St. Francis lived between the 12th and 13th centuries. He was an Italian preacher and mystic and was proclaimed patron saint of Italy by Pope Pius XI. Many areas in the Upper Tiber Valley and Umbria are rich in Franciscan lore and an evangelical spirit can be felt in the poverty and simplicity of the places.
The itinerary begins in Assisi, where the saint was born in 1182. Not to be missed are the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels, which houses the “Porziuncola” (a small church restored by St. Francis), and the Chapel of the Transit, where the saint died on 3 October 1226. Other must-sees in the town centre are the small Church of St. Damian, the New Church, the Oratory of St. Francis Piccolino, the Cathedral of St. Rufinus, the Church of St. Mary the Greater, the Basilica of St. Clare and the Lower and Upper Basilicas of St. Francis.
Not far from Assisi, on Mount Subasio, stands the 14th-century Hermitage of the Carceri on the site where St. Francis used to pray and spend many hours in contemplation in a small church surrounded by caves. The message of love and peace preached by St. Francis can still be found today in many places where he lived. In fact, he travelled in Italy and around the world as few men of his time ever did in order to carry his revolutionary evangelic message. His presence is also felt in the city of Perugia, the capital of Umbria, in the Church of St. Francis of the Meadow, the Oratory of St. Bernardino, the Convent of St. Agnes, the Oratory of the Discipline of St. Francis and the Convents of Montemalbe and Monteripido.
Moving on to Gubbio, you must visit the Chapel of St. Francis of Peace and the Church of St. Mary of Victory. Many other towns in Umbria have been touched by St. Francis, such as Spoleto, Bevagna, Cannara and Narni. Moving on to Cortona, you must visit the Church of St. Francis and the Hermitage of the Cells and then go on to Isola Maggiore on Lake Trasimene where the saint lived. Along with piety, art and poetry also flourished in all the places that St. Francis passed through. A fine example is when a young student of Cimabue’s, Giotto, was called to fresco the Upper Basilica in Assisi with the Saint’s life story.
Many places in Valtiberina, which lies between Assisi and La Verna, show signs of St. Francis’s path and are still enthused with spirituality. In particular, the Hermitage of Montecasale founded by him in 1213, which linked the Upper Tiber Valley to the Upper Metauro Valley. Even his short stay in Sansepolcro is notable because he stopped there on his return from Mount Alvernia where he received the stigmata on 14 September 1224. St. Francis lived in complete solitude in that peaceful and austere place. He also stayed in other retreats in the area including the Hermitage of Montepaolo, the Hermitage of Camaldoli, the Hermitage of the Casella, the Hermitage of Cerbaiolo and the Hermitage of Good Rest. The latter is just a few kilometres from Città di Castello hidden from view behind St. Angiolino Hill. It stands on the right bank of the Tiber River on the slopes of Mount Citerone. It is a place of reflection and communion with nature and was an obligatory rest stop, hence the name, on the journey from Assisi to La Verna. Historical sources say Capoleone Guelfucci, a devote nobleman of Città di Castello, gave the Saint a chapel and a garden in 1213 and St. Francis then set up his Order of Friars Minor there. The hermitage was transformed into a convent in 1352. As it is known that St. Francis journeyed from Assisi to La Verna, his stay in Città di Castello is credible and has been confirmed in biographies from that time. In the historic centre, you can visit the Church of St. Francis and the Convent of the Friars Minor Conventual (one of the three Franciscan orders). The other two Franciscan orders are located on the outskirts: the Friars Minor Capuchin live in the Sanctuary of Belvedere and the Friars Minor of the Observance live in the Church of the Zoccolanti (clog-wearing wanderers). The historic centre is also home to the Convent of Clarisse Nuns founded by Chiara d’Assisi (1194-1253), who followed the conversion path of St. Francis. Living in cloistered convents in the ancient district of San Giacomo are the Capuchins of St. Veronica Giuliani, the Clarisse Urbaniste of St. Cecilia and the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate.
The village of Citerna also has a Church of St. Francis. The complex stands next to the Town Hall and has a convent, a cloister and a large cistern. The church, which has been restored over the centuries, conserves valuable works by Raffaellino del Colle and Pomarancio. In 1864, this convent became a refuge for St. Francis’s family after they were evicted from the Convent of Good Rest when it became state property following the Unification of Italy in 1850. It is also home to the Franciscan Tertiary Sisters of St. Elizabeth, a secular congregation testifying to the charisma of St. Francis amongst laypeople.
The village of Montone also has a church and convent dedicated to St. Francis. The church contains frescos by Antonio da Ferrara depicting stories of the Saint’s life. There is also a cloistered convent of Clarisse Urbaniste of St. Cecilia. In Umbertide, the southern-most village of the Upper Tiber Valley, you can visit the church (with a façade built of quoins and a portal with a tri-lobed arch) and the convent dedicated to St. Francis, which were built in 1300. Religious life in the Upper Tiber Valley, and even throughout the regions of Umbria and Tuscany, is still to this day made up of friars, nuns and tertiaries (laypeople).