The rocks and woods of Italy’s Valle Santa di Rieti are filled with natural beauty. The ancient forests, deep rivers and springs create a fertile plain with an abundance of wildlife living in such harmony with nature that it inspired St. Francis of Assisi to write the “Canticle of Creatures” one of the world’s most beloved spiritual texts. Also known as The Canticle of Brother Sun it praises God through the elements of the earth (sun, moon, stars, wind, water and fire) and reflects Francis’ personal theology about the relationship between the creatures of the earth referred to as brothers and sisters to Mankind.
The sacred nature of the Rieti Valley is celebrated each October with the Cammino di San Francesco (St. Francis Walk) a pilgrimage walk along the same route travelled by Francis through the Sacred Valley. The 80 km of paths and roads can be done by foot, bycycle, mountain bike, horse or car and follows the spirit of the Franciscans; purity, poverty and a respect for the environment. You can stop at various Franciscan santuaries along the way traveling through an extraordinary landscape of valleys and mountains filled with the colors of the season to experience the mystic beauty of a land once walked by a saint. The Walk will take you to the medieval walled city of Rieti and the fairytale landscape of Poggio Bustone passing through Rivodutri’s mysterious Alchemic Gate. On the other side of the Sacred Valley you will visit Greccio, known as the Franciscan Bethlehem. It was here, in the winter of 1223, that St. Francis celebrated Christmas Eve with the Nativity Crèche that has become a seasonal tradition of faith renewed with live open-air scenes in Greccio and throughout Italy at Christmas time. There are various other stops and sites along the Sacred Way marked with special signs and an itinerary with a “pilgrim’s passport” (to be stamped at the sanctuaries) as a remembrance of your journey. Walking through a land where the creatures of the forest and stream look to you as their brother and sister to reflect Francis’ sweet song of praise.
*Other significant areas that follow the path of St. Francis include Assisi, Gubbio and La Verna
Every country has certain rituals and traditions that give meaning to the 1950’s classic holiday song “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. For most it probably has to do with putting up and decorating the Christmas tree. In Italy setting up il presepe is what creates that Christmas feeling. Il presepe (presepio) is the Italian Christmas crèche or nativity scene that depicts the birth of Jesus as described in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Although many Christians outside of Italy include a manger with Mary, Joseph, shepherds and angels awaiting the birth of Jesus few achieve the intricate detail of il presepe. The least of Italian presepe scenes are elaborate constructions that create a tablescape of buildings and figures while others achieve the intricacy of a museum diorama complete with running streams and flickering fires.
Across the country in churches, town squares and shop windows there are incredible scenes of the story Bethlehem from miniature to life-size. Some were commissioned to be made by well-known sculptors* and constructed with the same attention as the building of a real town or village. Often figures would appear that resembled the people in the town, a tableaux of the community in a scene from the time of Christ’s birth. Natural materials and greenery from the surrounding countryside were collected and clothes were especially made for each figure as part of a vignette to create a realistic view of that moment in time.
The idea of creating a scene in which the people could feel part of the miracle of Christmas was first imagined in the village of Greccio in 1223 when Francis of Assisi prepared a special celebration on Christmas Eve. In a natural cave near the town he prepared a straw-filled manger to create a presepe vivente“, a real-life nativity scene with live animals and towns people dressed as Mary and Joseph. The scene was described as follows
“the brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis . . . then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
*the most ancient known presepe was sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio at the end of the 13th century and can be seen in the museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome
Over the years my travels in Italy have taken on a deeper meaning, well beyond the casual tourist, beyond the taste traveler, beyond the travel writer. My road trips are often off the tourist radar and off the beaten track. I’ve seen the usual monuments, works of art and ancient ruins but from a different view. My Italian family and friends have become my personal docents, teaching me to travel like an Italian to discover an Italy way beyond a show and tell tour, often to a time and place I least expected. Yes I did say time. No I haven’t discovered the secret behind H.G. Well’s time machine, paradoxes or traversable wormholes. The evocative landscape of Italy has the potential to take you to another time if not literally than figuratively with places and people who lived in the history of its land. I have felt this way in Ravenna, in Ferrara and Florence, in Siena, Venice and certainly in Rome but nowhere more than in Assisi where the footsteps of saints, sinners, pilgrims and kings echo through time.
Assisi is a hill town in Umbria and together with the monastery at La Verna, in the Casentinesi Forest of northeastern Tuscany, is a spiritual center for the followers of Saint Francis. Francis believed that the ethereal message of Christmas needed a tangible expression. He wanted the Feast of the Nativity to be more than a story from the past. He wanted to remind people of the real reason we celebrate Christmas. He decided to do something dramatic for the time and arrange a special celebration on Christmas Eve in the village of Greccio where he would create a living manger scene. Francis had real people portray the shepherds, Mary and Joseph. He brought a donkey, cows and sheep in from the fields near the village to complete the scene. In the manager was a life sized wax figure of the Infant Jesus.
Over time the Nativity Scene or presepio, as it is called in Italy, spread throughout Western Europe and many people created nativity scenes in their towns, villages and homes to commemorate the birth of Christ and travel back in time to that night in Bethlehem to recreate Christmas.
*Nearly every Italian town has a presepio, often with life-sized crèche figures. Some of the most famous are in Greccio, Naples, Verona and the Basilica of Saint Cosmas & Damian in Rome. Commissioned by Charles ll, it measures 45 by 20 feet and features hundreds of wooden figurines.