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Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Arezzo > Piero della Francesca
San Francesco at the sacred Mount in La Verna

Damiano Andreini

Giotto: "Francesco talking to the birds", Assisi, 1290-95
We have been following the traces of the ancient and modern Etruscans, we have been imaging over popular tales from the Maremma countryside and discovering Breton swords embedded in the golden stones of the Sienese hills. We have also stopped on the scaffoldings of certain Florentine churches, next to acrobat-painters, to observe and nearly smell the scent of fresh colors just laid down on the wall. We have been hoping for the destiny of poor witches and long-nosed puppets, we have been sailing for "not-yet-found" islands and we have eventually dived into the thermal waters of clear stone baths.

This is also another face of the farm-holiday: the pleasure of stopping and leaving again, but with no hurry, towards a multi-faced reality. It must be said, on the other hand, that I would give and explain a main reason for a stay in a farm-holiday, if I were to give one: the silence. Yes, indeed, more than once the silence had been indicated to me as the real something new of the farm-holidays. I kept this information as something given for granted, since people usually come from the noising environments of the cities and they are immediately able to realize the difference, while in their bedrooms, out of which only crickets are passing by and where the only lightning consists of the moonlight or of the soft light of the fireflies (who are absolutely silent, differently from the crickets).

That is why, at the beginning, this reason seemed to me an obvious one, as such, but it then came to my mind that a contemporary poet had defined the city noise as "the most terrible silence", in that it caused solitude. So I could understand that the quietness of our countries are worthy of an opportunity to the tourists: that is why I'm now going to accompany you (obviously, keeping the voice low) towards the secret of La Verna ...

La Verna: «The most sacred between the Mountains...»

In 1224, Francesco (Francis) of Bernardone, who was then 43, went again to La Verna. It was not the first time that he walked up the mount together with some other friends, as he had been regularly visiting the slopes of the Mount Penna for about ten years. Who knows what did he think the first time, in the spring of 1214, about that Apennine mountain at the border between Tuscany and Umbria! Yet, we know that the birds of the wood gaily gathered over the large oak, as soon as he reached half the side of the mountain, to greet his arrival. It was perhaps because of this event that he immediately liked the "big stone" of the Casentino area, stretched out here and there over the open greens or inside the large woods of beeches, fir-trees and ash-trees.

It was in the middle of the summer of 1224 that Francesco - obviously St. Francis of Assisi, who is currently the patron saint of Italy - went there again, the harmonious silence of those woods had probably become familiar and precious to him, but it was also the last time that he saw those places, because the malaria and his almost total blindness would not allow him a new journey from his dear Assisi to La Verna any longer. He himself could realize that: I in fact believe that his latest suffered stay at the mount of La Verna was intended by him as the opportunity to give his life a full stop and take out the conclusions of a "story" written along the course of years of suffering and hardships.

Likewise many other young people of his time, who had been imbued with chivalrous culture (Francesco's mother initiated him to the Provencal music and poetry), Francesco dreamt of the glory of the army and of the honor. When captured in a battle, he also thought of leaving for a crusade to the Holy Land; but further to a fever attack and to a dream he had, he decided to go back home. He would rather start another kind of crusade, when a few months later he went to Rome to visit the tomb of the apostles: he was practically shocked at seeing the strong contrast existing between the luxury inside the church and the poor state of abjection into which the beggars were left abandoned. On the way back home, he went down from his horse to clasp and kiss a leper, just what "he would be more reluctant to do".

His father, Bernardone, was a well-off fabric merchant, who made his fortune in Provence. His success made Bernardone decide to change his child's name from Giovanni into "Francesco " (Francis). Perhaps he never expected his first-born son would get to proclaim himself, at the age of 25 (in 1206), naked and with the clothes in his hands, the bride-groom of lady Poverty.

Was he to be thought mad? He would not be alone, then, if this was the case, since his ideal to live in absolute freedom and in total communion with the world creatures was soon shared and embraced by thousands of his contemporary people. After 18 years, from that day of January 1206 until August 1224, the "poor man" from Assisi could go to La Verna for his last time. Until that date, he had dedicated his life to the pray and the preaching, while assisting suffering people in the leper house and sleeping in the night only in poor dwellings; he had been begging stones in Assisi, with which he restored some churches in the Umbrian town; he traveled to France, Spain and even to Egypt, where the crusaders were besieging Damietta, an Arab city then considered inexpugnable, but where Francesco was able, instead, with totally different purposes, to be welcomed by the wise sultan Melek al-Kamil and from where, after two weeks time, he came back full of gifts given to him by the same sultan.

In those years still more friars followed the kind of life of Francesco, who had any how to complain about some choices taken inside the ordination he himself had founded; the teaching in the schools of theology, the property of buildings and the more and more derogation to the "new living" manners were betraying the foundations of the wedding with lady Poverty. Francesco's Frates ("Friars") were dangerously getting close to the more typical world, thereby going farther from him. He therefore announced his words: "From this moment I wish to be considered not but dead".

To such consideration Francesco himself attained from then onwards and this was the feeling that accompanied himself through his walks in the woods of beeches and chestnut trees, through the clearings he met, populated by wild boars and flied over by buzzards and hawks, up to the complete silence in La Verna, in August 1224. He realized he was not wrong - and this helped him to quiet his displeasure for the failure of his undertaking and for his total feeling of uncertainty and worry - when «he eventually saw in his hands and in his feet appear the same marks of suffering he had just seen, while meditating over his own old and recent actions, to that mysterious crucified man appeared to him, like a seraph, nailed on the cross, two wings coming out over the head, two wings wide open to fly and two wings covering the whole body».

Two years later that little dark-haired-complexion man, who called "brothers" the fire and the wind and "sisters" the soil and the water and who would keep hidden as long as possible the stigmas he had, would meet "Sister Death" in Assisi and would be laid down "naked on the naked soil", as per his will. La Verna has then become famous all over the world as the place where Francesco got the stigmas and it has been continuously visited in the course of the centuries.

Its visitors, once the Tiber and Arno valley are left past behind, are welcomed by the Monastery, by the Sasso Spicco, by the Stigmas Passageway and other Franciscan places, further to admiring one of the most beautiful whole of della Robbia works (terra-cottas) from 15th and 16th century. In spite of so many visitors, the Sacred Mount in La Verna still maintains and projects today its strong silent atmosphere. You will be able to verify it: on the slopes of a mount, half suspended between the earth and the sky, La Verna still remains the scene of a substantially secret event.

Damiano Andreini
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