The train leaves Spello and heads north; in a few minutes it reaches Assisi which is located on a hill at the northern edge of Monte Subasio.
View of Assisi
At Madonna del Angelo,
I quitted my vetturino, leaving him to proceed by himself to Foligno, and set off in the face of a strong wind for Assisi, for
I longed for a foot journey through a country so solitary for me. I left on my left the vast mass of churches, piled Babel- wise
one over another, in one of which rest the remains of the holy S. Francis of Assisi.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - October 1786 - Translation by Charles Nisbeth
The shape of Assisi was influenced in the XIIIth century by the construction of a very large basilica dedicated to St. Francis on the northern side of the hill (left side of the image) and by the construction of another one dedicated to St. Clare on the other part of the hill; the centre of the old town was located below an ancient fortress and over time Assisi expanded northwards and southwards towards the new buildings.
The appearance of the town as one approaches is very fine;
for, besides the natural advantages of site, its towers and battlements, its aqueduct and ruined citadel, make up a picture in
themselves. After entering the town, there is nothing that disappoints the expectation, or breaks the spell of old enchantment which hangs over it. The streets are silent, narrow, and steep; the houses, gray and tottering with age; the architectural forms, solemn and mediaeval.
George Stillman Hillard - Six Months in Italy in 1847-1848
Assisi flourished in Roman times and for many centuries the area inside the ancient walls was large enough to contain its population; in 1316 new walls were built to include the boroughs near the Franciscan churches, but some gates of the old walls were not pulled down.
Medieval gates: (left to right) Porta S. Pietro; Porta S. Francesco; Porta S. Giacomo; Porta Perlici
The whole scene seems prepared for the entrance of St. Francis himself, with his brown woollen robe and girdle of hemp, upon the stage. Assisi is stamped with the image and superscription of one man. The forms of the landscape, the mountains and the valleys, the woods and the rocks, the streets and the houses, are all vocal with the name of St. Francis, that extraordinary man whose life and career offer even to Protestant judgment so much occasion for wonder. Hillard
The new walls were built assuming that Assisi would have continued to grow as it had done in the previous century; the assumption however proved wrong because in 1348 the pestilence known as the Black Death halved the population of Assisi.
Medieval gates: (left to right) Porta Cappuccini; Porta Nuova; Porta Moiano; Porta del Sementone
The new walls had eight gates which were all protected by a tall tower. The towers have a pink colour because they were built making use of a reddish stone, which can be seen in its natural state near Porta Perlici.
The fortifications of Assisi included two fortresses in addition to the walls: Rocca Maggiore at the top of the hill and Rocca Minore which strengthened the south-eastern corner of the walls. They were both built by Cardinal Gil de Albornoz around 1360 as part of his effort to restore papal authority in the region. You may wish to see Rocca di Spoleto and a page on other papal fortresses.
Rocca Maggiore: polygonal tower
Between 1458 and 1460 a polygonal tower was built at some 300 ft from the main fortress and the two were linked by a fortified passage; the objective of this addition was to increase the defence of the side of the hill towards Perugia.
Rocca Maggiore: coats of arms: (left) erased XIVth century coats of arms; (centre) polygonal tower: Pope Pius II (1460); (right - upper corner) main tower: coats of arms of Biordo Michelotti (1398), lord of Assisi; (right - lower corner) circular bastion: Pope Paul III (1538)
Coats of arms of popes and local lords were placed on various parts of Rocca Maggiore to celebrate additions and enhancements of the fortress.
Rocca Maggiore has commanding views over the main monuments of Assisi and the Umbrian Valley.
I was most delighted to be again alone with nature and myself. The road to Foligno was one of the most beautiful and agreeable walks that I ever took. For four full hours I walked along the side of a mountain, having on my left a richly cultivated valley. Goethe
Rocca Maggiore (polygonal tower): view towards S. Francesco and the Umbrian Valley
If I were to balance anything
against the attractions of the double church I should choose the
ruined castle on the hill above the town. I had been having glimpses of it all the afternoon at the end of steep street-vistas,
and promising myself half-an-hour beside its grey walls at sunset. The sun was very late setting, and my half-hour became a
long lounge in the lee of an abutment which arrested the gentle
uproar of the wind. The castle is a splendid piece of ruin, perched
on the summit of the mountain to whose slope Assisi clings and
dropping a pair of stony arms to enclose the little town in its
embrace. The city wall, in other words, straggles up the steep
green hill and meets the crumbling skeleton of the fortress.
On the side off from the town the mountain plunges into a deep
ravine, the opposite face of which is formed by the powerful undraped shoulder of Monte Subasio, a fierce reflector of the sun.
Gorge and mountain are wild enough, but their frown expires in
the teeming softness of the great vale of Umbria. To lie aloft
there on the grass, with silver-grey ramparts at one's back and
the warm rushing wind in one's ears, and watch the beautiful
plain mellow into the tones of twilight, was as exquisite a form
of repose as ever fell to a tired tourist's lot.
Henry James - Italian Hours - 1874