Divertimento: The Organ of Assisi

My friend Steve sent the Assisi edition of his travelogue a few days back. For those late to this party, he was a pilgrim on Bishop Finn’s recent trip to Rome and Assisi. He and his wife provided music in various basilicas and churches for the rest of the group of KC travellers. Hence, something more of an organist’s eye view of Rome, and not so much taking one’s shoes off for liturgical dance in the fountains of the Eternal City.


On Monday morning at 7AM we left Rome  to travel to Assisi.  It was a two hour trip, comparable to Philadelphia to NY on the NJTP or KC to Conception Abbey.  Urban traffic seemed more like Philadelphia than NYC (no gridlock) – I hope to get a chance to drive some in the city on the next trip.   The limited-access highway was much like I -70 or 95.  Some nice rural scenery, and many factory outlets, mostly for tile or pottery.


Assisi is located inland in an area called Umbria.  The natural beauty is just amazing.  I understood with so much greater clarity what moved St Francis to pen the text that we sing in the hymn ALL CREATURES OF OUR GOD AND KING.  It was such a joy to see the beauty of nature there, and then to sing a text composed by St. Francis in the basilica housing his tomb.

The Town of Assisi would remind Philadelphians of some parts of Old City Philadelphia: narrow cobble stoned streets with doors to shops or residences opening right onto the sidewalk or street. It is hilly, however . . .built on if not a mountainside, at least a major hillside.


We visited the Basilica of St. Clare (the picture with Alice was taken beside it, and one of the countryside pics was shot from the square in front of it.)  This Basilica housed the “San Damiano” crucifix–that was the crucifix that “spoke” to St. Francis.

It was good for me to see how much icon style art appears in the older Italian Churches, since I have encouraged this style in some of our churches in KC as well.


We celebrated Mass at noon in the lower basilica, joined by other groups of pilgrims.   The organ was, to put it kindly, interesting.   It was a one-manual portativ (mini-pipe organ on wheels).   I am guessing that parts of it may be a couple of centuries old.  The outer case was just plywood painted blue (see pic).  The keys were stubby, and a bit narrower than standard.


The drawknobs for the stops were not labeled as to what sound would be produced if the stop were pulled.


As you can see from the picture, the opening for the sound to leave the case and enter the room is at face level for the player.  I felt like the instrument screamed. .  .but am told that it sounded fine in the highly reverberant room.  One major surprise was the tuning.  Apparently it was tuned using an antique formulation which would not accommodate music in all keys as most modern instruments do.  The sound was pretty civilized until Communion.  We sang the Prayer of St. Francis on the key of C and then I attempted a graceful modulation to Gift of finest Wheat in D.   The instrument sounded like a chorus of basset hounds howling.   Yet another memorable musical moment . . . . . .

We had an incredible meal after Mass at a local hotel.  It is no wonder that Italians schedule a two-hour siesta in the middle of the day.


We visited yet another Franciscan Basilica (with am amazing looking Pinchi Tracker that I didn’t get to lay hands on), had some great espresso, and got back to Rome before 9 PM.

Next Installment:  St. Peter’s in Rome.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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3 Responses to Divertimento: The Organ of Assisi

  1. Carol Bauer says:

    I stumbled upon your 2006 travelogue as I was beginning my research into the organs I may encounter when I accompany our high school choir pilgrimage to Rome in June, 2012. Assisi, Altar of the Chair of St. Peter’s, church of St. Ignatius, and a Papal audience are all places where the choir will sing. Any advice you can give would be welcome.

  2. Todd says:

    Hi Carol,

    My friend Steve and I have both departed from Kansas City in the time since this post. He has relocated to Philadelphia. I don’t have contact information, but he may be on Facebook.

    I’m always fascinated by stories about touring choirs, but alas, I have never really done one myself.

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