Donal Cooper and Janet Robson
Yale University Press, $75, 296 pp.
From its dominant position on a ridge of the Apennine peak known as Mount Subasio, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi is as large and impressive as Francis himself was apparently small and unprepossessing. Graceful, majestic, gorgeously decorated by some of the greatest artists in medieval Italy, it may seem to contradict the devotion to poverty that drove Francis to create a new way of religious life for the Friars Minor, his “little brothers” in faith, and his female followers, the Poor Clares. And yet, as Donal Cooper and Janet Robson show in their fascinating study, The Making of Assisi, the basilica played its own crucial part in promoting Francis and his mission, conveying the “Little Poor Man’s” novel view of right living to a larger public through a brilliant interweaving of art, architecture, and liturgy.
The basilica as we have it was the creation of the first Franciscan pope, Nicholas IV, elected in 1288. Francis himself had been a saint for exactly sixty years, canonized in an extraordinarily rapid procedure just two years after his death in 1226. Pope Nicholas, the former Girolamo Masci, was born in 1227, a child of the same rugged Apennine region as Francis, a region that felt the impact...