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P U B L I C A T I O N S  >  F R A N C E S    S T I L L M A N ' S    E U R O P E    D I A R Y

CHAPTER I..........Going from Here to There

CHAPTER II..........Mishap in Milan

CHAPTER III..........Venice

CHAPTER IV..........Florence

CHAPTER V..........Siena

CHAPTER VI..........Rome

CHAPTER VII..........Assisi

CHAPTER VIII..........Nice

CHAPTER IX..........Barcelona

CHAPTER X..........Solsona

CHAPTER XI..........Gerona

CHAPTER XII..........Paris in the Fall

Saturday July 12th

It is late afternoon of our third day in Assisi, and Ary and I are sitting at an outdoor cafe in the center of the town. Ary is engrossed in contemplation of the square in front of us. Even more than most squares it has an air of unreality; it could be a stage setting for a play. Long and narrow, and lined on either side with pale-colored early Renaissance buildings which have flower-filled balconies. In the midst of these early Italian buildings the facade of an ancient Roman Temple, with a tall tower by its side. Hemmed in though it is, it holds its place and gives an air of dignity to the entire surroundings. A graceful fountain in the middle of the square, and at one end a musical comedy-ish cafe and restaurant, with a partial view of a sharply sloping street in the background. The sloping street is lined with buildings and now and then people emerge from the buildings and walk down toward us, or disappear up the hill, as if they are coming on stage or going off into the wings.

This sense of unreality has prevailed ever since we left Rome. First the ride through the Italian hills with walled towns high on the mountains — pale houses and churches and towers of sand-colored stone, remotely romantic and mysterious, like cities in a fairy tale or a mediaeval legend. It was raining and the black clouds added a dramatic note to the scene — deep streaks of black; heavy dark masses; and now aid then the clouds and mountains merging into an impenetrable black wall.

Even the porter who met us inside the arched portico at the edge of the town seemed like someone out of a story-book. He was a strange little fellow with a face and figure like Charlie Chaplin and the same sad look in his eyes. And the proprietress of the pension — how handsome and regal looking, with an enigmatic expression worthy of Mona Lisa herself.

The room she showed us was large but very sparsely furnished, really quite austere. Wide windows with the entire stretch of the valley opening out in front of us; cypress trees and vineyards and back of them checker-board patches of gold and green fields, becoming tinier and tinier as the view receded to tile rolling mountains in the far distance. And such a vast expanse of heaven. Ary says he longs to have wings to soar about in the immense sky!

Ary spends hours in front of the windows. Last night he got up shortly after midnight and sat there spell-bound until the first pink of the sunrise appeared. He told me this morning that he felt as if he had been watching the angels hovering over the city, and had seen them collecting all the stars in a basket and putting them away in a safe place before the sun could come out to frighten them. It is just such fantasies that one weaves in this strange city. There is an air of timelessness; it could be the twelfth century or the fifteenth or the eighteenth — except for the sound of the radio now and then or the little motorcycles which occasionally whizz by on the streets, sputtering noisily.

The shoemaker to whom I took my shoes for repair yesterday could be living in the time of St. Francis himself. His shop was just a little hole in the wall; he himself was thin and his clothes were worn and his tools were of the most primitive sort. And he was too timid to make a price for his work — "Pay whatever you like" he said, and such a look of wonderment came over his face when Ary gave him a handful of lire. And yet they say that the town is quite radical politically...

We haven't seen many visitors in the city. Every day buses filled with tourists drive up to the Cathedral of St. Francis, but that is at the very edge of the town, at the bottom of the hill, and the buses seldom enter the city itself. They stop at the famous Cathedral, and the guide leads the people inside and shows them the frescoes by Giotto and Simone Martini and other artists, and the crypt where St. Francis is buried, with its flowers and white candles, and then they come out and there are some beggars to whom they give a few coins and then the buses are waiting to carry them away.

These tourists who remain over-night or for a few days usually stay at the very modern Hotel which is at the bottom of tile hill near the Cathedral. Those few who want to inhale tile air of the mystic town itself find that they must pay dearly in the way of physical exertion, for the climb up the hill from the Cathedral is back-breaking and to explore tile city calls for sturdy legs.

Because of the inaccessibility of the Cathedral we have limited ourselves to one visit a day. But what wonderful hours we have spent there! My first impression was a confused one, both because of the wealth of magnificent masterpieces and because of the dim lighting. There are two churches, one built on top of the other, and tile lower one is like a crypt, long and narrow and so deep in gloom that one's eyes find it difficult to become adjusted to the inky black. Occasionally, when groups of visitors come in, one section or another of tile Cathedral is lighted, and then it is a breath-taking experience to see in full light the richness of the painted walls. Here the masters of the Sienese and Florentine schools poured out their creative genius in praise of the gentle Saint in whose memory the Cathedral was erected. The upper church is devoted chiefly to Giotto's famous frescoes of the life of St. Francis — twenty-eight in all, extremely beautiful in color and composition. In the lower church there are powerful Cimabue frescoes, so strongly Byzantine in flavor, delicate and fragile groups of saintly figures by Lorenzetti, and exquisite Simone Martini compositions, deeply spiritual in conception. Ary says that Giotto tells a story; he unfolds a drama, even though he does it simply and with great beauty of design. To me, Simone Martini sings a song, and such a pure and lovely one........

Sunday evening, July 13th

This morning we attended a high mass at the Cathedral of St. Francis. It was held in the upper church. The service was elaborate, with Georgian chants by an unseen choir, and the priests and their attendants dressed in richly embroidered robes. And all the while we could look at the Giotto frescoes on the walls, especially the wonderful tapestry-like scene of St. Francis Feeding the Birds, with its gray blue sky and deep grayish trees.

Later we walked to the Santa Chara Church at the other end of the town. It has a very fine Romanesque facade, decorated with charming and amusing little grotesque figures. Across the entire facade, toward the top, runs a row of fascinating mask-like heads, and further down, little angels and combinations of human figures and animals. On the ground, on either side of the door, are larger animals, which look like lions, one just in the process of devouring a man — he has the man's head inside his mouth; the other creature wearing a most disconsolate and discouraged expression, as though the victim had proved indigestible.

All these things are so fascinating to me, and still I feel that Assisi has cast a strange spell on me, and I find myself becoming very melancholy. I didn't realize how much the place has affected me until this afternoon. Ary and I were sitting in the square, watching the townspeople in their Sunday attire, with here and there a priest in his black frock or a brown-robed monk, as they strolled past us and disappeared up the theatrical looking street back of the restaurant. I was talking about the lovely young nun with the rapt expression whom we had noticed at the morning service, and Ary, mistaking my interest for enthusiasm, suggested that we stay here another week. I looked at him for a moment, and then to my own surprise, I burst into tears, and begged him to take me away from here.

I don't know why I am so sad, I told him. Perhaps it is that the legend of St. Francis is so strong — every stone in the street seems saturated with his presence. Perhaps it is the feeling that time is standing still here; or perhaps it is that the vista from our pension window gives a sensation of limitless space too vast for my comprehension. During the day the sky is so mysteriously calm and the atmosphere is so limpid and at night there is an overpowering sense of loneliness in such a vast stretch with no sign of life, not even a light twinkling in the distance. I have no wings to soar; I am very much of the earth, and there is something oppressive to me in this timelessness and spacelessness. It is as if I am facing eternity.

All this I poured out in an outburst which astounded both Ary and myself. I felt sorry afterwards, and a bit sheepish, but Ary insists that we have had enough of Assisi, and that it is time for us to go on to a brighter and gayer atmosphere. So tonight we packed our bags, and tomorrow we will be on the way to the Riviera.

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