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Local Saint, Local Miracle, Local Painter

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Saint Francis preaches to the birds. Trevi, cloister of the church of S. Francesco.

This frescoed lunette is by an 18c painter, Antonio Birretta. Nothing is known of him except his signature on another painting, identifying him as being from Trevi itself.

The story, on the other hand, is famous. On a day in the early 13th century — I can find no precise date anywhere, a sign that the story, sadly, might not be true — Francis was giving a talk to a small crowd outdoors, somewhere in Umbria and, as has happened to any number of public speakers, the locale was very noisy and he was finding it hard to make himself heard. Parting company with most of his fellow preachers, he turned to the birds making the racket, and asked them to pipe down. They obeyed.

Painters love this story. It sounds the universal themes of the earthly paradise and of the hero or demigod who like Melampus can speak to brute beasts; it also gives you a nice opportunity to paint genre scenes with lots of diverse and brightly colored birds. This Trevan artist was no exception. Notice that although any large twittering troop of birds the saint may have preached to must surely have been of one or two common species at most (say, crows or sparrows), here, as often, we have many different kinds: I count at least 10, some of them rather exotic. Also, unless I am mistaken, the largest of the birds shown is a raptor that would eat the others, not sit with them . . . .

As for where this happened, no one properly knows.
The 2 commonest candidates:

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The Eremo delle Carceri on Mt. Subasio
(23 km NNW of Trevi)

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Pian d' Arca, a small place N of Bevagna
(16 km NW of Trevi)

and a third, although I don't believe it, is Alviano, a small town of the lower Tiber valley.

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Page updated: 26 Jun 03