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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Umbria Santa

Corrado Ricci

Faber & Gwyer
London, n. d. (1926 or 1927)

The text is in the public domain, except for my notes.
Black-and‑white photographs are in the public domain;
color photographs are © William P. Thayer.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p35  Chapter II
The Franciscan Landscape

For the right understanding of a great man's mind, it is profitable for us to know the country of his choice; for few things can so truly reveal his feelings as the harmony existing between his innate thoughts, his life and his natural surroundings.

It is a commonplace that anxious and unquiet souls disdain the country, as the simple do the town, and one may well believe that the praise of rural life, so often sung by the poets, is not all rhetoric! The passion of Garibaldi for the rock of Caprera and that of Verdi for the villa of Sant' Agata, are equally significant with the hatred for solitude displayed by Giovanni della Banda Nera and by Napoleon. However this may be, it is certain that hardly ever has there existed between Nature and the heart of man such loving comprehension as between the soul of St. Francis and things material. Dante understands it when he lingers over the description of the country where the learned friar was born and died. His biographers comprehend it, when they repeat continually that he ever sought quiet retreats and the barren wilderness for his prayers. His choice of abiding-places among the wild animals gives rise to the sweet legend of affection between them and the saint. Francis converts to piety the ferocious wolf who did 'great harm' in the neighbourhood of Gubbio, 'spoiling and killing God's creatures without His permission'. Francis calls him 'Brother Wolf', and confidently asks him to refrain from more ravages. 'And the  p36 wolf, with an inclination of the head, makes a clear sign that he promises' and puts a paw into the hand of the Saint, who leads him, 'like a gentle lamb,' into the city, where afterward the wolf lives in concord with the citizens and 'dies of old age to the sorrow of every one'.a

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The Church of San Giovanni
and Palazzo dei Consoli,

(Photo. Alinari)

Then St. Francis entertains the wild doves 'which made themselves at home with him and the other Brothers, as if they had been domestic hens always fed by them, and never went away, until St. Francis gave them permission with his benediction'. Again on the road to Bevagna, he preaches to the birds in a field. 'And immediately those in the trees come to him, and all together they wait while St. Francis finishes his sermon, which is a hymn full of poetry:' 'Ye birds, my sisters, you are very precious to God your Creator, and always in every place you ought to praise Him, because He has given you liberty to fly everywhere; He has also given you clothing, two- and threefold; also because He kept your forebears in the Ark of Noah; so that your numbers might never diminish on the earth; still more does He think of you in decreeing for you the element of air in which you have your being. Beyond this, you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you to drink from rivers and springs, and gives you mountains and valleys for your refuge, and the high trees for your nests; and although you know neither how to spin nor to sew, God clothes you and your little ones. Thus the Creator loves you and confers His benefits upon you; therefore beware, my sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, but  p37 devote yourselves always to praising God.' — Whilst St. Francis was saying these words 'all the birds began to open their beaks, to expand their throats, to flutter their wings, and reverently to incline their heads even to the ground, thus with act and song showing that the words of the Saint gave them great delight.'

There are similar stories about other places. Wadding recounts that while the Saint was praying in a cell of the Villa of Verruchio, there arose such a clamour of little birds in the neighbouring trees, that he besought them to be still, which they were at once; indeed, retreating in silence, they returned no more. A still greater concourse of birds crowded round him when with three companions, he ascended for the first time, the mountain of La Verna, and at a few steps from the 'rude rock' where the path turned, he stopped to rest beneath an oak; 'and behold there arrived a multitude of birds from many districts, and with their song and fluttering of wings, showed their pleasure and surrounded St. Francis in such a way that some perched upon his head, some on his shoulders, others on his arms, his knees and round his feet'. Seeing this, Francis, content in spirit, spake thus: 'Dear Brethren, I think that our Saviour Jesus Christ has pleasure that we should inhabit this solitary mountain, because our arrival gives such joyousness to our brothers and sisters the birds'.

And it was not a vision of angels with which legend has graced the humble spot where the Saint died on October 4, 1226, but a miraculous flight of larks singing in joyful  p38 exhilaration, now rising, now descending, and fluttering round the rough roof of straw, again reäscendingº into space and singing as though to celebrate the glory of the dying Saint. And together all faded away, the daylight, the song of the birds and the life of the holy man.

But even if one calls this 'legend', who would deny that it illustrates truth? Is not legend often the flower which springs from the plant of reality? Who has not seen animals, when sure of safety and treated with kindness, become trusting and confident? In a sad mental hospital I myself have seen the sparrows alight on knees of the unhappy patients who have shown them tenderness! And was not Francis, with his inexhaustible goodness, with his infinite gentleness, the one who could most easily dissipate the wild diffidence of animals? Let me recall what Vasari wrote of Raffael — 'The goodness of his nature was so full of gentleness overflowing with love, that not only was he honoured by men, but even the very animals, who would constantly follow his steps and always loved him.'

. . . . . . . . . .

Furthermore, the wide sympathy of Francis with Nature manifests itself intensely in the Canticle of the Sun, the highest prayer of a devotional soul. Here is not exaltation of saints, not invocation of pardon, not aspiration to martyrdom, not longing for the happiness of the world to come, but the Praise of God because He has created the divine and incorruptible beauty of the sky, the sun, moon, stars; the phenomena of the air, wind, clouds, stillness; the marvels  p39 of the earth, such as water, fire, plants, fruit and flowers; the course of life with its joys, its sorrows and the mystery of death. And all he hails with the tender name of Brother or Sister, and for everything he finds an adjective of incomparable beauty. The stars are 'precious as gems', water is 'humble and pure', fire is 'jocund, robust and strong'.

Thus one must praise and bless God for everything: even for sorrow, even for death.

And he wished that the touching prayer, the joyful hymn to creation, should be sung, for he loved singing and music. Coming forth from the tribunal of the diocese of Assisi, absolutely poor, he hides himself in a dark forest of the Mount Subasio, singing in French the praise of God with his strong, clear, sonorous voice, a contrast to the frailty of his body. He still sings after thieves have despoiled him and left him naked on the snow; and he is still singing when he goes on a pilgrimage to the Marches. But listen to the account of Brother Leo (whom Francis calls Brother Pecorella),b 'Sometimes, inebriated with love and compassion towards Christ, he did curious things as if a melodious spirit were burning within him, often manifesting itself externally in singing in the French tongue, and the richness of the divine breath that his ear received, expressed itself without his ever perceiving it, in a French Jubilee. At times he picked up a stick from the ground and raising it to his left arm and taking another in his right hand, he made as if to play the viol or other instrument, and accompanying  p40 this sound with the movements of his person, he chanted in French the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ.'

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Stories of St Francis, with the view of Mount Subasio: fresco by Benozzo, in San Francesco di Montefalco
(Photo. Alinari)

And thus he ordered that his brethren should sing, specially when he felt himself assailed by the spasms of his atrocious suffering. Then they sang loud and long, day and night, so much that Brother Elias became troubled by it and tried to dissuade St. Francis, who answered him, 'Let me be, Brother, for I am rejoicing in the Lord and in His praises and in mine infirmity.' And even when he was at the point of death, he besought two Brothers to sing the praise of God, and raising his voice as far as he was able, he murmured the psalm, 'Voce mea ad Dominum clamavi'. And after his death, the Brothers, humble and obedient, continued to chant psalms all night long, round his body.

The passion of St. Francis was for Solitude, not that of bare plains and deserts, but of the woods full of the rustling leaves, of the singing of birds, of the murmur of streams and bubbling of springs. And even if he were sheltered between rocks, he was always under the shade of a great tree, or in a grove of saplings, or under the hanging branches of ivy or honeysuckle. It seemed as though he himself were a lyric emanation of Nature, born of harmony of things and essence of flowers. His spirit was light and was song, was reality, and was a dream. The fascination that he has always exercised on men has been essentially poetical. Jesus was infinitely greater; His thought more  p41 profound, His life more tragic, His influence more vast; nevertheless, Jesus was as intimately connected with the spirit of Nature as was the Poor Man of Assisi, who was in perfect accord with the humblest or highest expressions of things celebrated by him in the Canticle of the Sun. His goodness was simple and lasting as the goodness of bread and water, never-ending. He had a passion for sacrifice and for charity; pity for all suffering. For this reason, he desired to remain where the need was greatest. For in contrast to the saints who were before him, he did not wish to absent himself from his own town, which, not yet realizing his moral greatness, treated him as a madman, laughed at him and threw stones at him, while his father, the opulent merchant, agreed with his enemies in abusing him.

Giacomo Leopardi vindicates himself on his co-citizens by calling them 'vile and rough people', and the town, 'his native, savage birthplace'. But St. Francis on the contrary felt his love for Assisi grow at every new outrage, and never lost the feeling of grief on leaving his home, each time he had to go far away for the welfare of the Christian faith or for the good of the religious order he had founded. St. Benedict, on the contrary, had quitted Norcia for the solitude of Subiaco and Monte Cassino; St. Peter Damian had left Ravenna for the hermitage of Camaldoli and for Catria; places as it seemed to them nearer to God, but remote, far from their country, from the homes where, having passed their early life in the usual  p42 manner of other young men, they felt tied to earth and its troubles. Their first thought on giving themselves to God, was to detach themselves from their families, relations and friends; it was necessary to break every terrestrial link, one might say to crush human affection. But this was not the idea of St. Francis, who preferred to remain in the place where he had led a dissipated life, not far from his friends of those days, so that his repentance should be more heartfelt, for the edification of those same companions. His victory was a still greater one, because inspired by his conversion, it was not only those wearing the humble tunic, and the women following Clare in her precepts of prayer and poverty, who began to lead a new life, but nearly all Assisi gradually imitated his example, and grew to love and admire him. So much so, that towards the end of his life, when he was far from home, the inhabitants of Assisi sent many times to persuade him to come back there, anxious that his last days should be passed among them. But he wished to die near his beloved Porziuncola, whence he had so often raised his eyes to his native city on the hill of Subasio, and had blessed it with prayer and canticle; just as he did at the end from the little Hospital, even after his eyes could see no longer. And immediately after his death, the whole population of Assisi and the neighbouring villages turned their steps to the humble cell, crowding the roads and paths weeping and singing litanies.

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(Photo. Alinari)

 p43  St. Francis travelled much, especially after the Pope had ordered him and his followers not to separate themselves from the world, but to remain in its midst, and to counsel and guide the people by word and example, and help them in their spiritual needs; but it would be well to distinguish between the places which he visited in this way as his duty, and those he chose for his life of prayer and meditation. In the same way St. Romualdo went to Spain and even to Russia to establish monasteries, but his real abode was the hermitage of Camaldoli, which he founded in the densest and highest forest of the Casentino. St. Peter Damian also took diplomatic journeys abroad and spent days and months in Rome and in other great cities, but his life of silence and of contemplation revolved round the remote district of Catria. Thus the necessities of the order and preaching led Francis, a great walker, into infinitely long journeys. He is several times in Rome to see the Popes Innocent III and Honorius III. He goes into the Campagna; we find him in many parts of Tuscany, at Siena, Sarteano, Florence, at Chiusi, Cetona, Borgo San Sepolcro; in Romagna, at San Leo, Rimini, Imola, and Bologna; in the Marches there are Ancona, Osimo, San Severino; in Venetia, at Venice and Verona, and then far away from Italy, in France, Spain, Slavonia, in Egypt, in Palestine. And who can say in how many other places, even in Italy, he has been? How many of our villages has he visited, in how many of our towns has he sojourned and preached? From  p44 the uncontrollable desire to bring peace to tumultuous hearts (and there were many such in those days), from the ardent wish to shower upon all the warmth of his goodness and his love, he felt himself urged to increase the number of adherents to his sacred cause, and to teach peace. Even when, overcome by illness, his feeble body weakened, bowed by the Stigmata, he can hardly hold himself erect on his tired feet, we see him dragging round from village to hamlet, to fulfil his marvellous work of love. Behold him, extremely ill, and almost blind at Monte Casale, then at Rieti, after that at Bagnara di Nocera and at Cortona.

Now to all these places, he goes for the needs of religion, or sometimes toward the end, in search of doctors to cure his bodily suffering, but not because these are the chosen of his spirit. It is not here that we must search for the Franciscan landscape, for these are only transitory resting-places like Foligno, Gubbio and even Greccio, where he first instituted The Crib for the Feast of Christmas.

The spots most near to the heart of Francis, where his spirit seemed to touch God, where he lived his life of faith and religion to its most mysterious depth, were Assisi with the neighbouring caves and woods of the Subasio, Rivotorto and the Porziuncola; an island in Lake Trasimene, and La Verna.

One must not imagine that the present aspect of these places in any way resembles what St. Francis saw. The  p45 cult of the faithful has, especially in pomp-loving centuries, transformed too many humble things Franciscan, adding to some and destroying others. Certainly seen from afar, Assisi, with its golden woods against the dark background of Subasio, is the same as ever, but its western outline is changed by the outstanding Fortress and the great Basilica and Convent rising on the powerful arcades; and there grew up gradually not only this dark mass of buildings with the church of the Saint, but also a long series of palaces, houses, hovels spreading and degenerating as time went on, till they now cover parts of the walls and one gate of the city. Do not therefore believe those who say that Assisi is more or less as St. Francis saw it. It is both more beautiful and more ugly: the former because of that which has come from the devotion to the Saint and of its development especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries: the latter on account of the vulgarity of modern and speculative building. When St. Francis was born, there were still remains of the Temple of Minerva, the Amphitheatre and the Theatre although partially demolished, part of the Forum and the Walls. Of mediaeval building, the cathedral was prominent, with the rich ornamentation on the portals which we still admire, but not yet the loggia and the rose-windows. There were a few of the minor churches and the episcopal palace, but none of them in their present form. And all around clustered humble huts made of straw and wood, while to the west stood out that Hill of Darkness, which in  p46 grace of the building of the great basilica, became the Hill of Light. Naturally there did not exist the church of the Saint, nor that of Sta. Chiara and the Monte Frumentario. The palaces of the Consols and of the Priors were not completed till after the death of St. Francis, and about the same time as the façade of San Pietro, the church of San Lorenzo and the strong fortress overlooking the city. I will not continue this list, but will only say that it was owing to her great son that the city developed so rapidly, particularly in art, and so acquired a world-wide fame. But then the admirers of the Saint did everything to honour his memory, whilst to‑day they think too much of the material advantage they can derive from his sanctity and the celebrity of the place.

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Exterior of the church of San Francesco, Assisi
(Photo. Alinari)

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Upper Church of San Francesco, Assisi
(Photo. Alinari)

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Lower Church of San Francesco, Assisi
(Photo. Alinari)

However, one thing that has not changed is the beauty of the landscape:c the vast plain between encircled by hills, with towns and villages and castles at every turn of the road, at every descent of a lane, through arches, or above churches and houses; there is a continual variety of views; or of mountains, or of the level plain which extends round Sta. Maria degli Angeli. Thus Assisi on its height, contemplated by so many eyes, seems verily an altar, or the worthy cradle of a holy, light-giving spirit absorbed in the thought of heaven.

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Santa Maria degli Angeli
(Photo. Alinari)

If to‑day we had in their original aspect the places in which St. Francis lived, it would be our jealous and rigorous care so to keep and preserve them. But on the contrary until quite recently, it was thought that  p47 veneration for the saint should manifest itself in showing forth how poor he was, whilst as a matter of fact, this leads us away from his spirit and story. Fortunately, some places have been preserved almost in their primal condition, their moving simplicity, or maybe in their natural grandeur; the vanity of man not being able to transform the rocks, nor their avidity to the axe, as has been done in the forests of Camaldoli and of Vallombrosa.

For instance, humble is the church with the convent of San Damiano a few steps from Assisi, majestic is the forest which fringes the hermitage of the Carcere.

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Le Carceri, near Assisi
(Photo. Alinari)

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San Damiano,
near Assisi

The little choir of Santa Chiara, in San Damiano

(Photo. Alinari)

San Damiano, with its rough choir, the lectern resembling a pigeon-cote, from the bare refectory and the narrow oratory of Sta. Chiara, from the little terrace whence one contemplates such a wide horizon, seems in its poetic poverty to reveal the spirit of the saint. The church, on the contrary, small and modest, disturbs us by the debris of every age, and by its altar of false gothic.

San Damiano played a great part in the life of Francis, and in that little quiet place, we may well remember the saintliness of his life.

In the early hours of his hesitancy, he often went there to meditate; there from the crucifix which was afterwards transferred to Sta. Chiara, he heard the warning which determined his conversion. He wished to restore the little church with the money obtained by selling his rich clothes and his horse, and because the priest would not accept this offering, he threw it out of the window! He  p48 remained there a long time with the austere priest, returned there in the spring of 1206, and clothing himself as a hermit, with cord and sandals, he entered Assisi to beg alms for the restoration of his beloved chapel. 'Many turned him away, thinking him mad, but others took pity, felt themselves moved even to tears, seeing him so quickly changed from the lasciviousness and vanity of the world, to the inebriation of divine love' as to carry stones on his shoulders, and in many ways afflict himself in the service of God. And he begged for oil to keep alight the lamps. And it was there that he sent Chiara Scifi with her companions who had entered into a life of prayer and penitence, thus founding the order of Sisters, known to us as Poor Clares; there once more was it that, while resting on his way to Rieti for the cure of his eyes, he composed part of the magnificent Canticle of the Sun. Therefore after the death of the Saint, the funeral procession from the Porziuncola to Assisi, passed through San Damiano, leaving the body there for a time, so that Sta. Chiara, ill in body and mind, might kiss the hands and feet of her spiritual brother.

But the humbleness that can be found at San Damiano no longer exists at Rivo Torto or at St. Maria degli Angeli. The site of the little hut at Rivo Torto in which Francis and his companions hid themselves, is no longer certain, but a hideous church was built near there in 1853, an imitation of the cathedral at Assisi; and over the Porziuncola, a tardy and pompous devotion has raised a temple  p49 crowned with a great cupola, the architects of which (Vignola and Alessi) wisely kept to their own style, even though that is hardly suitable to the humble spot.

In fact there no longer exists the true Franciscan fascination of the famous place, once so dear to the heart of the Saint and where so many great episodes of his life took place. There is no longer the lovely forest where he lost himself in the highest exaltation of prayer; but instead, the tiny church of the Porziuncola is covered with academic pictures by Overbeck, and the cell where St. Francis died is transformed into a chapel and decorated within by Lo Spagna, and without by more modern artists. True it is that the church has in itself elements of grandeur and is not wanting in works of art, but the Spirit of the Poor Man is not there; it might be the church of any other saint in any other country of the world, just as the pilgrimages which meet there, and the conferences held, are without any special character. Now read in the Fioretti the description of the marvellous chapter held by St. Francis in Sta. Maria degli Angeli, with over 5,000 brothers: 'These spread themselves over the ground between the forest and the Porziuncola, and prayed and said the Office, and bewailed their own sins and those of their benefactors, and pondered over the health of the soul. And there were in that field huts of straw matting and of dried grass, differing in form for the Brothers of divers provinces, and for this reason these fields are known as the fields of grass or of matting! For beds they had  p50 the bare earth, some with a little straw; their pillows were of wood or stone.' Nor were the cells of the Saint and his companions much better; woven of branches and boughs, plastered with mud, and small in the extreme, the brothers might imagine themselves visiting the Franciscan sanctuary of Monteluco, in Spoleto, 'into which one enters with difficulty, and when within can only take three steps'.

And it was as the Sta. Maria that he wished to die. Lying ill at Assisi, he said, 'Find some way of carrying me, for I cannot walk'. Then the brothers took him in their arms and carried him, accompanied by many citizens, and as they passed an hospital on the way, St. Francis said to those who supported him, 'Put me down and turn me towards the city', and when he was placed with his face towards Assisi, he blessed the city many times, saying, 'Blessed be thou of God, O Holy City, because through thee many souls will be saved, and in thee many servants of God will dwell, and through thee many will reach the realms of eternal life.'

And after these words he was carried to Sta. Maria degli Angeli.

. . . . . . . . . .

Again we read in the Fioretti, 'St. Francis, being on the day of carnival close by the lake of Perugia, in the house of one of his followers with whom he had spent the night, was inspired by God that he should go and pass that Lenten Fast on an island of that said lake. And St. Francis besought this disciple, for the love of Christ, that he would  p51 take him in his little ship to an island of the lake where no one dwelt, and that he would do this on the night of Ash Wednesday, so that no one should see them. And this disciple for the great devotion that he had for St. Francis, speedily fulfilled his desire and took him to the said island: and St. Francis took with him only two little loaves. And having reached the island, and the friend leaving to return home, St. Francis prayed him heartily that he would not reveal to any one where he was, and that he would only come back to fetch him on Holy Thursday, and so this one departed. And St. Francis remained alone: and there not being any habitations in which he could shelter, he went into a thick hedge, where the wild plum trees and bushes formed a little hut in the shape of a nest; and in this place he betook himself to prayer and to contemplation of things celestial. And there he continued all through Lent, without eating and without drinking, except the half of one of those little loaves; and thus he was found by the disciple on Holy Thursday'.

I follow the walls of Passignano with their towers and tracery down to the edge of the lake, and enter a boat. Everything is blue in the light of the spring noon-tide: water, mountains, sky, and everything calm and noiseless. The boatman attempts conversation, but when I do not respond, he is silent. No other sound than that of the oars and of splashing water. No reminder of the famous battle on these banks in which Hannibal defeated the Romans and the Flaminian Consul, but the lake in its  p52 infinite peace and sweetness, seems to mirror the pure and lonely soul of St. Francis. We pass near the Isola Minore, called the Serpent Isle. I see but one house and that seems uninhabited; all around there is low and dense vegetation which on the summit changes to a clump of pines. Only on one side is the woody undergrowth broken by oblique strata of grey stone, and below, the shore seems hidden in a veil of rushes. Between the two large islands reappears the stretch of Trasimene shut in by the mountains of Bellaveduta and Marzolara. Isola Polvese, with the ruins of the convent of San Secondo, seems to lose itself in a verdant shadow of distance.

And now we are at Isola Maggiore, less wooded than the other. Near the landing-place rise some rocks covered with moss and crowned with olives. I land and find myself on a good road, having the lake on one side and fishermen's cottages on the other. I see also a twelfth-century church with a carved door, and some ruined houses. Ascending gradually, I come to a suppressed convent, now become Villa Guglielmi. The lake, notwithstanding the peace and bright light, gives a profound sense of sadness. It seems that the towers of Passignano and Castiglione watch over the midday sleep, and that they awake it with the gentle sound of church bells.

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Isola Maggiore from Lake Trasimene
(Photo. Alinari)

When St. Francis landed, the island was wild and uninhabited, but after the wonderful fast that he made there, 'Men began to build houses and live in them, and in a short time they made a great and grand castle and  p53 there was the place of the Brothers which is called "The Place of the Island", and still men and women of that castle have great veneration and devotion in the place where St. Francis kept the Lenten fast'.

. . . . . . . . . .

I have seen San Leo, the home of Orlando Catani, count of Chiusi in Casentino, who gave La Verna to St. Francis, and I have seen La Verna. The two rocks resemble each other; both steep and terrifying. On the 8th of May, 1213, St. Francis and Brother Leone betook themselves to San Leo, the retreat of the Feltreschi. There were solemn festivities going on 'because of the new knighthood of one of the counts of Montefeltro'.

The Saint preached in the piazzas and entered into the presbytery, and into the cathedral, still existing and which bears the date of its consecration 1173.

Orlando said to St. Francis, 'I have a holy mountain in Tuscany, called the Mount of La Vernia,º which is very solitary and wild, and it would be well suited to one who wishes to do penitence in a spot far removed from the world, or who desires a solitary life.' St. Francis was very grateful for the gift, but before accepting it, he desired that some of his companions should see if it were 'adapted for prayer and penitence'. And such in very truth they found it.

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The rude rock of La Verna

The Sasso Spicco of La Verna

(Photo. Alinari)

La Verna is the principal place in the life of the Saint: not less so than Assisi, not less than the Porziuncola, because it was there, on the summit of the 'rude rock'  p54 that he received the 'final seal'. Francis followed his companions to the mountain, and finding its severe solitude absolutely adapted for communion with God, he begged Orlando 'that he would have a simple cell made at the foot of a beautiful birch tree, a stone's throw from the place of the Brothers because that spot seemed to him to be truly suitable for devout prayer'.

And the story goes on: 'There, after a few days had passed, St. Francis, being close to the said cell, and considering the formation of the mountains, marvelling at the great fissures and tearing asunder of the huge rocks, he betook himself to prayer; and then did God reveal to him that those marvellous fissures appeared miraculously at the hour of the Passion of Christ, when, according to the Evangelist, the rocks were rent asunder. And thus God, who wonderfully appeared in the Mount of La Verna, wished to renew the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ in his soul by love and compassion, and in his body by the imprinting of the sacred Stigmata.'

I bow before the profound mystery of the miracle: I glory in its high poetry. 'All the Mount of La Verna (says the writer of the Fioretti) seemed as though it burned with the most splendid fire which lit and illuminated the surrounding mountains and valleys, as though it were the sun upon the earth; therefore the shepherds watching in that region, seeing the flaming mountain and so much light around, had very great fear, and thus they afterwards recounted to the Brothers, declaring that this flame  p55 on the Mount of La Verna lasted for the space of one hour, and more. In like manner, some muleteers going to Romagna, seeing the brilliance of this light which shone through the windows of the country inn, awoke, thinking that the sun was risen, and saddled and loaded their beasts; and journeying, they saw this said light cease, and the actual sun appear.'

The buildings constructed by the Brothers on this Franciscan mountain have not always been a success, nor suited to the lonesome beauty of the place. There are still some wild spots, as, for example, the Sasso Spicco, the 'bed of St. Francis', the rock of Fra Lupo, the grotto of Fra Leone, but the lowliness of the first inhabitants is too much obscured and suffocated by houses, churches, refectories, cloisters, chapels, pictures and sculptures of every description; mostly mediocre, from which one must alone exclude the enamelled terra-cottas of Andrea della Robbia, in their charming simplicity. The actual spot where, according to tradition, the Saint received the Stigmata, is converted into a church with a vainglorious richness. But what hope is there when the Order which actually has it in custody writes: 'In the year 1895 a pavement of gothic design has been substituted for the rough and uneven one of 1742. The new one is made of hard stone, white, dark and red combining geometrically the style of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and which harmonizes wonderfully with the altar, the choir and the rest of the church'?

 p56  Also it is sad to see a chapel close by, converted into a shop for the sale of post-cards, guide-books and images, commence in direct opposition to the spirit of the spot, and which ought to take place lower down, at the Beccia.

However, La Verna remains none the less the most impressive of the Franciscan holy places; for notwithstanding that man has made discord, it is surpassed by the grandeur of the mountains, of the rocks, of the forest, and happily one may say also, by the devotion of the Brothers.

In the woods, under the shade of pines and of beeches, amongst the undergrowth of the holly and the ash, one may still find quiet and wild recesses where it is possible to bury oneself and live with thoughts Beyond the Tomb, reawakening the remembrance of the life of poverty and of prayer led there by the most holy Saint; and thus going farther up the hill to the Penna, the immensity of the view detaches the soul from the low and base affairs of this earth.

With what sorrow did I leave La Verna! The sound of the bells of San Bonaventura accompanied me, and I knew not how to withdraw my gaze from the 'rude rock'. Ah! the sorrow of St. Francis as, weeping, he left it for the last time. And his spirit bled as had the Stigmata when it pierced his hands, and feet and breast.

A Dio Monte,

A Dio Monte d' Alverna,

A Dio Monte d' Angeli.

Thayer's Notes:

a The full story is masterfully told in the Fioretti of Tommaso di Celano; my translation of it is onsite.

b A wonderful touch, lost in the translation. Brother Leo, given his leonine name at birth — Francis prefers to call him "Little Sheep".

c Here, unfortunately, a note I wish I couldn't add. The landscape near Assisi, especially to the west of the town in the plain, has changed a great deal, and not for the better. The railway line is unobtrusive, but the busy highway is not, with its sheath of gas stations, commerce and light industry. Maybe even worse, population growth in the second half of the 20c, combined with a significant increase in the standard of living that now allows many people to build detached houses, has spawned a scatter of little concrete houses over several square miles, obscuring the land and the focus it used to give to the old villages of the area. The countryside between Assisi, Bastia, Bevagna and Spello has lost much of the visual charm; and depending on the weather, some days there's even a bit of smog.

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Page updated: 13 Jan 13