DESTINATION: ITALY : Picking Up the Pieces in Assisi : Visiting a land hallowed by St. Francis, with its art and architecture treasures still recovering from a 1997 earthquake

Ying Ying Wu is a freelance writer in San Francisco

Before I left for Italy last fall, I read in a newspaper that only earthquake pros were visiting Assisi a year after a quake seriously damaged St. Francis' namesake basilica. A video camera had captured an aftershock that brought down a ceiling, and the tape was widely broadcast. Tourism in Assisi and the Umbria region dried up, even though the damage to other medieval and Renaissance treasures was relatively insignificant.

As a San Francisco native and earthquake veteran, I had to see for myself.

I reached Assisi by train on a blustery late September day last year. I'd made arrangements to stay a few days with Anne Robichaud, an American who conducts tours of Umbria. She'd given some talks in San Francisco about the earthquake damage, and a friend of mine who attended suggested I contact her.

Anne lives on a small farm just outside Assisi. Her husband, a Sicilian who restores stone farmhouses and speaks little English, and their three teenagers, who all speak four languages, welcomed me warmly. Sheep were grazing in the frontyard, and fig trees and grapevines grew just outside the front door.

The next day, I saw for myself that the image of Assisi in ruins was a huge exaggeration.

The most serious damage from the 5.7 quake on Sept. 26, 1997, and its aftershocks was done to the 13th century Basilica of St. Francis, the heart and soul of this little town.

The basilica consists of two churches, built one on top of the other. The upper church sustained serious damage, and scaffolding covered the exterior when I visited, but the lower church was open. (The upper church is tentatively scheduled to reopen in late November, with the pope celebrating Mass there, Anne reports.)

The most serious loss was the shattering of frescoes--paintings done directly on freshly plastered walls and ceilings in the 13th to 17th centuries. Especially cherished were those depicting the life of St. Francis (1181-1226), long thought to be the work of the master Giotto.

When I visited, volunteers from around the world were sorting and grouping the fallen frescoes--more than 50,000 minute fragments--so they could be reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Anne confessed that she had cried the first time she entered the upper basilica and saw the damage. Some of Giotto's work had been reduced to dust. "It was an overwhelming experience. For anyone who has spent hours studying to be a tour guide, you become very attached to the frescoes."

There was scaffolding on the facades of many buildings in Assisi and elsewhere in Umbria. Ten people were killed in the earthquake, including four in the aftershock recorded on video--two friars and two restoration experts. Buildings were damaged but not leveled. People whose homes had been rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake were housed in prefab homes in a field that resembled a trailer park, but that didn't mean the town was in despair. Some had even decorated the scaffolding on their shops with flowers and plants, making the best of their new reality.

Assisi is one of Italy's biggest tourist attractions, and usually crowded. After the earthquake it was less congested, Anne said, its charms more easily appreciated. (Tourism picked up this summer, she reports, but not at its usual level.)

On my first full day, I visited the lower basilica, where in the dim light I was barely able to make out the celebrated ceiling frescoes depicting the virtues of St. Francis. The "Last Supper" fresco, done around 1320, was easier to see and enjoy. The artist, Pietro Lorenzetti, included such homely details as a dog and a cat concentrating on the scraping of dinner plates in the kitchen.

It's a common practice in Italian churches housing art treasures to have metered lighting that visitors turn on with a 1,000-lire (60-cent) "donation." I found out too late that some people bring strong flashlights, too.

The lower basilica is a place of pilgrimage, for it displays some bones revered as the saint's, as well as his frayed tunic and worn-out sandals.

There was a humility about this space, despite all the glorious artwork and the numerous tourists wandering around.

I remembered something an Italian friend had told me before I left home, that "Umbria is the most spiritual place in Italy." Given Italy's dominant place in the history of Christianity, that is quite a superlative. But Umbria's strong spiritual heritage dates from the early 3rd century. One thousand years later, Francis, son of a wealthy businessman, had a vision of serving God simply, and with four friends founded a religious order. Today Franciscans throughout the world wear the original friars' medieval dress: hooded brown tunic, cord belt and sandals.

Assisi is off the main roads, up in the Apennine foothills. It is a walled town, and the walls give it a snug feeling, which is enhanced by the absence of cars from the central plaza.

The past is ever-present here. In one boutique, the owner proudly took me into the basement to show me part of a Roman wall.

The more recent past turned up in a souvenir shop across from the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Assisi: a printing press used during World War II to print false papers for some 200 Jews in Assisi and nearby towns, right under the noses of the occupying Nazis. The nephew of Trento Brizi, the man who ran the printing press, still runs the shop with his wife. A number of people in Assisi also spared Jews from being shipped to concentration camps by hiding them in monasteries, convents and homes. After the 1997 earthquake, Jewish groups in the San Francisco area raised more than $60,000 for Assisi's relief in appreciation of the town's wartime efforts.

Over the course of several days, I made the rounds of the area's churches on my own, including a stop at Santa Chiara (St. Clare). A contemporary and disciple of Francis, she founded the Order of the Poor Ladies, or Poor Clares, in imitation of the men's order. Relics of both saints lie in the church, including the cross that "spoke" to Francis and called him to a life of piety and renunciation of the material world.

In the village of Santa Maria degli Angeli, outside Assisi, a pretentious Neoclassical basilica built in 1684 houses a small chapel, thought to be a cell occupied by St. Francis and the site of his death.

One day, I ended up at the Rocca Maggiore, a 14th century hilltop fortress above Assisi. It has been restored to house contemporary art exhibits. I was ready for a change from medieval frescoes, but the works on display were unimpressive--no match for the spectacular views of the valley below and beyond Assisi.

I was fortunate to be there for the feast of St. Francis, Oct. 4, Assisi's biggest holiday. A procession of townspeople in medieval costumes, as well as nuns and priests in a variety of religious habits, wound through the town to the basilica. A cardinal celebrated Mass outdoors. Afterward, he changed from white vestments into red ones and, with his sunglasses, looked like a character out of a Fellini movie while he listened to a speech by Prime Minister Romano Prodi (whose government collapsed a few days later).

Assisi is the most visited town in Umbria, which calls itself the "green heart" of Italy. But Umbria's other notable medieval hill towns, especially Spoleto, Spello, Orvieto and the Umbrian capital, Perugia, shouldn't be skipped.

Another day, I tagged along with Anne and her tour group to Spoleto, home of the renowned summer festival of music, ballet and theater. But in fall the town was quiet and serene. It offers the austere 4th century church of San Salvatore next to a picturesque medieval cemetery, as well as its grand Duomo, or cathedral. Its scaffolded interior testifies to aftershocks from the 1997 quake, which cracked but did not otherwise damage the gorgeous frescoes of the life of the Virgin Mary, painted by Fra Filippo Lippi. (The Duomo is still scaffolded.)

I'd intended to move on after a few days as Anne's guest, but decided instead to make Assisi my base for visiting other towns in Umbria. I'd spent some time in Italy before, and local bus service suited me, but a car would be better. I moved to the Country House Hotel, a small, rustic inn decorated with antiques, situated in an olive grove outside the city walls just below the Basilica of St. Francis.

Autumn in Italy can be unpredictable, and I was glad I'd brought rain gear; the weather was wet and occasionally tempestuous. But at sunset on a clear day, Assisi's fairy-tale skyline of pink limestone, quarried on the slopes of Mt. Subasio above the town, glowed rosily from a distance.

I visited Spello, another charming medieval town, with Anne.

The people of Spello celebrate the feast of Corpus Domini each June by decorating the main street with designs made of fresh flower petals. Fra Paolo, a friend of Anne's, took us into his home to show us the paintings he makes from the dried, crushed petals left after the town's festival. He also makes religious artifacts out of railroad spikes.

I went along with a tour group to Orvieto, famed for its white wine, where we visited the magnificent Duomo, which suffered only minor quake damage.

The gloomy weather couldn't dim the facade of the black-and-white-striped cathedral. It took three centuries to build, which is reflected in its various styles--Gothic spires, Romanesque porticoes, mosaic inlays and gold flourishes. Inside were brilliant frescoes of the Last Judgment, begun in 1447 by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli in 1504. Signorelli's muscle-bound nudes are said to have inspired Michelangelo's work on the Sistine Chapel. Across the street we visited the Archeological Museum, with its four floors of Greek and Etruscan vases and coins.

As we splashed our way through the rain back to the bus, I tried to imagine how charming Orvieto would be with sunshine.

Assisi is worth a visit on any autumn itinerary, but especially this year, before the crowds return. Italy is expecting twice as many tourists as usual for the Jubilee Year of 2000, designated by the Catholic Church to celebrate another millennium of Christianity. And Assisi is expecting five to six times the normal number of visitors.

GUIDEBOOK

Awed in Assisi

Getting there: Alitalia and Delta fly nonstop to Rome from Los Angeles. Round-trip fares begin at $830.

Where to stay: I was comfortable at the Country House Hotel. Standard double room with bath costs $71. (All of the hotels listed include a light breakfast in the price.) Telephone/fax 011-39-075-81-63-63.

An upscale alternative is the Hotel Subasio, an elegantly converted monastery next to the basilica. Some rooms have views of the valley, frescoes on the ceiling and antique furniture. A standard double is $172. Tel. 011-39-075-81-22-06, fax 011-39-075-81-66-91.

I looked in on the Hotel Umbra in a 16th century townhouse off Assisi's main square, the Piazza del Comune. Rooms are arranged in small suites; a standard double costs about $95. Tel. 011-39-075-81-22-40, fax 011-39-075-81-36-53.

Getting around: Anne Robichaud conducts personalized tours in English. Information is on her Web site: http://www.bloto.com/Anne.

For more information: Italian Government Tourist Board, 12400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025; tel. (310) 820-0098, fax (310) 820-6357. Internet http://www.italiantourism.com.

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