Assisi history 101

A brief summary of the history of Assisi

Assisi had the usual history of an Umbrian hill town: Umbrian tribal origins, Etruscan influence, Roman colonization, barbarian invasions, a sacking by Barbarossa.

The usual history, that is, until St. Francis and his female counterpart St. Clare were born at the end of the 12th century (see “The Life and Times of St. Francis,” below).

Then Assisi took off, becoming one of Italy’s major centers for religious pilgrimages. Following papal approval of Francis’s new sect in 1210, and the increasing popularity of his preaching, Assisi began to attract its first hordes of followers.

After Francis died in 1226 the massive Basilica project began. Contrary to Francis’s teachings of poverty and simplicity, the Pope and some of Francis’s followers directed the construction of the epic structure over the next 20 years. The Basilica has been a steady pilgrim and tourist attraction ever since.

After the time of Francis, Assisi suffered from continuous attacks––as much from within as without.

For nearly 200 years, Assisi’s Parte de Sotto (lower part) fought the Parte de Sopra (upper part) in almost continuous factional battles for control of the city, which then left Assisi open to be sacked and looted by invading forces no fewer than four times.

It is no wonder that in 1578, the writer Cipriano Piccolpasso found Assisi to be “a poorly arranged city where one sees many abandoned and ruined houses . . . they are unpleasant people, not very courteous to foreigners nor even to each other.”

For good measure, Napoleonic troops invaded and looted the city (was there anything left?) in 1808.

Times have changed. The city is now quite prosperous and well maintained, owing to the continuous tourist and pilgrim trade.

The many religious seminaries, workshops, and festivals create an atmosphere of spirituality, while the now-courteous residents make a good living serving an army of visitors.

The only danger comes from the earthquakes that continue to shake the city. The most recent major quake, in 1997, resulted in five deaths and damage to many of the buildings and even some frescoes, from which they are only just now recovering. 

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