ASSISI, Italy — The Basilica of Saint Francis is empty at 11am on a recent Wednesday as I slip in, comforted by the lack of human contagion. As soon as I sneak a photograph of the abandoned church, a guard, unseen in the far corner, quickly sputters to life with a firm “no.” And then he coughs. The sound of his emission radiates off the stone walls upward into the rib vaults like a bell. I move across the nave. He coughs again. I head for the door.
Contemplating invisible aerosol drops of virus in public spaces had become a preoccupation for me since Coronavirus took over the Lombardy region of Northern Italy in late February. When I first began writing this, I had been in Assisi for three weeks of a five-week art and writing residency program with Arte Studio Ginestrelle. Even though tourism slows here in the winter, weekends would generally bring enough people to fill the tables at outdoor cafes where patrons would sip orange Aperol spritzes and eat chips. By the end of February, however, fewer people lumbered down these stone streets. The ones who did shed scented trails of hand sanitizer. Assisi is a city where religious pilgrims come to pray, study, and convene. Before the virus, nuns, priests, monks, and friers careened about on their cell phones, jostling maps, enjoying their time in this holy place, robes and wimples aflutter. They are all gone this week.
On my daily walks I would usually drop by the Basilica where the cycle of Giotto murals in the upper church wends its way through human suffering, miracles and depositions of faith, as it tells the story of St. Francis in 28 panels. Painted by Giotto at the end of the 13th-century, the entire church quietly reverberates with this illustrated story, each panel like a fragile gauze bandage rendered in faded washes. Francis was not only a lovable socialist-styled saint who turned his back on inherited wealth to stand with the disenfranchised but he was also the first environmentalist. During the time he lived, cities were walled for protection. Nature was either a threat or a source of food and materials. As Francis stripped away distractions and indulgences, he planted his bare feet on the ground, embracing the wild world with decorum while extending aid to the poor and sick. He led by example, unaffected by the fear of being vulnerable.
While authorship has been debated, it is still assumed that Giotto painted most of these frescoes with assistants around 1295. St. Francis died in 1226. Giotto used St. Bonaventure’s Greater Life of St. Francis, written between 1260 and 1263, as the source of the stories.
Giotto is extremely important in art history because he straddled the Medieval and Renaissance epochs, ushering in a new style. Art during the middle ages was flat, otherworldly, positioned within a spiritual realm often rendered with gold leaf. Giotto was one of the first artists to humanize religious painting. He literally brought it down to earth, with figures that had weight and worldly bulk underneath their robes. His characters stood on the ground (not in heaven), surrounded by trees, mountains, and villages. Giotto created fresco panels as if they were little stages with real people playing the roles. This was all revolutionary then.
The first panel in the Basilica in Assisi is called “Homage to a Simple Man.” In it, a townsperson places his own cloak on the ground for the still boyish St. Francis to walk across, as a gesture of respect and a sign that he sees Francis’ future spiritual role. In the next panel, St. Francis gives his own fine cloak to a poor stranger, signifying an exchange based on the idea of “what is mine is yours.”
Before the virus hit, I would wander through the church as part of a daily afternoon walk. I would settle into a wooden pew and notice the stillness that I had cultivated in two weeks of detachment from the workaday world. Fidgety by nature, I was amazed at how physically and mentally quiet I had become during my first weeks in Assisi. Sometimes I’d sit in a pew and draw. Certain visual moments, like this scene where the cloth is exchanged, struck me for their graphic clarity: Two figures with a large orange-gold cloak between them, each hold one side. In that moment you sense that gifting becomes a source of freedom for St. Francis. Our human impulse is to acquire. Capitalism has taught us that safety, self-definition and well-being are attached to ceaselessly creating our own worlds of objects, fantasies, pleasures. Within this exchange, that all stopped for St. Francis. He let go. He rejected wealth and position as well as security, comfort, and maybe even health as he leapt out into the world, armed with his faith. A donkey waits patiently beside him, already aware that the burdens of the world can be lightened in service rather than selfishness.
Often, as I would leave the Basilica, I would pause near the right door where panel 15 of Giotto’s St. Francis cycle flanks the exit. This is the famous “preaching to the birds” scene taught in every art history class. Francis is older now as he bends toward a flock of doves (or pigeons) gathered under an oak tree. Other birds soar in from the sky, mimicking the urgency of the angels in Giotto’s later lamentation scene. Francis speaks to the birds with animated gestures, his hands like shadow puppets in the shape of wings. St. Francis intoned, 800 years ago, that the natural world was more than a convenience store for humanity. His sermon makes even more sense now.
One day I embarked on the steep two-hour, three-and-a half-mile trek up Monte Subasio to the Eremo delle Carceri, where St. Francis would go to seek isolation, where the ancient oak tree in the “preaching to the birds” scene is said to still exist. The Italian world “carceri” means prison, referencing the small caves where hermits would go to better hear God. On a remarkably gorgeous day, I sat in St. Francis’ rock crevice, quietly tucked into the earth, and I wondered, once again, about piety and prayer. How do the faithful do it? What does it feel like to get really good at prayer in the manner of a nun or Franciscan with a lifetime of practice? Prayer is a way of being still. But until then, I had always thought of it as a desperate kind of act, something you do when you are in big trouble.
After exiting the cave, I took a walk on the wooded trail. The blue sky blazed like shards of stained glass through the trees. The trail wound to a place with a simple wooden cross perched above a fallen stone wall. Visitors had tucked photographs of deceased beloveds into the crevices, along with random sticks, in a way that looked so offhanded it almost appeared to be the refuse of a campsite. Rosaries and handwritten notes were thrown in the heap as well. The disarray seemed in total contrast to the way death is normally publicly commemorated. This veritable tumult of emotional chaos suggested natural disasters — tornadoes, earthquakes, coronavirus — a hurried response to grieving. The pain of human helplessness stung.
Later, on a bench, while waiting for the small hermitage chapel to open at 2 pm, a young man sat down near me. I struck up a conversation. His name was Miguel. He was from Mexico and studying at a seminary in Rome. Having just been sitting in St. Francis’s cave, thinking about prayer, I hesitantly asked a very personal question: “What does it feel like for you to pray, every day?” Surprisingly, he was not taken aback. He responded that praying is contemplation. It is a “being there.” You make yourself available, he advised, like a blank page. You apply your senses. “Life is about getting closer to the truth,” he said. “You need to listen to what God has to say.”
I carried what Miguel said with me, maybe too literally, and tried to focus on the sounds of each day. With so much less activity in town, each sound was like a solo performance: bird wings whooshing at take-off, the tiny clank of cup to saucer, or the tick of an old man’s cane on the stone steps. Mornings opened remarkably gently in this UNESCO-recognized town: Pigeons started cooing, a miniature truck meandered up the street tossing bottles into its cargo bed with a crescendo of breaking glass that sounded like overzealous applause, and one man walked up the street around 7 a.m. singing. Each day, during my stay, was the same.
After the February 21 news of 20 sick people in the north, I watched the numbers: When COVID-19 continued to double or triple its infections daily, I changed my flight to leave a week early on March 7. Two days later, the US government advised citizens not to travel to Italy and my airline, British Airways, cancelled its flights to and from Rome.
On April 1, Italy was at 110,574 cases, with 13,155 deaths. When I arrived home in Milwaukee, there was little concern about the virus. I self-quarantined. Three weeks later there were 279,500 cases in the US. My heart aches. The earth is under siege.
As I go for a walk, I think about Giotto and St. Francis and the centuries between us that feel like nothing, about the fragility of those frescoes, thin as cloth, patched, worn, hovering above us as a reminder that we will most likely endure but that it is also time to reconfigure our place and lifestyles on this planet. I think of panel 10 from the Basilica, in which Giotto paints St. Francis and his friend, Brother Sylvester. They were able to expel a flock of demons that hovered over the city of Arezzo, with a combination of action and faith. Now it’s our turn.