May 25th. - As I said last night, we left Foligno betimes in the morning, which was bleak, chill, and very threatening, there being very little blue sky anywhere, and the clouds lying heavily on some of the mountain-ridges. The wind blew sharply right in U - - 's face and mine, as we occupied the coupe, so that there must have been a great deal of the north in it. We drove through a wide plain - the Umbrian valley, I suppose - and soon passed the old town of Spello, just touching its skirts, and wondering how people, who had this rich and convenient plain from which to choose a site, could think of covering a huge island of rock with their dwellings, - for Spello tumbled its crooked and narrow streets down a steep descent, and cannot well have a yard of even space within its walls. It is said to contain some rare treasures of ancient pictorial art.
I do not remember much that we saw on our route. The plains and the lower hillsides seemed fruitful of everything that belongs to Italy, especially the olive and the vine. As usual, there were a great many shrines, and frequently a cross by the wayside. Hitherto it had been merely a plain wooden cross; but now almost every cross was hung with various instruments, represented in wood, apparently symbols of the crucifixion of our Saviour, - the spear, the sponge, the crown of thorns, the hammer, a pair of pincers, and always St. Peter's cock, made a prominent figure, generally perched on the summit of the cross.
From our first start this morning we had seen mists in various quarters, betokening that there was rain in those spots, and now it began to spatter in our own faces, although within the wide extent of our prospect we could see the sunshine falling on portions of the valley. A rainbow, too, shone out, and remained so long visible that it appeared to have made a permanent stain in the sky.
By and by we reached Assisi, which is magnificently situated for pictorial purposes, with a gray castle above it, and a gray wall around it, itself on a mountain, and looking over the great plain which we had been traversing, and through which lay our onward way. We drove through the Piazza Grande to an ancient house a little beyond, where a hospitable old lady receives travellers for a consideration, without exactly keeping an inn.
In the piazza we saw the beautiful front of a temple of Minerva, consisting of several marble pillars, fluted, and with rich capitals supporting a pediment. It was as fine as anything I had seen at Rome, and is now, of course, converted into a Catholic church.
I ought to have said that, instead of driving straight to the old lady's, we alighted at the door of a church near the city gate, and went in to inspect some melancholy frescos, and thence clambered up a narrow street to the cathedral, which has a Gothic front, old enough, but not very impressive. I really remember not a single object that we saw within, but am pretty certain that the interior had been stuccoed and whitewashed. The ecclesiastics of old time did an excellent thing in covering the interiors of their churches with brilliant frescos, thus filling the holy places with saints and angels, and almost with the presence of the Divinity. The modern ecclesiastics do the next best thing in obliterating the wretched remnants of what has had its day and done its office. These frescos might be looked upon as the symbol of the living spirit that made Catholicism a true religion, and glorified it as long as it did live; now the glory and beauty have departed from one and the other.
My wife, U - - , and Miss Shepard now set out with a cicerone to visit the great Franciscan convent, in the church of which are preserved some miraculous specimens, in fresco and in oils, of early Italian art; but as I had no mind to suffer any further in this way, I stayed behind with J - - -and R - - -, who we're equally weary of these things.
After they were gone we took a ramble through the city, but were almost swept away by the violence of the wind, which struggled with me for my hat, and whirled R - - -before it like a feather. The people in the public square seemed much diverted at our predicament, being, I suppose, accustomed to these rude blasts in their mountain-home. However, the wind blew in momentary gusts, and then became more placable till another fit of fury came, and passed as suddenly as before. We walked out of the same gate through which we had entered, - an ancient gate, but recently stuccoed and whitewashed, in wretched contrast to the gray, venerable wall through which it affords ingress, - and I stood gazing at the magnificent prospect of the wide valley beneath. It was so vast that there appeared to be all varieties of weather in it at the same instant; fields of sunshine, tracts of storm, - here the coming tempest, there the departing one. It was a picture of the world on a vast canvas, for there was rural life and city life within the great expanse, and the whole set in a frame of mountains, - the nearest bold and dust-net, with the rocky ledges showing through their sides, the distant ones blue and dim, - so far stretched this broad valley.