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FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 3, 1926
ITALY AS I FIND HER
A CENTRAL TOUR - Continued
By Kennedy Allen
We reached Assisi about an hour before sundown. Here our headquarters were the Regional Franciscan Seminary, a spacious new building of two storeys on the outskirts of an extensive vine-clad plain that sweeps away to the south, below the town. We spent our second and third highest in the most agreeable company imaginable. Our hosts and companions were the Rector and the members of the professional staff. Mostly young men, bright and jovial, they exhibited no trace of that union of aloofness and austerity which, in some countries, the popular mind is apt to attribute to the conventual life; they were obviously happy in their vocation, and their conversation was redolent of the culture, the humanity of classical Italy. Those who sat next to me at table manifested a keen interest in Australia , and expressed a desire to visit it. Like everyone else to whom I have spoken, they were astonished at the immensity of our continent, the extent and variety of its natural resources and the sparseness of its population. People here reflect that even Sicily supports more than four millions and, moreover, that Italy 's colonies are inadequate to provide permanent homes for her superabundance. Like Germany , Italy – although she gave to mankind Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the new world, and Amerigo Vespucci, after whom it is named – achieved her unity too late to accommodate herself with far-flung dominions abroad. The superior political development of Portugal , of Span, of Holland, of France, and of England, gave them an advantage which to her was denied.
Assisi wears a character all its own. It has been described as ecstatic, and the epithet is justified. A mystic tranquility pervades her narrow, sloping, twisted thoroughfares.
“And all the air a solemn stillness holds.” It is the hush of a bygone world. To borrow a phrase that Matthew Arnold applied to the city of Oxford , the citadel of rock upon which Assisi is set, whispers from her towers the last enchantments of the middle ages. As everyone knows, this is the birthplace of that most winning of all the Italian saints, Saint Francis of Assisi, who has cast a spell over the minds and hearts of men of all creeds and men of none. His gentle spirit dominates the whole countryside, as the sweet spirit of Shakespeare dominates the district around Stratford ; and, like Shakespeare, he lies buried in the principal church of the native town. In the hoary low-vaulted sanctuary named after him four dramatic frescoes of Giotto, the shepherd-painter who was born 50 years after the Seraphic Saint's death, give expression to the genius of this teaching, the soul of which, as Paul Bourget has observed, is acceptance and renunciation. On this subject I hope to write at great length in another article.
The physical position of Assisi is characteristic of the historic towns of Umbria and Tuscany . A glance at the record of their past will suffice to give the reason. From the earliest times Central Italy has had to endure the scourge of war. Etruria, Rome, the Goth, the Saracen, the medieval church, the great families and ambitious cities aspiring to dominion, all contributed to maintain unbroken the tradition of the sword. The town-planners, therefore, both in prechristian days in the middle ages, naturally chose the hills, preferably those that sprang almost sheer from the fertile plains that abound here. Defence, as well as food, was of the utmost importance. Aesthetic posterity has gained thereby. To their nest-like situation among the towering crags, the hill-towns of Umbria owe much of their fascination. How different the considerations that governed the laying-out of the towns of Australia ! With the exception perhaps of Sydney , the question of defence was the last that occurred to anyone concerned. Rockhampton, for example, is where it is because it happens to be at the head of navigation – the “non plus ultra” because of the rocks – and not at all because its position was regarded as important strategically.
The majestic sadness of Assisi was intensified by a shower of rain that fell not long before we took to the road again at 8.30 o'clock, on the morning of that great anniversary, July 14 th . Twenty minutes later we had our first serious engine trouble. Cesare alighted and tried to discover the seat of it. As the minutes passed we resigned ourselves to the inevitable. Monsignor availed himself of the opportunity thus afforded him of reading his office, the Canon displayed an amateur's interest in the engine, and I studied the history of Perugia , the city for which we were bound. Meanwhile our driver, notwithstanding a consultation with a passing fellow-motorist, proved unable to diagnose the malady. The traffic of tourists in motor ‘buses and of peasants in red carts eventually ceased to interest us and so did even the little boys who collected and admired our road-maps. An hour and a half had passed when an Italian gentleman, driving a natty, smoothly-running Fiat, stopped and courteously offered to take us on to Perugia , an invitation that we accepted with enthusiasm. Our Samaritan proved to be a professor of chemistry in the university of that historic and romantically situated town. Cesare rejoined us there about noon. He informed us that a mechanic from a neighbouring village, to whom he had sent an S.O.S. before we deserted him, had pronounced his engine to be in first-class order. All that was wrong was the combustion. At Assisi he had replenished his benzine tank at a cost of 102 liras. The liquid supplied had proved to be not of the nature, substance, and quality demanded. It was grease and water. To think that modern business, in all its rigour, had penetrated even saintly Assisi! After that Cesare bought only the best American oil; her preferred it even to the competing product of Russia . Consequently, for the remainder of the tour no further Caesarean operation on the engine was necessary, and we were delivered at our stopping places without undue delay.
The most beautiful work of art that we saw in Perugia was an immense Gothic window of stained glass in the Church of St Domenico . It has a history of 500 years and is the second largest in Italy , measuring 23 metres by 9.13. The size and beauty of this representation of 24 saints are a just cause of pride in a country where exquisite stained glass is so widely diffused.
What modern Italy can do in the way of manufacturing musical instruments we realised when we heart a Benedictine priest at St Peter's play an electrically-pumped organ, the handiwork of the celebrated house of Cavaliere Tamburini of Crema. Its pealing would have delighted the heart of the author of Il Penseroso”, our own John Milton.
In the same choir some exquisite marquetry of the 16 th century, representing sacred episodes, and an unobstructed view from a little balcony that overhangs an enchanting Umbrian landscape, of hills and valleys and plains, sent us on our way more enamoured than ever of beautiful Italy . Her loveliness seemed to increase as we advanced.
Next article - A central tour - Part 3