Franciscan Umbria

The world has a new Pope, one who has made history by taking the name of Francis - in homage to Saint Francis of Assisi - for the first time. There has been a surge in interest in this popular and beloved Saint and his life and work since the papal news, and with it an increasing number of visitors to Franciscan sites across Umbria - Francis’ home region - by the devout and the curious of all faiths and religions. Who was Francis? Born in 1182 to a wealthy textile merchant in Assisi, in his youth Francesco Bernardone decided to abandon his life of luxury and war-mongering for spiritual pursuits. During his lifetime, he founded the Franciscan Order and the Order of Saint Claire and - many hold - became one of the most influential figures in religious history, pioneering virtues of poverty, brotherhood, and respect for the natural world. He is the patron saint of Italy and his hometown of Assisi is one of the most visited in the country, primarily because of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Basilica di San Francesco. Umbria is saturated with historic and religious sites connected to the life and spiritual path of Saint Francis and his early followers. Many of these retain a poignant air about them in their rough simplicity which gives them a moving immediacy to the person of Saint Francis, despite the eight centuries that have passed since his death in 1226.

  • Saint Francis and Assisi

    Assisi is, of course, the spot with the highest density of Franciscan sites in Umbria. From the tiny chapel in which he was - purportedly - born, to the lovely Romanesque Cathedral of San Rufino which holds the baptismal font where he was Christened, to the imposingly majestic Basilica di San Francesco which houses his tomb, this is the place where visitors can retrace the major events of his lifetime. A helpful primer for Saint Francis’ life is the Giotto-school fresco cycle in the upper church of his Basilica, where each of the 28 painted panels recounts an episode in Francis’ spiritual journey - many of which are set in Assisi or surrounding Umbria.

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  • Saint Francis and Hermitages

    Francis was both profoundly sociable - known for his lighthearted conversation and charisma - and deeply contemplative. He would often take long, solitary retreats in caves or rough huts in the mountains across Umbria, spending days or weeks praying and fasting. Many of these peaceful and evocative sites now have small sanctuaries or monasteries marking the spot where the Saint spent his period of retreat. Perhaps the best known is the Eremo delle Carceri on Mount Subasio outside Assisi, but similar hermitages dot the region of Umbria, and can be visited at Monteluco outside Spoleto, Isola Maggiore on Lake Trasimeno, and Sacro Speco near Narni.

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  • Saint Francis and Animals

    Saint Francis’ rapport with animals is legendary and stories abound of his dialogues with the local fauna. One of the best known images of Saint Francis is the fresco in the upper church of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi, which depicts the Saint preaching to the birds in the plain below Assisi near Bevagna. Another story recounts that in the fortified hill town of Gubbio a fierce wolf was terrorizing the local populace. Francis was able to tame the animal, which passed the next two years peacefully with the populace of Gubbio until its death. Perhaps the most charming of Saint Francis’ anecdotes is set in the pretty hill town of Trevi, where their church of San Francesco was built in the 14th century on the site where Saint Francis admonished an ill-mannered donkey to quiet down during his sermon, at which point the donkey knelt in silence until Francis had finished.

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  • Saint Francis and Nature

    Held by many to be one of the first “environmental activists” in Western culture, Saint Francis had a particular affinity to the natural world. Surely part of this passion stemmed from the beauty of his home region of Umbria, which is largely untouched today. A perfect area to hike and walk, Umbria also has two themed Franciscan hikes accessible to visitors. The Saint Francis Wood (Bosco di San Francesco) is a restored natural reserve which opened in 2011 in Assisi. It covers the slopes of Mount Subasio behind the Basilica of Saint Francis and offers two walking paths which can be navigated in less than a few hours. Saint Francis’ Way (Via di Francesco) is, instead, a longer itinerary which crosses the entire region of Umbria with stops at Franciscan sites along the way. Modeled on Santiago, this trail can be done over a course of weeks in its entirety or broken up into bite-sized portions for a day hike.

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