Visitors to Assisi may have been surprised recently to find their stroll through this Medieval city, which has become an international symbol of peace and brotherhood since the 1200s when Saint Francis walked these steep, winding street, interrupted by a cacophony of festive drumming and singing which filled the main Piazza del Comune and formed the backdrop for a dozen groups of laughing and chatting artists.
Where this piazza is usually a serene expanse of stone ringed by architecture dating from ancient Rome to the 1700s, on the 6th of June it was transformed into an outdoor art studio to celebrate the annual “Festa in Amicizia”, or Friendship Festival, organized each year by the historic Istituto Serafico.
Though Assisi is famous around the world for its art and architecture, in Italy the town is also known for its institution for severely disabled children and adults. Founded in 1871 by the Franciscan friar Lodovico da Casoria, and originally a home for blind and deaf children, over the following century the Istituto Serafico expanded and became both more inclusive and more innovative.
Today, hundreds of children and adults from across Italy rely on the Serafico for support and therapy, either as outpatients or residents, and the institution works hard to integrate their internal community with the community at large, through public events, festivals, and outreach.
Perhaps the most popular of these is the Festa in Amicizia, a week-long program of music, art, theater, and culture centered around a different theme each year. The 2014 edition highlighted “Il Linguaggio della Vita”, or The Language of Life, focusing on all the different modes of expression that humans can use when words fail… or simply fall short. For a week, the children and adults of the Serafico expressed their strength and courage through dance, music, sports, theater, video, and, of course, art.
Thus, a dozen groups consisting of a mix of Serafico residents and staff and volunteer and cultural associations (myself included), each led by a professional artist, found themselves gathered for an afternoon around blank white canvases (some enormous) to discover together what they could express with paint and brushes (and hands, feet, stencils, plaster…), to the enthusiastic beat of a group of mixed musicians and lots of smiles.
Assisi may be a symbol of Christian love and compassion, but these are the humble moments when the spiritual rubber meets the road. I was moved and delighted by the enthusiastic participation of so many, including a number of passing travelers who threw their hat into the artistic ring, and by the herculean organizational effort of Silvia Contini, who organized this PDA (Public Display of Art).
The finished works will be auctioned off to support the Serafico, so I may never see my brushwork again. But I am sure I will never forget the moving human story it told…