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How many “Francis” are there?

di Franco Cardini
How many “Francis” are there?

The Francis of history is one, unique, unreachable. And, in his deepest essence, unknowable. What we know is the Francis of historiography: the one that emerges from the primary documents and secondary sources, which each scholar interprets in his own way.

We owe it to Arsenio Frugoni for having clearly taught us, in his famous essay, that it is not correct to outline a historical figure by cutting away different aspects from various sources to sew them together like patchwork. We should therefore accept to be content with the choice of a Francis which comes each time only from one source, without listening, shall we say, to other sources? But who can assure us that basically the different sources do not offer a broader picture and maybe more compatible evidence?

After the Father's Transit, Thomas of Celano - who had known him only in recent years and had seen him, so to speak "from afar" - was commissioned by Friar Elia da Cortona and Ugo Cardinal of Ostia, then Gregory IX, to write the Life of he who had been quickly elevated to the glory of the altars; years later, after hearing various friars who had known the Poverello of Assisi more closely, he was to draw up a second Life. Then there were other sources, other Lives

In 1266 Bonaventura from Bagnoregio, Minister General of the Order, imposed the destruction of all previous biographies and wrote his Legenda Maior, based on which Giotto frescoed the walls of the Upper Basilica of Assisi. But other versions remained in circulation of what Bonaventura had intended to interpret and have interpreted in one final single edition. Dante, for example, in presenting his "Francis and Poverty" in the XI Paradise (where, by chance, it is not presented by Bonaventura, but Thomas Aquinas), draws on different sources from the one offered to him by the Bonaventura text.  And so the Fioretti, which is only the image of Bonaventura, comes off well.

So? Do we renounce judgment? Do we rely on radical scepticism, that which suggests suspending judgment forever? Let's limit ourselves, more modestly and stubbornly, to continuing the study. Jacques Dalarun identified a new celanian text of the Life of Francis. Perhaps scholars have yet to fully assess its importance: what could result? Chiara Mercuri has carefully re-read the texts bequeathed by the first companions of Francis, showing that that Francis was quite different from the one passed through Bonaventura censorship-reconstruction. In short, exams never end. There are no "definitive" books, that close the issues. The story must remain "open work".

Franco Cardini
Professore ordinario di storia medievale presso l'Università di Firenze

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