San Francesco d'Assisi
Saint Francis of Assisi
The patron saint of Italy is San Francesco - Saint Francis.
He was born in Assisi in 1182. Assisi is a small, ancient town in the Italian region of Umbria and the province of Perugia. It is built high up on a hill and surrounded by an old wall.
Francesco's mother was called Pica and there is a possibility that she was French. His father was called Pietro (Peter). The family's surname was Bernardone.
The family was very wealthy. Pietro was a cloth merchant, selling fine fabrics to the rich. This meant that the family was always dressed in the finest clothes. Pietro probably travelled to France or had dealings with the French in order to buy his special fabrics.
So, Francesco grew up in a wealthy household where he heard the French language. As a young child, he would sing French songs and this impressed the local people. They gave him the nickname 'Frenchy' - Francesco. His real name was Giovanni, meaning - John.
Francesco had lots of friends. Most of them were the sons of the other rich families of Assisi. They loved to go to parties - staying out all night and sleeping during the day. They had grown up as spoilt youths who didn't need to work because their parents were rich.
They spent lots of money on going out and having a good time.
Andiamo alla festa!
In those times, wealthy parents expected their sons to fight battles in order to defend the local people. They believed that it showed a sense of duty, bravery, power and that it would bring prestige and honour to the family name.
One day, Francesco's parents watched with pride as he set off on horseback to the cheers and admiration of the local people.
However, something strange and mysterious happened! The next day, Francesco returned home. He appeared to be ill and feverish. He explained nothing and just went straight to bed. His parents were embarrassed because their son seemed weak and not at all like the heroic figure of the day before.
Nobody knows what happened to Francesco. It remains a mystery. Had he been attacked by robbers? Had he fallen ill? Had God spoken to him?
Suddenly, Francesco wanted to change his lifestyle. There would be no more fighting in battles or wanting to earn lots of money.
As he lay in bed recovering from his sickness, Francesco became fascinated by animals and nature. The sound of birdsong and the beauty of nature made him feel better.
He no longer wanted to be involved in his father's business. Instead, he decided to give away all his belongings to the poor and to live outside the walls of Assisi in the countryside with no money and no possessions.
He had always dressed in the finest clothes but from now on he decided to wear only a simple tunic, tied with a cord at the waist. Francesco's father was very disappointed and could not understand why his son would prefer to live in poverty.
Below is a photo of the actual robe worn by San Francesco. It is on display in la Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi.
Living outside the town, Francesco's time was spent helping people who were suffering from leprosy and rebuilding old, ruined chapels. He believed that God had told him to do so.
In those days, the most feared illness was leprosy. Anyone who had the illness was cruelly forced to live outside the town in caves or huts. They even had to wear a bell around their necks so that people could hear them from a distance and run away before they came too near.
Everyone in Assisi found it impossible to believe that Francesco chose to live in such close contact with those who were suffering from the illness.
One day, when Francesco was passing in front of a ruined chapel called San Damiano, the cross hanging above the old altar spoke to him and told him to rebuild the chapel.
This cross is very famous. It is called Il Crocifisso di San Damiano and it can be seen today in the church called la Basilica di Santa Chiara in Assisi.
The cross is in the style that was common at that time: a colourful image painted onto a wooden cross shape.
Francesco obeyed the words spoken by the cross and rebuilt three chapels, stone by stone. Two of those chapels -San Damiano and Santa Maria degli Angeli - still exist today!
Below is a photo of the chapel called Santa Maria degli Angeli. It is also known as La Porziuncola, meaning: the little portion of property. Can you see the arched entrance? Do you notice how the external wall has been colourfully painted?
Question: Was Francesco suffering during his new, simple lifestyle?
Answer: Absolutely not! He was just so happy!
In fact, he was soon joined by his rich friends! They decided that they wanted to be as happy as Francesco by living in a simple manner. They abandoned their comfortable homes and valuable possessions. Their parents were disappointed and confused. They could not understand why they chose to live like this!
Francesco and his friends lived in the rebuilt chapel called La Porziuncola.
One of Francesco's friends was called Chiara (Clare). She decided to join the group. Her wealthy family wanted her to return home but she refused to do so. Instead, she made the decision to live in a simple manner, wearing plain clothes and she even cut her long hair into a short style. In those days, this was the sign that she was giving up her vanity. She was also demonstrating that a person's appearance should not be:
1. How others expect or demand that it should be.
2. An important thing by which you are judged.
Her famous locks of hair have been preserved and are displayed in a glass case in la Basilica di Santa Chiara, Assisi.
Nowadays, Clare is better known as Santa Chiara - Saint Clare. Below is a painting of Saint Clare by Italian artist Simone Martini.
Clare and the female companions lived together in the rebuilt chapel called San Damiano. They became known as The Poor Clares. In Italian they are called Le Clarisse. Their order still exists today.
Below is an image of the church called San Damiano where Clare lived.