A Sua Immagine

How many of you like the name you were given by your parents? How many of you would like to change it? I know at least one person, now no longer resident here, whose name was identical to that of a famous violet-eyed actress until she changed it to an American Indian one.

I am quite happy with my name except when it’s spelt incorrectly. Francis is me; Frances is my hypothetical sister. It’s so much easier in Italian with ‘Francesco’ and ‘Francesca’. Having said this, I was known at work as ‘Frank’ – a useful distinction separating my private social life from my public work persona.

I’m also happy with the person who first bore my name. He started off as a dissolute happy-go-lucky ladies’ man with an ample store of sometimes naughty troubadour songs which he sang in perfect southern French romance tongue. Everything seemed to go well for him: wine, women, song and plenty of money –if he joined his dad’s merchant business.

Unfortunately, however, for his family (and certainly for his women) he had a lightning revelation which contrasted the pampered life he was leading with the life he felt truly called to follow. Literally stripping himself naked before his father, he finished up poorer than anyone could remember. Emaciated by mortification and suffering, filthy with sores and embracing those with leprotic pustules, considered ripe for the madhouse by one half, yet considered ripe for sainthood by the other half, unwilling or unable to take control of the new movement he had inspired and still today the subject of debate both scholarly and street-wise. A family acquaintance, Zeffirelli himself, confessed to us that he felt near to complete disgust at his hero’s total lack of self-regard when making that iconic film on him: ‘Frate Sole, Sorella Luna.’

I do not need to tell you the name of the Poverello except to state that his name etymologically means ‘from France’ – in particular, southern France, that ’Provence’ redolent of post-classical romance and spirituality. Indeed, Francis used chivalric images of courtly love to woo his Lady Poverty and his Sister Chastity. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways with a language taken from such sources as Guillaume de Lorris’ so-very influential Roman de la Rose. Francis was truly spirituality’s greatest troubadour.

At the same time Francis overturned the conventions of courtly love – turned perfumed roses into gardens of thorns, kissed puss-filled cheeks rather than white-powdered ones, found joy (Letizia – what a wonderful chapter that is in his fioretti) in howling storm-ridden wastelands rather than cossetted inns, sang the delights of plain water to that of rich wines (something more of us should do) and, above all (and not at all self-consciously), modelled his life on that of Christ itself.

Italy is filled with the great Franciscan churches with their very particular architecture. No aisles for these monumental buildings but, rather, huge barn-like structures like that of San Francesco so excellently restored in Lucca (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/magisterial-monastery/ on the reopening of this extraordinary building): barnlike because the emphasis was on congregation, togetherness, simplicity and, above all, preaching.

Borgo a Mozzano has its own gem-like example of a Franciscan convent complete with aisleless church and cloisters (from claustrum, meaning an enclosed space apart from the turmoil of the world) connecting the spiritual centre to its practical subsidiaries such as the refectory, the chapter house, the dormitory and the workshops and cellars.


The Borgo convent was built in 1523 by a member of the order of Frati Minori (friars minor), the new order founded by Saint Francis, on a hill overlooking Borgo a Mozzano. The original Observants sold it to the Reformed friars of the same order around 1597. (Sadly even petty schism are prevalent in these orders – witness Friar Leo…).The monastery has a beautiful view of the town below, a large vegetable garden with a pergola bedecked with kiwi fruits and is surrounded by a deep forest of oaks. Entering the sweet loggia, which has a chapel on its right, one finds an old cloister, with spacious arches, and twenty nine lunettes painted by Domenico Manfredi of Camaiore illustrating scenes of Saint Francis’ life in chronological, clockwise order. The centre of the cloisters has a well built by Raphael of Controni in 1551.  The cloister area is particularly picturesque at Christmas time when a life-size crib is set up.

The history of the lunettes was that of gradual deterioration due to the elements. When the friars sold the convent in 1983 to the voluntary Misericordia association, which caters for the sick and dying by offering medical assistance and ambulance services (in addition to running a very well appointed rest-home) the priority was to adapt the buildings for their new use as a place for the old and sick. Artistic niceties were relegated to second place. That is, until 2011 when generous assistance from such corporations as the Cassa di Risparmio di Lucca sponsored the restoration of the lunettes, all of which apart from five are now restored to their full splendour.

Here is an example of a lunette before restoration.

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And here is another, reinstated as close to its original colours as possible according to the now prevalent rules of conservative restoration.

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The twenty nine lunettes have occupied the mind of eminent classicist and hagiographist Christopher Stace for some time ever since he showed them to a Franciscan friar friend of his. Eventually, this interest resulted in a book which Stace modestly calls a guide book but which, in its details and profound research, become rather more than that. In a sense Christopher has invented a new literary genre which could be termed ‘the educated guidebook’.

The presentation of the book, ‘A Sua Immagine’, ‘In His Image’ (yes it’s written in both English and Italian and alludes indirectly to that fine RAI religious programme in addition, of course, to underlining the fact that Saint Francis’ life became increasingly interpreted as a mirror image of that of Christ himself) was the occasion of an extremely pleasant and learned (yes, the two can go together in the right hands!) afternoon at the Convent of Saint Francis. Published by the prestigious Lucchese publishing house of Maria Pacini Fazzi Editore, it is a snip at just twenty euros for over two hundred pages of fine writing and beautiful illustrations. The good thing, too, is that proceeds will go to the Fraternità di Misericordia of Borgo a Mozzano. (I still have with delight the book on the Misericordia by Leonilda Marchesini Rondina, mother of the noted architect and of the musician, with her sweet dedication to me and Sandra.)

The presentation was well organised with interventions by Fr William Short, ofm (order of the friars minor) and professor of Spirituality at the Franciscan college of San Luis Rey in California, who inspired the author to write the book, Fr Fortunato Lozzelli ofm, the energetic new mayor of Borgo a Mozzano, Patrizio Andreuccetti, the ‘Governatore della Misericordia’ Gabriele Brunini and, of course, the author himself. I wish more time had been given to the restoration techniques used in the lunettes under the direction of Lorenzo Lanciani but the book will amply describe that essential aspect of the revaluation of the lunettes.

The main corpus of the guidebook deals with a description and explanation of each of the lunettes. What is particularly significant here is the part that the book De Conformitate Vitae Beati Francesci et Vitam Domini Jesu (how the life of Saint Francis conforms to the life of Christ) by as yet untranslated author Bartolomeo da Pisa (although we are promised a translation by the prof.) influenced the depictions of the frescoes which, it must be remembered, served an especially important purpose at a time when even many potentates were illiterate. (Charlemagne for example, confessed that he couldn’t ‘get the hang of’ reading and writing!)

At the same time, the lunettes are not a cartoon exposition of the life of the ‘little poor one’. If we are looking for assured news facts this is not the place to find them. Indeed, for several of the incidents the sources are dubious to say the least. The point is that the scenes depicted in the lunettes have a symbolic, moral and eschatological significance which overrides any merely factual event. I like to compare this technique with that used by, for example, painters like David particularly in flamboyantly showing Napoleon’s crossing of the Alps.  The Italians are particularly good at this melodramatic, metaphorical way of displaying events. Indeed, when anything came to resemble real life too closely the painter would be chastised. The example of Caravaggio comes to mind when he had to paint two versions of the crucifixion of St Peter because in the first version Peter looked too much like a peasant (which, as a fisherman he clearly had an affinity with).

Nevertheless, there are charming domestic features of the lunettes as in number thirteen depicting Francis’s version of the multiplying of the loaves.  The four Gospels here refer to five loaves and two fish. I can’t see any fish here – perhaps the rather well-fed cat, suckling in turn its own young, in the centre of the refectory has already eaten them! I would suggest that was a good reward for an animal without whose help rather less bread would have been able to be baked due to the scourge of mice so common in mediaeval granaries. Incidentally, although Francis loved animals (and famously preached to the birds) I don’t think he had a particular penchant for cats. One of ours has just brought me the present of a gold-finch which I had to save from its ferocious claws and allow it to fly once more into the blue ethereal sky.

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There was no shortage of comestibles after the book’s presentation. The Arcadian gardens of the monastery were completed by tables replete with both savoury and honeyed goodies with plenty of liquids to wash them down. No event in Italy is complete without a rinfresco. Indeed, the rinfresco is a sort of bribe for all good adult children to pay attention to the speeches in order to obtain their foody rewards! I’m sure the attention of the audience was high enough to guarantee them a well-deserved reward. But then the subject was so interesting and the company I was with so worthwhile to be with.

I was truly in my element with my brilliant artist, restorer and archaeologist friends and with the subject so eloquently and, at the same time, so entertainingly written about by prof. Stace.

PS I seem to have written rather a lot on the convent of San Francesco a Borgo a Mozzano, especially on its music, its altars and its restorations. Here are a few of my posts if you still want to know more:







Etc. etc.


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