For a number of weeks one spring, I spent every afternoon at the Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi. It was what we then thought was the tail end of a plague, and I had come to Italy to visit a friend who had lived for many years a few kilometers above Assisi, in an old schoolhouse. This turned out not to be the visit I had imagined, nor, I am sure, the one she had, and after a few weeks, I went to Rome. But before that, every afternoon, I drove down into town—I had rented a car—past the long flank of Monte Subasio, with its temperate oxen, parked on the escarpment before the gates because the switchback of tiny streets flummoxed me, and walked down to the basilica. Everything was off-kilter, as if a great wave had passed over us, and now, if we were lucky to be alive, we found ourselves stranded on the banks of our own lives or paddling furiously toward where we imagined the shore might be. I had been to the basilica and to Assisi many times over the years to visit my friend, and so I knew my way on the small strade that opened and closed into a series of piazze, as if the town had exhaled and then drawn breath again. Because you could not come with me, I was aware of seeing with your eyes, which in any case had become a habit, and as the streets diverged and reconnected, I thought of our long drives through the old mill towns of New England, where the houses press up against a communal idea—the church, the post office, the firehouse—and imagine your voice saying Incredible! As you paused at a crumbling viaduct or a ruined steeple. My route passed through narrow cobbled capillaries lined with bright flowers; the cafes were open but almost empty. The last time I had been to Assisi was several winters before. It was freezing, and a few days after Christmas, the piazza and the tilted streets were deserted. A huge blown-up reproduction of Andrea del Sarto’s painting of the Madonna with angels was still projected on the outside wall of the Church of Santa Chiara, and the façade was bathed in unfathomable blue-and-red light, as if the story of the Christ Child was too large for the apse to contain, and the church was wearing the mystery on its skin.
From the town center, the route to the basilica along the Via Giotto is almost straight down, and at the end of it the basilica fronts on a large grassy area. It is as if you are arriving at a big house in the country. But during the weeks I came every day, this huge space was almost always empty. Inside, the upper basilica is a huge box kite; Giotto’s frescoes, gleaming green and gold, are illuminated by the light that pours through the stained-glass windows, so that Saint Francis’s dreams, visions, and miracles are lit by other scenes of his own life. But I like best the shadowed fresco to the right of the huge wooden door, in which Francis speaks to each bird individually, attentive to their particular concerns. The background is a quiet, pale-green twilight, although one can imagine the scrabble and the clamor. The birds themselves are barely birds, but strokes and dabs of feeling, about to navigate the high green air, like the clouds painted by Turner, and are the exact same color of the small gray pigeons, years ago, we found huddled under the bus kiosk bench one evening in Richmond when we came back through a downpour. But here the pigeons speak Italian. One afternoon, the only other people in the upper church are a family: a mother and father, two small children, and a barefoot baby dressed all in white—white jacket, white pants, a white lace cap. He is learning to walk, one fat foot after another, down the deserted main aisle of the church, while on either side of him the saints, floating, arguing, lamenting, take no notice. The baby is called Antonio. Bravo, Antonio, says his father, who holds him in his upstretched hands, as he takes another step. It is as if the baby is walking down the long aisle of a flying machine, hurtling through space, and by the time he reaches the huge doors he, too, will transform into a saint, or a bird.
But below in the lower basilica all is darkness. In the murky light, in the Cappella di Santa Caterina, Mary Magdalene, with her brother, Lazarus, her sister, Martha, and her disciples, Cedonius and Maximin, have all been put to sea in a rudderless boat. This painting, too, is by Giotto. By the prow is a tiny underwater shadow of a second ship; in the foreground, a woman covered by a brown cloak and a child float on an icy rock—could the shadow be her dream of the ship on which she was traveling, lost at sea? The scale is awkward. On the right bank—is that a house or a castle, where a pair of traghetti are secured at the foot of the stairs? At first, when I looked at the painting, I thought the woman on the rock was Mary Magdalene, and the baby the spirit of the twice-born Christ, but no, she is the wife of the prince of Marseille, who died in childbirth on a pilgrimage to Rome. What is this story—the picture of this story—doing in the painting? In another, later painting, by a follower of Cranach, Mary Magdalene revives the princess, who is now dressed in sumptuous robes. But in the fresco, the future is hidden, and all we can know is what has already happened: the woman adrift in the penetrating cold, the shipwreck, the voyage, the difficulties that led to Mary Magdalene setting sail in a leaking boat, the men typing up the traghetti on the shore. When I think of this picture in Assisi, to which I was drawn almost every afternoon during those strange weeks, my impulse is to lie down as if I, too, had been left for dead.
When I returned from Italy—by then it was summer—one afternoon we went across the park to the museum, where in a room on the second floor we saw Bellini’s painting Saint Francis in Ecstasy. It is a large painting. Francis has stepped out from his cave in order to receive the divine word: his face is tilted to the heavens, which lie to the east, beyond the picture plane. Or are we to understand that this is the exact moment of transfixion? On the table, a skull, a crucifix of thorns, an open book; by the rocks, a donkey, a heron, a small red bird; the accoutrements of revelation. Because by then you were having difficulty walking, we sat for a long time looking at the painting, and when you felt ready to walk again, as we left the room, light from the large window fell onto Saint Francis’s upturned face and irradiated it— the same light that had illuminated the frescoes in Assisi hours earlier, thousands of miles away, while below, in the half dark, Mary Magdalene crossed the green storm-tossed water, not knowing yet what might befall her, even though we do, or think we do.
Cynthia Zarin’s most recent book is Two Cities, a collection of essays on Venice and Rome; a novel, Invernoand Next Day: New and Selected Poems are forthcoming. A longtime contributor to the The New YorkerZarin teaches at Yale.