You may wish to see an overall view of Assisi and its fortifications first.
(left) A ruined Roman tomb behind the cathedral: (right) a private garden inside the Roman amphitheatre
Assisi, similar to many other towns of the Umbrian Valley, flourished during the Roman Empire. It was important enough to have an amphitheatre (for fights with beasts and maybe between gladiators) and an odeon (for theatrical performances); its wealthiest inhabitants built large funerary monuments along the road leading to Rome.
XVIIIth century travellers did not come to Assisi to see its churches and its frescoes; they came to see the remaining fašade of a temple dedicated to Minerva. For these travellers it was the first ancient temple they saw in their way to Rome.
J. W. Goethe wrote in his Italian Journey in October 1786 (translation by Charles Nisbeth):
Having asked of a good-looking youth the way to the "della Minerva" he accompanied me to the top of the town, for it lies on the side of a hill. At last we reached what is properly the old town, and behold before my eyes stood the noble edifice, the first complete memorial of antiquity that I had ever seen. A modest temple, as befitting so small a town, and yet so perfect, so well conceived, that anywhere it would be an ornament. Moreover, in these matters, how grand were the ancients in the choice of their sites. The temple stands about half way up the mountain, where two hills meet on the level place, which is to this day called the Piazza. This itself slightly rises, and is intersected by the meeting of four roads, which make a somewhat dilated S. Andrew's Cross. In all probability the houses which are now opposite the temple, and block up the view from it, did not stand there in ancient times. If they were removed, we should have a south prospect over a rich and fertile country, and at the same time the temple of Minerva would be visible from all sides.
(..) The impression which the sight of this edifice left upon me is not to be expressed, and will bring forth imperishable fruits.
Medieval buildings (left) next to Loggia dei Maestri Comacini (right)
Assisi retains many interesting medieval buildings, but also many "fake" medieval buildings (mainly late XIXth and early XXth centuries). Occasionally also the restoration of old buildings went a bit too far and added too many "nice to see" details.
The cathedral of Assisi is an imposing building with many points in common with that of Spoleto: in both churches the large central rose window was decorated with the symbols of the four Evangelists and was "supported" by small telamones (male figures used as pillars).
Cathedral: details of the main portal: the relief portrays (centre)
Jesus between moon and sun; (left) the Virgin Mary in the act of suckling Jesus; (right) St. Rufino, the first bishop of Assisi in 240
The decoration of the three portals is amazing with many details the symbolic meaning of which is difficult to understand. Jesus is portrayed as an emperor and the Virgin Mary as a queen: it is a rather unusual iconography especially for the realistic way in which suckling is shown.
S. Pietro is another large church the inhabitants of Assisi built at the same time as the cathedral: both churches were consecrated in 1253 by Pope Innocent IV.
Palaces: (left) Palazzo Bernabei - detail (XVIIth century); (centre) a late Renaissance palace - detail of a window with the inscription "In domino confido" (In God We Trust); (right) Palazzo Giacobetti - detail (XVIIth century)
Assisi, apart from its role as centre of the Franciscan Order, was a minor town of the Papal State and it never really recovered from the 1348 Black Death; only a few Renaissance and Baroque palaces were built along the main street of the town.
Assisi has several historical fountains: the main one is in the central square and is the combination of medieval statues and XVIIIth century design. Fonte Marcella is a simple but elegant fountain named after Marcello Tuto, governor of Assisi, who commissioned it in 1556: the street where it is located is called Via Fontebella which means nice fountain: it is one of the very few monuments bearing the coat of arms of Pope Paul IV.
Coats of arms: (left) Palazzo dei Priori: Pope Paul III; (right - upper corner) Porta S. Giacomo: a generic papal symbol; (right - lower corner) Palazzo dei Priori: Pope Sixtus IV between coats of arms of a Cardinal Orsini (left) and a Cardinal Savelli (right)
Background image for this page: detail of the left portal of the cathedral.