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Assisi and Presepi

January 2009
Assisi was the home of St Francis, San Francesco, San Francisco – choose your language – who lived quite a long time ago now, over 800 years ago in fact, which is a long time by anybody’s calendar, but it was a time when, if you ended up as an ascetic and travelled widely and managed somehow to attract a following, your name could be remembered for ever. That’s exactly what happened to St Francis, and his following has been, I think it’s fair to say, legendary.
Assisi was his home town and it’s in a spectacular location, perched on a hillside overlooking the plain of Perugia. Subsequent to his death people have built a grand basilica and that is the focus of what folks come to see.
One could compare St Francis with Margaret Thatcher. Both had a vision of a world based upon frugal hard work and intense moral focus, and both have instead engendered a society that seems to embody everything that is crass and mindless – in Thatcher’s case it is shopping, and in St Francis’, tourism. In each case they will be turning in their grave (which is a bit unkind to Thatcher of course at the moment – her metaphorical grave).
Notice the mobile phone – they’re being shown St Francis’ basilica.
We all go shopping and we all visit places, or at least most people do, it’s not what you do, it’s the way how’s ya do it. We chose to visit Assisi at one of what must be the quietest times of the year, and yet still it was choc-a-block full of people wandering about looking for something, or at something, I’ve no idea what. Many were eating a slice of pizza or an ice cream but I can’t believe they came specifically for that. I suspect that many of them don’t know what they’re looking for any more than I know what they were looking for. I know what I was looking at, I was looking at them, but quite what they were looking at, well, who knows? One thing we can be sure of however, they weren’t there to pay any particular homage to St Francis, which to be fair neither was I, but then I was very clear to myself what I was there for; I was there to see what was there and to look at what the people who were there were doing; I’ve not heard of many people who find the audience more interesting than the show, though I always do, maybe I’m misjudging the majority, in which case that would be fun, everyone come to look at each other looking at each other, but I think I may be being too generous here.
And why, on a misty day in early January, do so many Italians find it necessary to wear dark glasses? I’m sure St Francis didn’t wear dark glasses. Possibly the reason is not to do with St Francis, rather they think they look chic, which is always a dodgy thing to think of yourself, as when you think you look chic it’s quite likely that others think that rather than chic, you look a tit. I ought to wear dark glasses, for that way I could observe people while believing to myself that they are unaware of my doing so, though I think more likely they would be as or more aware, and on top of that they’d think I looked ridiculous. So maybe I shouldn’t after all.
Assisi was altogether an experience that should not be missed, for you should always do everything once, but not to be repeated either. And we’re not even religious. If you were a devout follower of the life and works of St Francis then Assisi is definitely a place to be avoided.
We have noticed in Italy this year that the number of presepi appears to have mushroomed. A presepe is a nativity scene, and it seems that every town, district and often street corner has to have one. They range from cardboard cutouts, through to live donkeys, live babies, and walking wise men from the east (possibly Albania – though more likely not that far east I suspect).
Assisi, of course, had numerous presepi, including a trendy modern one, with plaster sheep, a bronze wolf, and plastic folks rendered in shiny colours who appeared to be standing around each carrying a briefcase. The mystical significance of this was lost on me I have to say, but then again so was any mystical significance of the entire place, so perhaps my cynicism over the shiny plastic men was of no particular consequence.


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