San Francesco

I don’t know why today, the 4th, is the feast day of St Francis when the anniversary of his death in 1226 was yesterday (calendar reform excepted). If you visit Umbria, it’s impossible to avoid the legacy of Francis. All the towns and villages which he is supposed to have visited (and there are many) keep the memory alive in one way or another, from ancient churches dedicated to the saint to simply repeating the stories in the glossy leaflets from the local tourist office.

In Perugia, he was a prisoner of war. In Gubbio, he negotiated a peace treaty between the citizens and a fierce wolf. At Bevagna, he preached to the birds. But Assisi, of course, is the centre of Franciscan legend. The little city sits on a hilltop, a shoulder of Monte Subasio, overlooking the flat patchwork-covered valley bottom. When you arrive in Assisi, it’s easy to imagine that it hasn’t changed at all since the time of St Francis. Every building, it seems, is in the pure medieval style, built from the white — slightly pink — Subasio limestone.

Well, there is a lot that is medieval or earlier, but in reality, the biggest, grandest buildings in the city all post-date Francis, the obvious example being the enormous basilica built to house his tomb. Uniquely, it’s designed as two huge churches stacked vertically, with the saint’s crypt below that again. I’ve never been sure whether the Church’s decision to make Francis a saint so soon after his death, and to build the fabulous and grandiose basilica was a deliberate effort to embrace, extend and extinguish his provocative message, or whether it just worked out that way.

Francis taught piety, chastity and poverty at a time when the Church was corrupt and wealthy. He was a subversive, but too popular to suppress during his lifetime. After he died, there were two conflicting strands of thought in the Franciscan order, one sticking strictly to the rule of poverty and separateness, the other favouring greater integration with the Church and priesthood, and a more relaxed attitude to what “poverty” meant. A century after Francis’s death, some were still holding out: Pope John XXII’s Inquisition burned four Franciscans for still refusing to give up a strict interpretation of the rule of St Francis. But it wasn’t long before all parts of the order came into line and accepted the Pope’s position that absolute poverty was a heretical notion.

In the little museum of the Basilica are a few physical items associated with Francis, including his very own robe, in rough brown wool, and heavily patched — the very symbol of personal poverty. Except, it just doesn’t look convincing. The patches don’t correspond to any plausible pattern of wear. It looks like the sort of thing that might have been produced by a budget movie’s art department to represent “poor saint’s robe”: overdone; inept. To me, it represents just another aspect of the way the works and message of Francis began to be diluted the moment he died. A robe for the credulous to come and revere, and drop a couple of coins in the bucket.

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