With mesmerizing art all around, it's sometimes easy to forget that Assisi (and much of the surrounding region) pays homage primarily to St. Francis, one of the most important saints in the Catholic Church and the patron saint of Italy since 1939. When it comes to the details of his life, it's sometimes hard to separate the myth from reality, but it's generally agreed that he was born around 1181 in Assisi. Francesco, the son of a wealthy local cloth merchant and his French wife, spent much of his youth carousing, drinking, gambling, and going off to wars with his buddies -- he even spent a year stewing in Perugia's dungeons as a prisoner of war in 1201. Restless and bored, the youth began to suspect there was more to life. He started hanging out in remote, lonely places, and finally renounced his father and all his possessions (famously removing his fine clothes), after Christ spoke to him at San Damiano. He spent the next few years living as a beggar, before restoring several churches, notably the Porziuncola outside Assisi. In 1210 he officially founded the Franciscan Order, dedicated to a life of service, poverty and preaching the Gospels. From then on Francis travelled widely to preach simplicity and a return to kindness and the basics (one of his adventures included a famous encounter with the Egyptian Sultan in 1219).

Praying on Mt. Verna in 1224, Francis is said to have been visited by a heavenly seraph who imparted to him a singular honor, the stigmata of Christ's wounds. Although later saints were also blessed with the stigmata, Francis was the first, and the miracle pretty much cinched his sainthood. After a life spent traveling as far as Spain, Morocco, Egypt, and Palestine, Francis died near his hometown in 1226. Within 2 years, he was made a saint.

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