"Uncle technology" joins Assisi family of St Francis

By Philip Pullella

ASSISI, Italy (Reuters) - St Francis of Assisi, who called the sun "brother" and the moon "sister," might have referred to it as "uncle technology".

Visitors to the monumental basilica-convent complex where St Francis is buried in the Umbrian hill town of Assisi will now be able to enjoy a touch-screen and 3-D experience to help them better appreciate the art, history and spirituality inside.

A new visitor's center just across the street allows art aficionados to view and enlarge any detail of the frescoes on touch screens, which simultaneously project the image on a wall screen.

"This should enhance the spiritual and artistic experience for the visitor," said Father Enzo Fortunato, the spokesman for the convent and one of the creators of the project.

Indeed, because of the crowds, particularly in summer, a visitor to the basilica really can't get much quality time with Giotto's 13th century frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis and the saint's message of peace and love of nature.

"The message is still the gospel and Francis himself. This is just the medium," Fortunato said at the weekend inauguration of the center.

The darkened rooms offer an educational appetizer ahead of an artistic and spiritual experience that many people - Christian or not - find awe-inspiring.

You no longer have to bring your binoculars if you want to get a close up, life-size view of St Francis' face or any other detail on one of Giotto's famed frescoes on the walls of the upper basilica.

For example, last year art restorers discovered the figure of a devil hidden in the details of the clouds in one of the Giotto frescoes.

It shows a profile of a figure with a hooked nose, a sly smile, and dark horns hidden among the clouds in the panel of the scene depicting the death of St Francis.

The figure is difficult to see from the floor of the basilica but emerges clearly in close-up photography and is now visible on the touch screens.

The multi-media rooms also screen short films that offer a rare peek into the daily lives of the friars who live in the convent, including the refectory where they eat and the chapels where they pray.

Visitors can also view hundreds of digitized versions of historic documents that are too fragile to exhibit.

They include papal bulls concerning the Franciscan order, the deed dated March 30, 1228 in which Simone di Pucciarello, a wealthy citizen of Assisi donated the land where the basilica now stands.

One digital gem is the one of the oldest known versions of "Canticle of the Sun," also known as the "Praise of the Creatures", which St Francis is said to have composed during an illness in 1224, about two years before his death.

The canticle has influenced artists throughout the ages, from Franz Liszt in the 19th century to punk rocker Patti Smith in the 21st century.

(Reporting By Philip Pullella, editing by Paul Casciato)

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