Saint Francis’ Wood

Italy is dotted with medieval towns and villages. While the tinier ones are suitable for a half-day visit, Assisi is one of those places you can visit again and again and discover something new every time. For instance, rather than joining the radio-controlled tourist mob in the usual monuments guided tour, one could explore Saint Francis’ wood. This is a 64 hectare area of historical and natural value which existed as private property until 2008, when FAI (Italian National Trust), sponsored by a major italian bank, gave it back to everyone’s enjoyment and also restored the buildings and paths. Entry is free: however, a 4 € donation is recommended.

This easy trail is divided in two parts, for a total 45′ – one hour. The path enters the wood from the entrance beside the upper Basilica. At the beginning there are a number of weird modern statues arranged in a row, among which we notice a pyramid-shaped sculpture with the letters alpha and omega on top: the bible reference is clear, but we’re not deceived: it looks like a slightly Masonic symbolism to us, rather than a religious one. Puzzled, we move on. We walk past the ancient Roman city walls, and we go on until a humpback bridge called “Ponte dei Galli”.

The route continues on a gravel road among the olive trees, until Santa Croce complex, a hospital once ran by Benedictine nuns and now partly consisting of a stone church, and partly converted into a visitor centre. Opposite the church there are another stone bridge and an old mill which has been turned into a restaurant. In the first leg there were hardly any buildings or signs of human activity; the change in the landscape seems to mirror the different approach to the environment of Franciscans and Benedictines. The former, being a mendicant order, saw themselves as a part of nature, which they considered their courtyard; while the latter, whose rule focused on hard work, had a tendency to “tame” it through the active wood management and maintenance and conservative intervention.

Here starts the second section of the trail, the most interesting and evocative. The trail follows a creek. Along the road some early lime kilns are still visible and, further on, a tower-factory, evidence of the building activity in old Assisi. At the end of the trail a wide clearing opens up, dominated by this little tower. This is the setting of a land art work by the contemporary artist Pistoletto, called The Third Paradise. The work should depict the contrast between natural and artificial world and the quest for a harmonious solution to this conflict. This concept is represented by the new symbol of infinite, which is an “8” made of three circles rather than two. More prosaically we could describe it as an olive tree grove arranged on three circles. Without entering into the merits of what is art and what is not in the 21st century, we can at least say that, unlike many other controversial cases where works of contemporary art are placed in a medieval architectural context, at least this one doesn’t mar the landscape but integrates harmonically in it.

After seeing the “Cosmic magnet” in Foligno, we accept pretty much everything.

To those who are discouraged at the idea of having to walk for an hour, I can say that the view of Assisi from the clearing can alone justify the (very little) effort required for this walk.

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