Heart of the City Archives

Mister SF visits the church of San Francesco in Assisi.
If it's Tuesday, this must be Assisi
by Hank Donat

Dateline Italia: I awake in Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, the cobblestone stomping ground of Michelangelo, Dante Alighieri, the Medicis, and, more recently, Hannibal Lecter. 

My camera is on the first piano, which means my room is on the first floor. The first piano is one flight of stairs above street level, which would make it the second floor in the U.S. These are the minor cultural difference that amuse American travelers who wonder why Disney's "Monsters Inc," is called "Monsters & Co." over here, or why when you open a Mars wrapper is there a Milky Way inside?

During this visit, as in past ones, I'm afflicted with a mild case of Stendahl's Syndrome. The disorder causes people to become so dazzled by art that they're overwhelmed with anxiety. Some must be carried out of galleries and museums like the Uffizi or the Church of Santa Croce. Others, like myself, are merely given to fantastic dreams. 

I rub my eyes, attempting to wipe away the residue of an epic nightmare that took place mostly in the back of a Yellow cab. In the dream, Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson are strolling across Union Square after dining at Koleto's. 

I call out to them from the cab, since we're friends in the dream, but the driver refuses to stop. It goes on from there. In the end, an angry mob of San Franciscans is stoning the driver for being mean to Elizabeth Taylor. Benvenuto Cellini's Perseus surveys the action from the perch atop the Dewey Monument that's normally occupied by Alma Spreckles.

Back on the first piano, I switch on the television and see an SFPD motorcycle cop driving his bike down the stairs at Alta Plaza for the BBC. Click. Next, the Mission's Brainwash laundry cafe is featured in a story on the post-dot com era. For some reason it's on the RainNews channel. Click. Dismissing the coincidence of finding symbols of home so near, I turn off the set and head downstairs for breakfast.

My destination this day is Assisi, the original City of St. Francis. Assisi, population 3,000, is located in the Umbrian region of central Italy. The region is marked by its Medieval cities built atop seemingly impossible hills and by its picturesque valleys of sunflowers and olive groves.

John Bernadone, the son of a successful textile merchant, was born here in 1182. His name was later changed to Francis due to a familial affinity with France. 

Before giving himself to a life of humility and service to God, Francis was a bright star in Assisi society. He possessed talent, charm and social confidence. He entertained generously and moved in the best circles. Francis was like Gavin Newsom, except Francis' vow of poverty would apply only to himself.

Because his life as a spiritual leader came after long bouts of illness, melancholy, and visions for which he was derided, Francis is a model for listening to one's own heart when others are saying something different. In short, the events of his life are said to have mirrored those of Christ and eventually Francis was canonized into sainthood. 

In Northern California, our own San Francisco Bay was named for the saint by the Franciscan priests and Spanish soldiers of the De Anza party in 1776 - 550 years after the death of John Bernadone. Our city later adopted the name as well, leaving "Yerba Buena" behind in 1847. 

On the surface, similarities between San Francisco and Assisi are easy to come by. Both are rife with enchanting details, breathtaking views, and surprising hills and stairway walks that appear out of nowhere. Both reflect golden light off their hills in wondrous and too-fleeting moments of aesthetic brilliance. 

A photographer could do a coffee table book on just the doors here. Each one tells a story written in rusted fittings on weathered boards.

Unlike other well-trampled Italian cities, Assisi is surprisingly clean and well tended.

But I'm here to see the man himself, Francis, the lover of all creatures. It's difficult to avoid non-secular observations among the sobbing masses of pilgrims who visit the basement crypt of St. Francis. Mothers and grandmothers draped in lace kneel, sobbing before his alter.

I sit down at a pew in a vestibule off to one side and, seeing the enraptured before me, I wonder whether there isn't anything this San Franciscan might ask of the ultimate Franciscan. I close my eyes and focus on some personal issues, as well as next year's mayoral race and some other questions. 

Open minded and meditative, I listen. Like all the other pilgrims I am now waiting and listening. Several minutes pass when suddenly I hear a voice. "Can you hear me now," the voice asks, "Can you hear me now?" My heart racing, I turn toward the voice of St. Francis. 

And there he is, but only if he's taken the form of a British tourist attempting to keep a signal on a Nokia deep below this sacred Basilica. Another symbol of home is near.

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Copyright 2002 Hank Donat
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