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At certain moments in history destiny seems to hesitate between weal and woe, as if awaiting the arrival of someone — who usually doesn't come. But toward the end of the twelfth century a child appeared who almost managed to turn the Christian ideal into a triumphant fact.
Was it September 1181 or early 1182? He was born sometime between those dates in Assisi, a town in Umbria whose roots are lost in antiquity, a Christian town to be sure, but a place where immemorial pagan traditions seemed to spring forth from the Etruscan soil. This little city in the heart of Italy followed the calendar of either Pisa or Florence, but so far the archives have told us nothing about the name chosen for a newborn whose family was not illustrious. Which explains the uncertainty over his birth.
Historians are still trying to locate the house where he came into the world. Various sites have been pointed to, the latest research claiming, provisionally, that he was born, not in a stable between an ox and an ass, as some enthusiasts would have it, but in a solid, handsome residence near the Piazza del Commune.
His father was away when his mother gave birth. Her name was Giovanna, but they called her Pica, no doubt because she came from Picardy. She was still confined to her bed when a man knocked on the door of the house, asking for alms. At the time of a birth, as at Christmas, pilgrims were never turned away. The family thought they could get rid of this one by giving him a wingfrom the chicken prepared for the recuperating mother. But the old man wasn't satisfied with the wing and asked to be shown the new baby. Lady Pica protested a little, but she had a stubborn customer to deal with and when he pressed his mysterious demand, she sensed some kind of supernatural influence and finally agreed. She let him come in and even take the child in his arms. He began at once to prophesy, declaring that on that day two boys had been born in Assisi, one of whom would be among the best of men, while the other would be among the worst.
Here I can't help thinking of those allegorical characters in Hawthorne's stories whose veiled words become clear only long after they have been uttered. Two boys, the best and the worst. Perhaps they were one and the same boy, the carnal and spiritual man of Saint Paul. Doesn't each one of us have the makings of both a saint and a hardened sinner? Every serious Christian has experienced that cruel war between those two irreconcilable enemies.
Back then, of course, this explanation never crossed anyone's mind. People already knew who the best one was, and they wondered who the worst could be. Years later they found him in the shape of a wretch who had been born on the same date and had died on the gallows.
In any case, after she had been churched his mother brought him to the cathedral of San Rufino. He had barely crossed the threshold when he entered the kingdom of legends where he was destined to remain. He had already fallen prey to God.
We don't know a great deal about Lady Pica, except that she was very pious. The name she gave her child was not a random choice: Baptismal names were indelible and left their mark on one's entire life. The water flowed down his forehead, and he was called Giovanni, not the Evangelist, but the Baptist, the man who had plunged Jesus into the waters of the Jordan. That Giovanni had announced the coming of the Messiah and preached repentance as the way to salvation. And Jesus had said of him that he was the greatest of men. For this reason Pica felt sure about her son's future, now that he had been put under the protection of the most honored saint of all.
Pica's neighbors believed she had the gift of clairvoyance. She would readily prophesy, after the fashion of the time. "You'll see that his merits will make of him a son of God," she would say some years later. So little Giovanni was brought back home in the arms of his mother who loved him as much as she was proud of him. He was a pretty, bright-eyed boy with a tiny, slightly pale face; but he seemed sickly and he had to be carefully nursed all through childhood.
Time passed, and his father returned. Then the troubles began, troubles that proved to be never-ending.
Pietro di Bernardone looked at his son. When he learned that in his absence the child had been baptized Giovanni, he flew into a violent rage. A cloth merchant by trade, he was just back from Champagne, where he had bought finer quality fabrics than those made in Italy; and, as if infatuated with France and all things French, he got the idea of calling his son Francesco, that is, "Frenchman." Though not as bad as occasionally portrayed, Pietro di Bernardone was every bit as tyrannical as parvenus often are; and his word was law within the four walls of his house. The baby would be called Francis. Naturally he couldn't be baptized all over again, but Pica's objections were overruled, and she had no choice but to give in.
So Francis it would be, an unusual name, a little bizarre, something like a surname. But then his mother had one herself. Still, no French boy would be burdened with the name "English" or "Italian." Perhaps not, but a close inspection of the archives turned up two obscure Francescos, neither of them canonized. That was enough.
Bernardone's anger shows that, like his wife, he believed in the crucial role a name could play in the destiny of the baptized child...