ON THE ROAD WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A TIMELESS JOURNEY THROUGH UMBRIA AND TUSCANY, AND BEYOND, by Linda Bird Francke, Random House, 266 pages, $25.95.

"On the Road With Francis of Assisi" is a most unusual travelogue book, for which Linda Bird Francke, a former Newsweek journalist, researched the 13th-century journeys of Saint Francis of Assisi, who spent years crisscrossing central and coastal Italy, then moved on to Egypt.

Using medieval texts, including the first biography of Assisi, completed three years after his death in 1229, Francke reimagined his journey as she and her husband, Harvey Loomis, created their own.

The result is an interesting historical, religious picture that is treated with ultimate respect — and stands outside the travelogue.

Assisi is today a small Umbrian town that gets almost as many visitors each year as Rome. Following closely the saint's journey, Francke visited Siena, Bologna, Venice, Gubbio and Rome — then the difficult-to-reach mountain-top Franciscan sanctuaries. As she describes his journeys, Francke discusses the religious miracles he is said to have performed, as well as the beauty of the landscape.

She also mentions the little-known fact that Francis spent the first half of his life as a playboy, then embraced a life of penance. He compiled a long list of his sins and systematically set out to purge himself of each one. He gave up material things completely, giving away his rags and shoes to the poor and the cold. Whereas lepers used to disgust him, his new life found him caring for them, as he went from arrogance to humility.

One thing Francke refused to do was practice the Saint's asceticism; he put ashes in his food to deaden its pleasure. Francke and her husband dined on the celebrated Italian cuisine, from wild boar to black truffles. They also took scads of photos, many of which are reproduced in the book, although they are in black and white.

Francke calls attention first to the "deep spiritual presence" of many of the places she visited, especially Assisi — though the same sites are now being commercially exploited. Shops offer replicas of the San Damiano cross, religious medals with Francis' likeness on them — and even his signature carved out of olive wood.

As Francke declares: "The Francis we have come to know as a saint would have been disgusted by the money changing hands in his name. The Francis we know less well as a young man, however, would have welcomed the exchange and perhaps even profited from it."

One of the houses of worship that Francke most enjoyed was just outside Gubbio, the 13th-century church of San Francesco della Pace, which incorporates a home and warehouse. They found the room where Francis slept well-preserved, just off what is called the Chapel of Peace. They were impressed with the massive stone walls, the stained-glass windows and the inscriptions in bronze relief: "A rounded arch, presumably representing the doorway to the Spandalonga house, frames the entrance to the simple chapel, along with an old bell and rope that offers an irresistible invitation to pull."


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