When San Francesco lay dying, he asked to be moved from the bishop's residence in Assisi to the chapel at the Portiuncula, a distance of about two miles outside the city walls. As they passed the city gates, he bid the friars carrying him to set him down on the road so that he might say farewell to the place of his birth. "This town," he began, "has the worst reputation in the whole region as the home of every kind of rogue and scoundrel." Then he begged God to bless the place and to make it the home of all who sincerely honored his name.
According to the brochure put out by the Commune's busy tourist agency, Assisi is a city that cannot just be "seen," it must be "experienced," a place, perhaps the place, where "the spirit of St. Francis pervades all." Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors, art lovers, tourists, and pilgrims from all over the world flock to see the famous basilica where the saint is buried. The narrow streets in which Francesco begged for bread are lined with hundreds of shops selling all manner of atrocious trinkets and some of the worst food to be found in Italy, at prices as breathtaking as the view from the Rocca Maggiore, the late-medieval fortress that glowers over the prosperous town. The spirit that pervades these streets is the same one that whistled down the stone staircases and across the Piazza del Commune in Francesco's lifetime, the same spirit that drove him straight into the outspread arms of Christ: the cold, relentless, insatiable, furious spirit of commerce.
Francesco di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi toward the end of 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica, who may or may not have been French. Francesco had an ordinary childhood, helping with his father's business and attending the church school near their house, where he was an unremarkable student. He grew to be a lively young man, fond of music and parties, given to romantic tales, dreams of knighthood, fantastic treasure quests, and prayer in solitary chapels. During one such occasion, at the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, God spoke to him from a crucifix, bidding him to repair the church. Francesco took some bolts of cloth from his father's warehouse, sold them, and delivered the profit to the resident priest to pay for the repair of the chapel. Pietro, enraged by his son's extravagance, brought a complaint against him, which was resolved in the public square of Assisi. When the bishop advised Francesco to return the money to his father, he declared, "My Lord Bishop, not only will I gladly give back the money which is my father's but also my clothes." He stripped off his clothes, placed the money on them, and, standing naked before the bishop, his father, and all present, announced, "Listen, all of you, and mark my words. Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but because I am resolved to serve God I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will say, 'Our father who art in heaven,' and not Father Pietro Bernardone." The crowd wept in sympathy, and the bishop covered the youth with his own cloak.
Francesco then took refuge in the poor church, where he devoted himself to making repairs, begging for food, oil, and stones on the streets of Assisi. His former neighbors mocked him and drove him away, but one rich young man, Bernardo of Quintavalle, impressed by Francesco's sincerity and evident contentment in his new life, decided to join him. Together the two men gave away all of Bernardo's money and possessions to the poor.
After that, there were more followers. In 1209, when they numbered eleven, the group walked to Rome to ask the pope to approve a Rule by which they might live as liegemen to the Church. After a dream in which he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing and Francesco holding it up, the pope, Innocent III, gave them a verbal and very conditional approval.
Francesco's brotherhood, the Fratres Minores, grew rapidly. Within a few years, the original twelve had grown to five thousand (by contrast, the Dominican order, the Friars Preachers, as they were known, founded at roughly the same time, had fewer than fifty friars by 1220), and they gathered each year during the feast of Pentecost for chapter meetings at the Portiuncula, a wooded area owned by local Benedictine monks and leased to the friars for one basket of fish per year. At these meetings, Francesco delivered various admonitions, the friars were assigned to different regions, the custos and ministers were appointed, and problems of administration were addressed. Between these meetings, the mission of the fratres was to wander homeless over the world, preaching repentance, begging for their food, offering themselves as servants to all. This was the way, they believed, the early apostles had lived, the way Christ had adjured all his followers to live, giving the world an example of virtue, loving poverty, making no preparations for the next meal, the next bed, but leaving everything to God.
San Francesco's ministry lasted nearly twenty years. His health was never good. In Egypt, where he went to attempt the conversion of the sultan, he contracted an eye disease that made his eyes weep continuously, gave him such terrific headaches that he could not stand any light, and eventually left him blind. He gave up the stewardship of the order and retired to Mount La Verna with three of his closest friends for a period of fasting and prayer. When he came down from this mountain, he had two features that distinguished him from all previous saints: his hands and feet were pierced by nails and there was an open wound in his side, as from a lance.
With the possible exception of St. Paul, who wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians (6:17), "I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus," San Francesco's was the first recorded occurrence of the stigmata. It is not an exaggeration to say that the stigmata, as a religious phenomenon, was his idea. How such a thing could happen is, naturally, a great mystery, and before that mystery, many of his biographers come to a grinding halt, as if, rounding a bend in their pursuit of the humble saint, they suddenly encountered a raging elephant. Some see this event as the crowning achievement of Francesco's life, signaling his complete identification, hence, union, with his beloved Christ. Others suggest that there was an element of despair in the miracle; that Francesco saw himself as one crucified by the unrest and infighting in the great movement he had founded. His contemporaries, though they had never heard of such a thing, seem to have accepted it and found it in keeping with what they understood to be the nature of God's continual interference in the world of men. In their view, Francesco had been singled out and marked by Christ as his own. The stigmata proved what everyone already suspected, that he was a living saint. Two years later, in October 1226, Francesco died peacefully at Assisi, revered by all, his devoted friars gathered around him. He was forty-five years old.
This is the story one can follow in the fresco cycles painted by some of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance-Cimabue, Giotto, Sassetta, Bellini, Gozzoli-in colors and compositions that, after hundreds of years, retain an astonishing freshness and a heady exuberance, as if the artists were excited about the story they were telling. Unconcerned with meaning, they throw their energy into a personal vision, concentrating on atmosphere. Each sees the saint differently (Gozzoli, for example, contrary to several descriptions given by people who saw Francesco, paints him as a handsome, healthy young man with curling golden locks), and each brings the considerable force of his artistry to bear on "the life." They know the stories, are of the environment that produced the saint, speak the language he spoke, and believe, more or less, what he believed. The humble friar wandering silently through the landscape of the frescoes, his head encircled by light, is thus both a construct and a memory.
San Francesco is the patron saint of Italy, and nearly every town has a church in his name, decorated with scenes from his life; but the first cycle I saw was in the National Gallery of London nearly fifteen years ago. It was painted by a Sienese artist known as Il Sassetta sometime in the fifteenth century. I had seen prints of it, and had for many years a framed detail of the panel entitled The Mystical Marriage of St. Francis over my desk; it shows St. Francis exchanging wedding rings with Lady Poverty, a pretty barefoot girl with a wooden yoke over her shoulders. (I thought, as a young writer, I might profit by a daily colloquy with this lady.) But prints did not prepare me for the strangeness, the avidity, of the actual paintings. Fortunately, there was a bench in front of them, and I sat there for some time, admiring the otherworldly view.
When I moved to Italy in 1994, I made it a practice to visit any church or monastery that was reputed to have good frescoes of San Francesco. I was particularly drawn to the cycle painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in Montefalco, which depicts the saint as the new Christ, even reworking the nativity so that he takes his first breath amid cattle (though we know San Francesco was not born in a stable). In these paintings, as in the Sassetta cycle, the saint moves through a world that is both ordinary and magical. He lies comfortably on his bed while an angel enters the room from the ceiling, and outside his window, his dream-a castle with flying pennants-rises into the middle air. In another panel, he rushes down the street before his house, a well-dressed youth in a hurry, about to be waylaid by a poor man who prophesies that he will be a great saint. From the doorway, Francesco's mother looks on with an expression of mild foreboding.
The various frescoes drew my attention to the character of San Francesco; a lifelong interest in hagiography did the rest. I began to pick up biographies, randomly at first, and then with more direction, finding myself returning to the earliest sources, the accounts collected by the saint's three closest friends: Brother Leone, who served as his secretary for the last years of his life, and Brothers Rufino and Angelo, who were with him in the early days of the order.
Because saints were presumed to have certain agreed-upon powers and peculiarities, medieval hagiography has a tendency to emphasize the sameness of its subjects. Saints, for example, routinely possessed the ability to communicate with and tame wild animals. (St. Columban, an Irish saint who died within two hundred miles of Assisi, was known for his preaching to birds.) The oft-illustrated, well-loved stories of Francesco taming the wolf of Gubbio and preaching to the birds are probably apocryphal, intended to place him among a select company. Edward Armstrong points out one variant of the bird sermon story that strikes me as quite plausible, however. In this one, Francesco's preaching is ignored by the birds, who fly away, and he then chastises himself for being so vain as to imagine they would listen to him. This version has the ring of truth both because of the way Francesco chooses to reprimand himself-he calls himself "You stupid son of Pietro di Bernardone"-and the likelihood that he might want to try his hand at something saints were generally expected to do, for there can be no doubt that Francesco had every intention of becoming a saint.
But, in spite of their fidelity to the form of the inspirational text, the early hagiographies of San Francesco differ from accounts of other medieval saints. They contain surprising, small personal details (the saint's fondness for sweets, or the fact that his eyebrows met over the bridge of his nose), and represent a concerted effort to write down the exact manner and tone of his speech. The authors, who were with the saint for years on end, keep track of his moods and lament over his illnesses, complaining of the doctors' inability to do anything but make him worse. One has a sense of their urgency to get down for posterity this remarkable personality which was unlike any they had ever known. They quote Francesco confidently, not reverentially, and with an ear to the incisive wit and irony that surprised all those who knew him.
A second difference in these accounts is more difficult to describe, because it is more a matter of tone than content, an insistence that borders on stridency-as if the saint needed defending, as if there was an accusation to answer, as if San Francesco was on trial. This defensiveness on the part of his biographers persists to the present and can be explained in part by the events just preceding and following his death, for, though he died peacefully, in the odor of sanctity, the steely charge of controversy was in the air as well.
Before he died, the order San Francesco founded had begun to self-destruct-a fact that poisoned the last years of his life. As soon as he was gone, the Fratres Minores split into two factions that viewed each other with distrust and contempt. The crucial issue was Francesco's insistence, repeated in the various Rules he composed during his lifetime and with much force in his final testament, dictated on his deathbed, that the friars were to own no property, either personal or communal, excepting "one habit, quilted inside and out if they wished, with a cord and breeches."
In 1228, barely two years after his death, San Francesco was canonized by Pope Gregory IX (formerly Cardinal Ugolino of Segni, Francesco's old friend and patron of the order). The cornerstone was laid at Assisi, and Brother Elia, then minister general of the order, began the excavation for the great basilica in which the saint was to be buried. To this end, Brother Elia solicited and received in abundance that which Francesco had forbidden the friars even to touch: money.
Two years later, in September 1230, in the bull Quo elongati, Pope Gregory decreed that the testament, because it had been written without the consent of the minister general, had no binding power over the order. The friars could not own property, but they could have use of property owned by someone else-for example, the pope. They could, then, establish houses; have the use of books and furniture; rely on a supply of food; and attend the universities in Bologna and Paris. So fearful was the reaction to this decree in the widespread brotherhood (by this time some twenty thousand strong) that Francesco's earliest companions, Rufino, Angelo, and Egidio, were forced to go into hiding to escape persecution.
From the start, Francesco's biographers have been forced to address this controversy, to take sides, defending either the Church, which acted to preserve peace inside the order and to guarantee its continuance and governability, or Francesco, ignored and traduced by weak-minded followers who refused the rigor of his rule and betrayed his most treasured principle, the vow of total poverty. The fact that Francesco was also adamantly submissive to the Church, and especially to the pope, adds a certain piquancy to the struggle to settle the question of whether the founder actually intended to create anything resembling the order that bears his name. Evidently, he saw no conflict between his determination to respect Church authority and his need to follow the dictates of his own conscience, which he believed was in direct communication with God. He saw no contradiction even when these two were at loggerheads. Like a soldier who understands the chain of command, he took his orders from anyone who was over him, but when the battle raged and the general appeared on the field, he knew what to do.