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San Francesco

St. Francis

October 4 marks the feast of one of the most beloved saints, St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). Renowned for his rapport with all God’s creatures (noto per il suo rapporto con tutte le creature di Dio), he also qualifies as the patron saint (patrono) of la bella lingua.

A sickly but charming child, Francesco became the ringleader of a group of fun-loving, hard-drinking, spoiled young men (un gruppo di giovani viziati, forti bevitori e amanti del divertimento) in Assisi. Among his delights (tra i suoi diletti) were the charming French chansons of Provence, which had migrated to Italy.

Hungry for adventure (affamato di avventura), Francesco joined Assisi’s military to fight neighboring Perugia. After being captured by enemy troops, he spent nearly a year in prison (in prigione). This traumatic experience (questa esperienza traumatica), followed by a serious illness, changed Francesco.

Devoted to “his bride” (sua sposa) Lady Poverty (Madonna Povertà), Francesco renounced all earthly possessions and formed a religious order of “begging brothers” (frati mendicanti). Wearing the crude brown robes (le vesti marroni or il saio marrone) of the poorest Umbrian beggars, the Lord’s troubadours wandered the countryside chanting God’s praises in songs called laudes that Francesco wrote in the Umbrian dialect.

Even animals responded to his heartfelt words. When a gargantuan wolf (un enorme lupo) terrorized the town of Gubbio, the friar approached the beast. The wolf lunged at him, but Francesco entreated him not to eat “Brother Ass” (Fratello Asino, as he referred to his body). The wolf curled up at his feet. In Greccio near Assisi,  Francesco brought a real ox and donkey into the church at Christmas time to create the first Nativity scene (rappresentazione della Natività).

Despite chronic health problems, Francesco delighted in being a child of the universe (un figlio dell’universo). His Canticle of the Creatures (Cantico delle Creature)—which one translator describes as “the first real knock-your-socks-off masterpiece of Italian poetry”—celebrates with innocent wonder Master Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, Brother Fire, and Mother Earth (Fratello Sole, Sorella Luna, Fratello Vento, Sorella Acqua, Fratello Fuoco, e Madre Terra).

The tune has been lost, but lines like these capture its melodic spirit:

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per sora luna e le stelle,

in celu l’ài formate clarite et pretiose et belle.

Laudato si’, mi’ Signore, per frate vento

et per aere et nubilo et sereno et onne tempo,

per lo quale a le tue creature dai sustentamento.

Here is an English translation:

“Be praised, my lord, for sister moon and stars

in heaven you formed them—clear and precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, for brother wind and air,

and every kind of weather, cloudy and fair,

by which you give your creatures what they need.

With this verse, comprehensible in its original language to contemporary Italians, the humblest of saints (il più umile dei santi) raised the humble vernacular (l’umile vernacolo) to a heavenly height (un livello celestiale).

Words and Expressions

Penitenza –- penance

Illuminazione divina –- divine revelation

Fare un fioretto –- to make a small vow to God

Pellegrinaggio –- pilgrimage

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and  LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.