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28 March 2013

Emulation: III.3

Giotto, The Crib at Greccio
St. Francis and the Renaissance

troubadour |ˈtroōbəˌdôr; -ˌdoŏr|
a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries, esp. on the theme of courtly love.
• a poet who writes verse to music.
ORIGIN French, from Provençal trobador, from trobar ‘find, invent, compose in verse.’
from the Oxford English Dictionary

The new pope chose the name Francis. So in a sense did his model, who was baptized Giovanni (either his father later chose Francesco because he wanted him to be a worldly—i.e. French—businessman, or he preferred the name Francesco out of his own affinity for French troubadour music). Francesco d’Assisi is a paradigmatic figure of the Italian Middle Ages, shaped in a culture of crusades, poverty, nascent urbanism, internationalism, and a Church in crisis. With regards to the theme of Beauty, Francesco may seem a poor fit—more devoted to Lady Poverty and Sister Moon, he eschewed wealth and its attendant luxury, and lived the life of a mendicant and mystic.

Yet Francesco was also the great popularizer of the Nativity crèche (presepio in Italian); one of his first good works was manually rebuilding the dilapidated stone church of the Porzincula; and the pope who sanctioned his order had a vision of him supporting the papal basilica of the Lateran. Francesco was, in nuce, a devoted supporter of religious imagery and architecture. He also, almost single-handedly, reoriented Gothic art from the hieratic, impersonal, Byzantine manner to something more naturalistic, intimate, and popular. Arguably, then, he was a founder of what would become the Renaissance; Giotto is unthinkable without San Francesco, so too Leonardo and Raphael’s Madonnas, and Vasari’s whole trajectory of the buona maniera would not have its impetus without Francesco’s popular piety.

Bernini, S. Francis in Ecstasy, Raymondi Chapel
And if Giotto was not possible without Francesco, neither was Bernini the artist of Baroque spirituality. San Francesco may be responsible for the Madonnas that found their fulfillment in Raphael, but his own mysticism and its culmination in the stigmata would also sponsor the images of ecstasy that Barocci painted and Bernini carved. The synthesis of naturalism and mysticism that the saint from Assisi represents is the essence of Italian art in its flowering, budding in the fifteenth century and blossoming in the seventeenth.

The tension for St. Francis’ followers was their desire to honor him and his desire for simplicity. When we visit S. Francesco in Assisi today, it seems a riot of color to American ideas, “ornate” in ways we aren’t always comfortable with. Yet what makes the upper and lower churches there so remarkable are the frescoes, and this is the humblest of all artistic media—lime and sand plaster, painted with earth pigments suspended in water. Poorer than that, one cannot get. What makes it art, and remarkable, are the form and meaning endowed on it by the artist and iconographer. If the new Pope Francis I wants a “poor church,” fresco is a good place to start. And durable buildings, as S. Francesco himself built them, are their essential foundation.

primo pensiero for a Stigmata

Bernini, Raymondi Chapel, S. Pietro in Montorio

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