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people he came in contact with, instead of annoying them with his
childish pranks. His goodness was manifest, and St. Francis was often
heard to say to those who wished to reprove him after one of his
wildest frolics, "would that I had a whole forest of these junipers."

Between the men who lived at the Portiuncula with the saint, and those
who in later times ruled large convents in the cities, the contrast
is so great that we would wish to draw still further from these
inexhaustible chronicles which reveal so charmingly the life of these
Umbrian friars. But to tell of all the events connected with the
Portiuncula would mean recounting the history of the whole franciscan
brotherhood, and we must now pass over many years to that saddest year
of all, when St. Francis was brought to die in the place he had so
carefully tended.

[Illustration: ASSISI FROM THE PLAIN]

Knowing that he had but a few more weeks of life, he begged the
brethren to find some means to carry him away from the Bishop's Palace
at Assisi where he had been staying some time. "Verily," he told them
pathetically, "because of my very infirmity I cannot go afoot"; so
they carried him in their arms down the hill to the plain, and when
they came to the hospital of San Salvatore dei Crociferi they laid him
gently down upon the ground with his face towards Assisi, because he
desired to bless the town for the last time before he died.

The blind saint, lifting his hand in blessing, pronounced these words
dear to the hearts of the Assisans to this day: "Blessed be thou of
the Lord, O city, faithful to God, because through thee many souls
shall be saved. The servants of the Most High shall dwell in great
numbers within thy walls, and many of thy sons shall be chosen for the
realms of heaven."

Then they carried him to the hut nearest the Portiuncula which was the
infirmary, and here his last days were passed.[58] Although he
suffered acutely, they were days of marvellous peace and joy. It is
beautiful to read how, with his usual tenderness, he thought of the
brethren he was leaving to carry on the work without him, encouraging
them all as they stood weeping round his bed. Like Isaac of old, the
Umbrian patriarch blessed his first born, Bernard of Quintavalle,
saying: "Come my little son that my soul may bless thee before I die,"
while he enjoined upon all to love and honour Bernard, who had been
the first to listen to his words now so many years ago. With all his
sons near him St. Francis dictated his will, wherein he describes the
way of life they were to lead, and which, coming from him at this
solemn moment, must always remain as a precious message from the
saint, in many ways of more importance than the Rule approved in his
life-time by Pope Honorius. When this was done he commended once again
to their special care the chapel of the Portiuncula. "I will," he said
to them, "that for all times it be the mirror and good example of all
religion, and as it were a lamp ever burning and resplendent before
the throne of God and before the Blessed Virgin."

The farewells to those of his immediate circle had been made and a
letter written to St. Clare, and now he wished to bid "the most noble
Roman matron, Madonna Giacoma dei Settesoli," one of his most devoted
followers, to come and take leave of him at Assisi. The letter had
only just been written when knocking at the door and the sound of
horses trampling was heard outside, and the brethren going out to
discover the cause of such unwonted noise found that Madonna Giacoma,
accompanied by her sons, two Roman senators, had been inspired to come
and visit the dying saint.

The brethren, somewhat averse to allow a woman, even one so renowned
for holiness as Madonna Giacoma, to enter their sacred precincts,
called to St. Francis in their doubt: "Father, what shall be done?
Shall we let her enter and come unto thee?" And the Blessed Francis
said: "The regulation is to be set aside in respect to this lady whose
great faith and devotion hath brought her hither from such far-off
parts." So Madonna Giacoma came into the presence of the Blessed
Francis weeping bitterly, and she brought with her the shroud-cloth,
incense, and a great quantity of wax for the candles which were to
burn before his body after death. She had even thought of some cakes
made of almonds and sugar, known in Rome by the name of _mostaccioli_,
which she had often made for him when he visited her. But the saint
was fast failing, and could eat but little of the cakes.

As the end came nearer his thoughts were drawn away from earth, and
true to the last to his Lady Poverty, he caused himself to be laid
naked on the ground as a token of his complete renouncement of the
world. His face radiant with happiness, he kept asking his companions
to recite the Canticle of the Sun, often joining in it himself or
breaking forth into his favourite psalm _Voce mea ad Dominum Clamavi_.

With words of praise and gladness the Blessed Francis of Assisi, the
spouse of Poverty, died in a mud hut close to the shrine he loved, on
the 3rd of October of 1226 in the forty-fifth year of his age.

His soul was seen to ascend to heaven under the semblance of a star,
but brilliant as the sun, upon clouds as white as snow. It was sunset,
the hour when in Umbria after the stillness of a warm autumn day an
unusual tremor passes through the land and all things in the valley
and upon the hill-sides are stirred by it, when a flight of larks
circled above the roof of the hut where the saint lay at rest. And
these birds of light and gladness "seemed by their sweet singing to be
in company with Francis praising the Lord God."

FOOTNOTES:

[51] It has sometimes happened that visitors, who have not read their
Murray with sufficient care, thinking "Le Carceri" are prisons where
convicts are kept, leave Assisi without visiting this charming spot.
"Carceri" certainly now means "prisons," but the original meaning of
the word in old Italian is a place surrounded by a fence and often
remote from human habitation.

[52] It is perhaps an insult to the Tescio to leave the traveller in
Umbria under the impression that this mountain torrent is always dry.
Certainly that is its usual condition, but we have seen it during the
storms that break upon the land in August and September overflow its
banks and inundate the country on either side; but with this wealth of
water its beauty goes.

[53] The large modern church of Rivo-Torto, on the road from Sta.
Maria degli Angeli to Spello, built to enclose the huts that St.
Francis and his companions are supposed to have lived in while tending
the lepers, has been proved without doubt by M. Paul Sabatier to have
no connection whatever with the Saint. In these few pages we have
followed the information given in a pamphlet which is to be found in
the Italian translation of his _Vie de S. François d'Assise_. It is
impossible here to enter into all the arguments relating to this
disputed point, but I think the authority of the best, and by far the
most vivid of the biographers of St. Francis can be trusted without
further comment, and that we may safely believe the hut of St.
Francis, known as Rivo-Torto, lay close to the present chapels of San
Rufino d'Arce and Sta. Maria Maddalena. See Appendix for information
as to their exact position in the plain and the nearest road to them.
_Disertazione sul primo luogo abitato dai Frati Minori su Rivo-Torto e
nell'Ospedale dei Lebbrosi di Assisi._ di Paul Sabatier (Roma, Ermanno
Loescher and Co., 1896).

[54] See _The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy_, vol. xxvii.
Nov. 1882.

[55] _Speculum Perfectionis_, cap. lv., edited by Paul Sabatier.

[56] This custom ceased in the fifteenth century; but in the year
1899, through the piety of the Rev. Father Bernardine Ibald, it was
revived. Once again the franciscans take a small basket of fish to the
abbot and his monks who now live at S. Pietro in Assisi, where the
benedictines went when their mountain retreat was destroyed by order
of the Assisan despot, Broglia di Trino.

[57] This illustration is from a print to be seen in the somewhat rare
edition of the _Collis Paradisi Amoenitas, seu Sacri Conventus
Assisiensis Historiæ_, published in 1704 at Montefalco by Padre
Angeli, and it may even have been taken from an earlier drawing. In it
there is the true feeling of a franciscan convent, such as the saint
hoped would continue for all time, and though there are some points
which are incorrect (the Church of Sta. Chiara, though curiously
enough not the convent, is represented, which was built several years
later than San Francesco), we get a clear idea of both Assisi and its
immediate neighbourhood. All the ancient gates of the town can be made
out, the Roman road from Porta Mojano to San Rufino d'Arce, a faint
indication of the path to the Carceri, and also the old road from
Assisi to the plain out of the gate of S. Giacomo, passing not very
far from the Ponte S. Vittorino. The wall round the Portiuncula and
the huts did not exist in the time of St. Francis, which, together
with the wooden gate, may have been added by Brother Elias. The
largest hut a little to the right of the chapel was the infirmary
where St. Francis died (now called the Chapel of St. Francis), and the
one behind it was his cell (now known as the Chapel of the Roses, see
chapter xi. for its story), whence he could easily pass out through
the woods to San Rufino d'Arce hard by.

[58] For fuller account see _The Mirror of Perfection_, translated by
Sebastian Evans, caps. 107, 108, 112, and _The Little Flowers of St.
Francis_, translated by J. W. Arnold (Temple Classics), chap. vi.




CHAPTER IV

_The building of the Basilica and Convent of San Francesco. The Story
of Brother Elias_

"O brother mine, O beautiful brother, O brother of love, build me
a castle which shall have neither stone nor iron. O beautiful
brother, build me a city which shall have neither wood nor
stone." - BEATO EGIDIO.


One of the strangest characteristics of mediæval Italy was the rivalry
between different towns to gain possession of the bodies of holy
people. They did not even wait for the bull of canonisation to arrive
from Rome, but often of their own accord placed the favoured being in
the Calendar of Saints, and papal decrees merely ratified the choice
of popular devotion. We have an example of this with the Perugians.
Ever on the alert to increase the glory of their city, they hovered
near the road St. Francis was to follow during his last illness when
borne from Cortona to Assisi, meaning to carry him off by force so
that he might die in Perugia.[59] Never at a loss for a way out of any
difficulty Elias hastily changed the itinerary for the journey, and
instead of the short way by lake Thrasymene he took the much longer
and more difficult road by Gualdo and Nocera, far back in the
mountains to the north of Assisi. He warned the Assisans of the peril
run by the little company of friars with their sick father, and
soldiers were immediately sent to escort them safely to the Bishop's
Palace where St. Francis stayed until carried to the Portiuncula when
he knew that he was dying.

They were sad days at Assisi when St. Francis was borne through the
city blind and ill; and as he stretched out his hands to bless the
people they bowed their heads and wept at the sight of so much
suffering. Now that the end had come and they knew he lay safely in
the little shrine of the Portiuncula, their mourning was changed into
rejoicing, and as though they were preparing for a great festival,
strange sounds of busy talk, of laughter and of singing were heard in
the streets. Had a stranger found himself at Assisi that Sunday
morning he might well have asked: "What victory have you gained to
merit all this show of gladness, or what emperor are you going forth
to greet?" And the answer would have been: "Francis, our saint, the
son of Bernardone, returned to us when he was nigh to death, and now
that he is dead we possess his body which will bring great honour and
fame to our city by reason of the many miracles to be wrought at his
tomb."

The sun had not yet risen when the Assisans left their houses and
thronged down the hill to the Portiuncula to bring the precious burden
to rest within the more certain refuge of their walled town. "Blessed
and praised be the Lord our God who has entrusted to us, though
unworthy, so great a gift. Praise and glory to the ineffable Trinity,"
they sang as they hurried along in the cold dawn. Trumpeters blew loud
and discordant notes, nearly drowning the voices of the priests who
vainly in the din tried to intone the canticles and psalms. The nobles
came from their castles with lighted torches to join the procession,
the peasants from the hills brought sprigs of olive, and those from
the forests stripped the oaks of their finest branches which they
waved above their heads, while children strewed the ground with
flowers.

Amidst all this stirring show of joy a kindly thought had been taken
of St. Clare and her nuns, so that when the body of St. Francis had
been laid in a coffin, and the long line of friars, priests and
townsmen turned to climb the hill, they took a path skirting just
below the town, through the vineyards and olive groves, to the convent
of San Damiano. The sound of chanting must have warned the watchers of
their approach long before they came in sight. An artist has pictured
the nuns like a flock of timid sheep in his fresco, trooping out of an
exquisitely marbled chapel, with St. Clare endeavouring to suppress
her grief as she bends over the dead Francis, while the sisters press
close behind her. This is how it ought to have been; but, alas, only
an iron lattice, through which the nuns were wont to receive the Holy
Communion, was opened for them, and the friars lifting the body of St.
Francis from the coffin, held it in their arms at the opening as one
by one the nuns came to kiss the pierced hands. "Madonna Chiara's"
tears fell fast as she gazed on him who had brought such joy into her
cloistered solitude. "Oh father, father," she murmured, "what are we
to do now that thou hast abandoned us unhappy ones? With thee departs
all consolation, for buried here away from the world there is none to
console us." Restraining the lamentations which filled her heart she
passed like a shadow out of sight to her cell, and when all the
sisters had bidden farewell to St. Francis, the small window was
closed "never again to open upon so sad a scene."

The people, who until now had wept bitterly, began to sing again as
the procession went on its way up the hill towards the Porta Mojano.
The trumpets sounded louder than ever, and "with jubilation and great
exultation" the sacred body was brought to the church of San Giorgio,
where it was carefully laid in a marble urn covered with an iron
grating, and guarded day and night from the prying eyes of the
Perugians. If Francis had worked miracles during his life, those
chronicled at his tomb are even more marvellous; in recounting some
which read like fairy tales, a biographer recounts with pride that,
"even from heaven, the Saint showed his courtesy to all."

Devotion to St. Francis was not confined to Umbria or even to Italy,
for we read how his fame spread throughout France, and how the King
and Queen with all the barons of the land, came to Paris to kiss one
of his relics. "People journeyed from the east and from the west,"
enthusiastically exclaims Celano with a total disregard of detail,
"they came from the north and from the south, even the learned and the
lettered who abounded in Paris at that time."

But while France was being stirred by the news of perpetual miracles
and prodigies wrought through the intercession of the saint, and
Assisi in consequence was fast growing into a place of great
importance in the world, Pope Gregory IX, who had been lately elected
upon the death of Honorius III, spent many hours in the Cannonica at
Perugia wrestling with his doubts concerning the truth of the greatest
miracle of all, the miracle of the Stigmata. While in this state of
uncertainty and perplexity St. Francis, the _Fioretti_ relates,
appeared to him one night, and showed him the five wounds inflicted by
the Seraph upon his hands, feet and side. The vision, it seems,
dispelled all doubt from the mind of Pope Gregory, for in conclave
with the cardinals he proclaimed the sanctity of his friend, the
Poverello d'Assisi, and determined to set the final seal of the church
upon his miracles and fame.

This vision was the prelude of a great ceremony held a few days later
in San Giorgio for the canonisation of Francis, at which all Umbria
seems to have been present. Pope Gregory, clothed in vestments of
cloth of gold embroidered with precious stones, his tiara "almost as
an aureole of sanctity about his head," sat stiffly on his pontifical
throne like some carved image, surrounded by cardinals in crimson
garments and bishops in white stoles. All eyes were fixed upon this
splendid group, and it is not improbable that among the spectators
stood Pietro Bernardone and Madonna Pica, and many who had reviled
Francis in his early days of sanctity, and now, within two years of
his death, witnessed him placed among the greatest of the saints.
Gregory had prepared an eloquent address, which he delivered in a
sonorous voice occasionally broken by sobs of emotion. Becoming more
and more enthusiastic as he proceeded, he compared Francis to a full
moon, a refulgent sun, a star rising above the morning mists, and when
he had finished the pious homily, a sub-deacon read out a list of the
saint's miracles, and a learned cardinal, "not without copious
weeping," discoursed thereon, while the Pope listened, shedding
"rivers of tears," and breaking forth every now and then into
deep-drawn sighs. The prelates wept so devoutly that their vestments
were in great part wet, and the ground was drenched with their tears.
The ceremony ended when the Pope rose to bless the people, and intoned
the _Te Deum_, in which all joined with such good will that the "earth
resounded in great jubilee."

Had St. Francis foreseen how his humility would be rewarded? This we
know, that he in part had realised how his order would slip away from
his ideal, and there is a deep note of sadness in many pages of his
life, showing us how fully he realised the pitfalls his disciples were
likely to fall into when he was no longer there to watch over them
with tender care. Often while he was absent for only a little time the
brethren forgot his simple rule, building cells and houses too
spacious and pretentious for the home of the Lady Poverty. This had
been one of the signs to him that his earnest prayers to God, his
example and admonitions to his followers, which come to us through his
letters and the pages of Brother Leo like the cry of one who bravely
fought against the inevitable, were all to be in vain. It is a tragic
story, and rendered still more so by the fact that the Saint's last
years should have been saddened by this knowledge of coming events.

Only a little while and the teaching of poverty and obscurity which he
had so deeply implanted in the hearts of his followers was to be
completely swept away; upon the ruins of that first franciscan order,
guarded jealously for a time by a faithful few, arose the new
franciscan spirit which Elias Buonbarone, inspired by the will of
Gregory IX, brought into being almost before the echo of his master's
words had died away. It is not for us in this small space to trace
the many changes that crept into the young community, but we simply
note as a fact, what to some may appear exaggerated, that the order
St. Francis founded, and prayed would continue as he left it, ceased
at his death, while the order that grew up afterwards bore the
unmistakable stamp of Elias and the Vatican.

* * * * *

The extraordinary humility of St. Francis gave rise to the myth that
when he lay dying at the Portiuncula he expressed a strong desire to
be buried in the most despised spot near Assisi, which, because
criminals were said to have been executed there, bore the name of
Colle del Inferno. It seems unlike him to have been concerned with
what might become of "brother body" after death, and it was probably
not until Gregory IX conceived the idea of building a church in honour
of his friend, that a suitable burial-place was searched for near the
walls of the town, if not actually within them, where the citizens
could safely guard the precious relics. Everything favoured the
designs of Gregory, for not only was he fortunate in finding a man
like Elias, capable, prompt and energetic, but the one place suited
for the erection of a great church, happened to be in the possession
of a generous citizen of Assisi. No sooner were the wishes of the
Pontiff made known than Simon Puzzarelli offered his land on the
Collis Inferni, which from this time forward Gregory ordered to be
called Collis Paradisi, the Hill of Paradise.[60]

A document, duly sealed and signed, is still in the Assisan archives,
in which we read how the site for the building of "an oratory or
church for the most holy body of St. Francis" was given over, in words
that admitted of no withdrawal, to Elias as representative of the Lord
Pope Gregory IX - "dedit, tradedit, cesset, delegavit et donavit
simpliciter et irrevocabiliter." Now the use of the word _oratory_ is
a remarkable fact as suggesting that at the beginning the Assisans
little dreamed of the erection of a great basilica which would cast
their cathedral entirely into the shade.

A few days after the ceremony of the canonisation of St. Francis, Pope
Gregory, amid the usual crowd of Umbrian spectators, laid the
foundation-stone of the franciscan basilica. Then being recalled by
his Roman subjects, whom Assisan chroniclers describe as "a race of
men most seditious and fierce," he was obliged to hurry south, leaving
Elias to carry out his wishes as he thought best.

So far the task left to Elias was easy enough, for money was not
lacking, and countless workmen were ready to begin the great
enterprise; but the question of who should design a church upon the
site chosen was a more difficult matter to settle, as Vasari tells us:
"There was a great scarcity of good architects at this time, and the
church, having to be built upon a very high hill, at the base of which
flows a torrent called the Tescio, an excellent artist was required
for the work. After much deliberation a certain Maestro Jacopo Tedesco
was called to Assisi as being the best architect then to be found, and
having examined the site, and consulted the wishes of the fathers, who
were holding a Chapter in Assisi to discuss the matter, he designed
the plan of a very beautiful church and convent."[61]

"Jacopo" is said to have come to Italy in the retinue of the Emperor
Frederick II. Vasari recounts that the fame he gained all over Italy
by his work at Assisi was so great that the Florentines summoned him
to build them bridges and palaces, and "Jacopo," charmed with the
Tuscan city, married and dwelt there. The citizens, following a custom
which still continues in every Italian town, changed his name to Lapo,
and he is revealed to us as father of the famous Arnolfo di Lapo,
architect of the Florentine cathedral and of the Palazzo della
Signoria. In the seductive pages of Vasari the account reads so
pleasantly that it seems a pity later writers should have discovered
that the story rests upon uncertain dates and legends. Vasari's
endeavour to amalgamate three artists into one person, have forced
many to the opposite extreme, until even the existence of "Jacopo
Tedesco" is denied, and they are reduced to speak of _an_ architect
who designed the church and convent of San Francesco.[62]

Such is the irony of fate, that while numerous documents remain giving
the names of contractors and minor masons employed in the building
there is absolutely no evidence or clue of any kind as to the
architect employed by Elias. We can only suppose that the document
relating to this and other interesting points in connection with the
decoration of the church, must have been destroyed by the Perugians
when they sacked Assisi under Jacopo Piccinino and burnt so many
treasures in the archives. We are consequently at the mercy of local
legends, which were no doubt recounted to Vasari by the Assisans
themselves when he visited the town in the middle of the sixteenth
century. But there is still the evidence of our own eye to help us to



Online LibraryLina Duff GordonThe story of Assisi → online text (page 9 of 26)