple things and make them spectacular with a shades of paint on a sheet of glass. With his photographer’s eye, he is able to gather a picture and then transfer it to a unique form of imagery. The paint strokes on glass create a watercolor feel and render a magical experience for the viewer.
Assisi and its landscape have proven an inspiration for Cruciani. He captures the breath of Assisi and his paintings give a new view of Italy and the world. Upon walking in his studio, you know that you have found treasure. You can glimpse his work at his website: http://www.cruciani.com.
The Power of Pilgrimage
A Rhythm of Steps, Not Machines
by Annie Battles
Angela Seracchioli greets us dressed entirely in purple. An author, inn owner, and pilgrim in the truest sense, she exudes a vibrant hospitality that is mirrored not only by her outfit but also the cozy hostel she ushers us into.
Angela’s story is nothing short of inspiring. She has traced the steps of Saint Francis of Assisi over 300 times, having just returned from her 310th pilgrimage at the time of our interview. Years ago, Angela created a unique “Camino,” or Walk, based on St. Francis and the many places that are recorded to have played a significant role in shaping his life. Not only that, but she has authored a guidebook for modern-day pilgrims who also want to follow the steps of this medieval saint. The book, Di Qui Passò Francesco, was published in 2004 and offers guidance, points of interest, and information about the life of Francis for the sojourner. Since then, an unanticipated number of people have walked the Camino. So many, in fact, that Angela felt compelled to open her own hostel, called “Foresteria della Perfetta Letizia” (“Guest Quarters of Perfect Happiness”), to house them along the way.
The tradition of the pilgrimage dates back hundreds of years. In Medieval times, at the height of its popularity, pilgrims traditionally travelled to Rome, the South of Italy, or Jerusalem (referred to as the Walks of Man, Angel and God) for the purpose of atonement. Pilgrimages in the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth century were long and exhausting expeditions, fraught with so much peril that those travelling would often write a will before embarking. Today, the tradition continues, though people now travel for spiritual reasons rather than penance, and the pilgrimages are considerably shorter and less treacherous. However, the communion of the pilgrim’s soul with both nature and God remains. As Angela notes, “When you move as a pilgrim, you are bound to be much, much more here and now, living in the present more deeply. ”
The Camino of Saint Francis is carefully guided by two of Angela’s close friends, one serving as “Guide of the Steps” – overseeing practical trip concerns – and the other as “Guide of the Soul” – planning daily devotions and spiritual discussion. Each day on the Camino consists of meditation, group discussions, gospel reading, lectio divina (a form of scriptural meditation), and – inevitably – many hours of walking. Yet this walking is where the true beauty of the pilgrimage is manifested. While a traveler may experience aching legs or the burning of blisters, oppressive rain or the heat of the sun, they are also more whole as a person than at any other stage of life. The physical pain and effects of nature, so intrinsic to the pilgrimage, serve to integrate the body, mind and soul into one being that is attuned to the essential elements of life. It is on this wholeness that Angela places the emphasis when I ask her about the spiritual significance of a pilgrimage, compared to other religious experiences. She talks about those who travel the Camino; often they are men and women consumed with the daily rush of life, who simply want a chance to breathe. “There is a deep need in our society to go back to roots, to go back to a rhythm that is not a rhythm of machines, but a rhythm of your steps,” she explains. Her advice for packing a rucksack in preparation for the journey can be applied in much broader sense as well: “The less you have, the better you are.”
It is for these peace-seekers that Angela opened her hostel in 2006, two years after her book was published and people had begun to walk. She and a friar friend noted a lack of inexpensive places for pilgrims to stay, which is where the idea for Foresteria della Perfetta Letizia stemmed from. The building was originally used as a place to house and feed the poor, and had since been closed down. Angela took on the daunting task of renovating, cleaning, and restoring the entire building to become a haven of safety and rest along a well-worn road. At Foresteria, Angela cares for the weary travelers, most tangibly by working in the kitchen, preparing food and serving meals. She notes a special sense of community that is fostered during meal times: “I do it because everything happens around the table, and it is beautiful. People meet and tell their stories, and when you are a pilgrim there are no differences of class and age. Friendship made on the Camino lasts for long.” Another beautiful element to the hostel is the 66 sign-in books it holds, which have been filled over the years with words of thanks and blessing from pilgrims in every language. The books exemplify the love Angela has poured into both her Camino and its followers, and the gratitude they have given in returned.
Before the interview concludes, Angela once again speaks of the societal need to return to nature and unite all facets of the human person. “That’s why a Camino on St. Francis makes even more sense, because he never divided his life. He was a great pilgrim, always moving,” she said.
* Angela is in the process of looking for an editor to publish an English edition of her guidebook Di Qui Passò Francesco. Help spread the word by sharing the story of the Camino and her web address. Visit http://www.diquipassofrancesco.it.
A Merchant’s Life
Off to the side of the main plaza of Assisi called la Piazza del Comune, sits a small shop entitled La Bottega dei Sapori. Amidst tourist stores, leisurely cafés, and gelato stands, La Bottega dei Sapori stands out as a place where both locals and tourists stop by. The shop is owned and run by Fabrizio Pagliaccia, a friendly local merchant who has been in Assisi for 20 years and has been promoting Italian delicacies and slow foods for 32 years. From fresh Italian meats, cheeses, beans, and pastas to excellent olive oils, spices, balsamic vinegars, and wines, Fabrizio sells only the highest quality Italian, and more specifically Umbrian, products. Most provinces of Italy have their own specialties and Umbria is known for its olive oil, herbs, vegetables, truffles, and sausage, all of which can be found at Fabrizio’s shop. He even has a selection of flavors for many of his foods, such as his amoretti, truffles, and wines. Moreover, his shop consists of a vast selection of balsamic vinegars, which he calls “the beautiful gem of [his] factory products.” La Bottega includes all of the typical products of Umbria and exemplifies the well-known Italian principles of fantastic food and drink.
Fabrizio says his experience working as a merchant in the pilgrimage town of Assisi has been very positive on the whole. In an age when people are often in a hurry, he believes in slowing down to enjoy a glass of wine or a plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce (a norm in Italy) is less frequently replicated in other parts of the world such as in the United States. Rather than grabbing a quick meal from a fast food restaurant like McDonalds™ or Burger King™, he emphasizes a policy of slow food. Italians are known for enjoying leisurely meals such as pausa di pranzo, a meal that takes place between noon and two in the afternoon which consists of a first and second course as well as fruit or dessert and usually lasts longer than the typical lunch in America. Fabrizio’s products particularly may require additional time to create, but are of the freshest and finest quality.
Every one of Fabrizio’s products is sold hot off the oven, so to speak. His products are freshly made right Umbria, the Italian province where Assisi is located, and several of his products are even prepared in his factory. The meats and cheeses are never pre-packaged or preserved. The meats and sausages, for example, are carved directly in front of the customer. Fabrizio represents the third generation of Italian merchants in a family that has encouraged superior products for generation. His parents and relatives appreciated foods of the highest quality and would not sell anything but the very best. He loves his job quite simply, because he loves his products.
Fabrizio says he is very pleased with the buyers who visit his shop: international tourists from all over the world. Whether they come from other parts of Italy, the United States, Australia, or New Zealand, they come to his shop expressing interest in the typical Italian delicacies, olive oil or wine. He happily presents his products, often offering free samples of delicacies such as bruschetta, dried tomatoes and olives, or a few freshly sliced salami. He hopes to help the tourists understand how good and genuine his products are. The quality found at La Bottega dei Sapori reflects the Italian tradition of excellent foods that, according to Fabrizio, is “like having a piece of art to taste and to look at.” The offerings at his small bottega, he says, are “good for our health and for our spirit.”
by Stevie Bittner
As I sit along one of Assisi’s winding brick paths off a one-way street, I can’t help but reflect on the journey I’ve taken to get here. As an American student with limited experience in international travel, I’m amazed at how quickly I’ve begun to navigate these Italian streets. Even still, it seems surreal.
This place is incredible – the sights, the sounds, the smells. This morning I opened my window to a chorus of chirping birds. The sunlight streamed through the white curtain and promised the beauty that this day would bring. And the day certainly came through on this promise.
I say this because there’s almost a poetry here in Assisi. It’s a poetry of life that envelops both local and traveler in a feeling outside of what I’ve known of life. It’s a level of comfort between neighbors, a friendliness of shopkeepers, a trust of visitors, and a patience of everyday life. The personality of the town points toward its most famous local, Saint Francis of Assisi.
Today, our class made the trip past Saint Francis’ Basilica toward the Biblioteca. It’s a breathtaking stroll that takes us down residential alleys to a view of the valley that one has to see to believe. In the crossroads at the foot of the hill, we were surrounded by tourists lined up to visit the resting place of this still-impactful saint. Along the roads, small vendors were selling “Che” t-shirts and little knick-knacks. The occasional brother would pass us in his traditional black tunic. Locals strolled by speaking loud, rapid Italian and laughing responses.
“Am I really here?” I thought to myself, snapping pictures of the countryside and avoiding a bus as it careened down the narrow road.
I am here, and I am appreciating everything I’ve had the opportunity to take in. I loved being able to walk the open terrace at the Biblioteca. I loved sipping cappuccino at the café in the square. I loved looking at ancient manuscripts in the library with our professor’s friend, Stefano. I loved seeing an underground chapel used by devout Franciscan friars. I loved eating spaghetti at a family restaurant. It’s all so magical that I can’t imagine living here the way the Assisians do.
I’m used to the fast-paced life of New York City and Boston. There’s part of me that’s so connected to a need for speed – to do my homework, to get to an appointment, to solidify my future. In the last 24 hours, Assisi has taught me more on reflection than I’ve ever known in the United States. As the locals welcome tourists with their broken Italian accents, or in my case, limited Italian vocabulary, I begin to appreciate Saint Francis’ servitude and love of people for what it really was. In a town like this, I can almost see the life that he lived.
So here I am, people watching in bare feet, enjoying the sun and the antiquated atmosphere. A man passes me by carting boxes of bottled water. Two tourists take a picture in front of a sign on the building next to me. A young woman leisurely passes by with a white sweater tied around her waist. The same man passes me with his cart of waters. A car with babies in the back seats drives by, followed by a blue Vespa. I respond, “Ciao,” to a passing sister. A sister in a white tunic starts a conversation with a local shopkeeper. This is Assisi. This is peace that I can only assume is closer to what Christ desires for his people.
Which brings me to what I’ve wondered since I arrived on these hallowed grounds: do Assisiani fully recognize the blessed life they lead? Do they understand the beauty in such simplicity? A fellow classmate noticed yesterday that the locals live on less: less food, less space, less material possession. I can’t fathom the difficulty that I would have adapting to this life on a permanent basis. Going from the United States to the simplicity of Assisi is a daunting task. The difficulty makes it seem like that much more of a necessity. We could live like this, if we tried. But most Americans are too selfish, too needy, too stressed and too immersed in a culture teaching them that this is the most efficient way to live.
I envy you, Assisiani. I hope that you know how wonderful it is to look out your window at a hillside view, to walk the streets of ancient ruin, and to have a supportive community. It points to what Thornton Wilder said in his inspiring play, Our Town: “Does anyone really appreciate life while they’re alive? Saints and poets maybe…” Assisi, may you be filled with saints and poets – blessed by the example of your beloved saint, Francis.
by Dan Awad
IJSA 18 May 2010
The Walls Tell Stories
Silence speaks, and in volumes, in the biblioteca of Assisi. Upon entering I walked under a list of primitive, stone arches, each representing according to one friar the prayer that we are covered with when walking underneath. The arches were followed by doors, big and small, all strong. In such a foreign atmosphere, I felt like an invader, stepping into places both far from home and far from my own. Finally, I arrive, evidently by the eyes of others, more loudly than I would have liked. Regardless, here I sit, and in the company of nuns, scholars, and friars I find myself nearly tasting the pulp of this setting’s profound ambience.
To my left, as in any library, are books upon books. Encyclopaedias, theological texts, and that of Assisi’s history scales the shelves. Together they seem to maintain an innate dignity, as if the one who approaches them would by nature come with a degree of respect, even reverence. Earlier, as a group of us were randomly given a small tour by a self-volunteering librarian, we were able to see some of the earliest of manuscripts associated with this city. They were beautiful, by nature evoking a response of appreciation and affection. The librarian held them very carefully, as gentle with them as to a new born baby. As he opened the texts and turned through the pages, I could only be humbled by the effort that went into their creation. Hundreds and thousand of pages covered in hand-written writing, each with an elegance entirely foreign to that of the twenty-first century. The librarian informed us that paper was very expensive and precious in those ages, so there was no interest in marking off spaces between new paragraphs. Instead, scribes wrote in red ink rather than black to set apart the beginning of a new paragraph. Aside from its functional aspect, the use of different colours and even gold were used for the purpose of embellishment and ornamentation. Ironically, despite the antipathy towards wasted paper, the pages were margined about two inches on each side, allowing room for the scribe to make personal notes. For example, our professor, Wendy Murray, stated that she had come across notes where the scribe commented on his tiredness and want to go to bed. If only the printing presses of today could express as much personality as the hand-written texts of times past.
In agreement with and as their guardians, the religious art on the walls and ceilings complement the mystique of the books. A statue of Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands above the door, overseeing and blessing the studies of those who so often come to her in adulation. To the right, a contemporary, intricate portrait hangs of the treasured Saint Francis on whose name this city bases its renown. Together, the art speaks of the mentality residing in this setting, giving attention to historical tradition, spirituality, and an appreciation for design and innovation.
I have been in libraries before, from the local ones near Wenham to the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, but there is something here unique and almost rare to an extent. It is not exactly the books, though they are aged and send off a fragrance of rich heritage. Nor is it the religious art, though doubtless not easy to ignore. Ultimately it is the people. It is not often that I see library students such as these. They have on their faces and in their assiduous demeanour, a sense of pride, reverence, and deep appreciation for this place. They knowingly sit on a bedrock of intersecting cultures, histories, and peoples. It is a gift to them and they love it as such. They are to it a humble steward, treating it often as its mother and sometimes their son. It seems that such can be said about all of Assisi and the inhabitants therein.
This is a view of Assisi approaching from the west. The building in the forefront is the Basilica of San Francesco, where St. Francis is buried and where we will be working in the library. We will also be given the privilege to view 10th century manuscripts; others written by Francis’ personal scribe, Brother Leo; and yet others that were pillaged and defaced by Napoleon’s troops in the late 19th century. All are kept in the manuscript vault and very rarely viewable by visitors.
There is no end to the stories that can be told of this ancient, mystical Italian hill town. Local stories will begin to be posted here, in this section of our blog, in the next day or so.
Artists, Merchants and Friars (and more)
This section of our site highlights those stories that my students will be covering regarding local news in and around Assisi. One will interview a local merchant about the ups and downs of living and working in a pilgrimage town. A few others will be interviewing local artists in Assisi’s robust art community. More will conduct research in the main library in town and others will meet with friars and writers and, generally, people of interest. Assisi effervesces with stories and the challenge will be choosing what not to write about. Follow this cultural exploration with us by tracking the students’ stories, photos, and personal observations on this page. (Their personal reflections will be posted in the third column, under “Student Voice.”)
The first week of May in Assisi ushers in a springtime festival called Calendimaggio. The tradition goes back to the Middle Ages (the time when Francis lived) and involved men from the upper part of town–la sopra— (the nobles) and those from the lower part–il sotto— (merchants) who would meet in the main piazza with blunted arms. After hurling insults and maybe a stone, no holds-barred mayhem broke loose between the warring neighbors, and sometimes participants from differing towns joined in, ratcheting up the stakes of the game to outright battle. Young lads followed the lead of their older heroes, joining the contest and learning the art of combat. The game persisted until one side conceded defeat after a dozen or more participants had been maimed or killed. The games have tempered over the centuries and today during the festival, participants from the upper and lower parts of town still compete in various reenactments, minus the maiming. Townspeople of every age don clothing of the Middle Ages, blow trumpets and parade on the streets. Residents from both sides of town hang their colors from the windows. (The apartment where I lived came stocked with banners and poles to be flown during the festival.)
Piazza del Comune
This section of the IJSA blog will highlight stories and people the students track down during their pavement pounding in Assisi. The Italian hill town holds a treasury of hidden nuggets, creative merchants and artists, and history that pre-dates the Roman era. This section will lend our seminar experience its local flare, experienced most predominantly in the town’s main piazza (plaza), called the Piazza del Comune.