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As is natural with a collection of wonder-stories, that same tendency to growth which is manifest in the Actus-Fioretti as compared with the re-constructed Floretum, is just as apparent in the history of the Fioretti themselves. Two themes in particular were provocative of such developments: on the one hand the life of Saint Francis, which moved copyists of the Fioretti to supplement their deficiencies as a biography with additions from other sources; the other, the parallelism between Saint Francis and Jesus, which was always challenging the ingenuity of the devout. These similitudes in the Fioretti are, with characteristic humility, three; Bartolommeo Pisano, by the end of the fourteenth century, increased them to forty; while Pedro Astorga, a Spanish monk of the seventeenth century, who wrote with all the characteristic vim of the Decadence, raised the number to four thousand. Meantime there was a tendency to make the Fioretti an archive of all Franciscan miracles – even at an early day those of Saint Anthony of Padua began creeping in. That briskness, that contagious chuckle, which is hidden in every paragraph of the fresh and vigorous Tuscan original of the Fioretti was not long in producing additions in the spirit of broad humor. We are encroaching on this sphere in the familiar stories of Brother Juniper. We are surely in an outright secular world in a fioretto which I picked up in Tuscany in my own youth – the story of the Franciscan novice, who, on climbing the blistering scorciatoie to his convent after the collect of alms on a summer’s day, sets his bushel of chestnuts on the ground, wipes his brow, and then reflects, with a etaphoric worthy of Brother Elias, and a Tuscan crudeness worthy of Brother Ruffino: “What a sell, if there should be no heaven!” (Che fre...a se il cielo non c’ e).
As regards, therefore, the many texts of the Fioretti, some of very ancient authority, which circulate in the various editions, it may be necessary to remember that, whatever the relation of the original of the Actus-Fioretti to the Floretum, the Fioretti, proper, must have contained fifty-three chapters, plus the five “considerations” on the Stigmata of Saint Francis. This content, in fact, aside from internal evidence, is vouched for by twenty-six manuscripts of the fifteenth century and some of the early printed editions. Without entering into the question of the varied adjuncts that were supplied at one time or another from one source or another, we may note, simply, the derivations of those additions which were accepted, with unsurpassed discernment and for their intrinsic merits of spirit or beauty, by Father Cesari in his classic edition of the Fioretti (Verona, 1822). The “evidences” of the Stigmata presented in our chapters LIV-LVIII were derived early in the fifteenth century from the Tractatus de miraculous of Thomas of Celano, the earliest biographer and a contemporary of the Saint. The “life” of Brother Juniper comes from an early Latin manuscript (containing also a “life” of Brother Giles), independent of the Actus-Fioretti, but which had been accreted to the Fioretti also in the fifteenth century. The “instructions and notable sayings of Brother Giles” are by a known Florentine author, Feo Belcari, who died in 1484. Despite the several hands that must have tinkered with the substance of the Fioretti before they reached their more extensive forms, one would not go far amiss in recognizing in a work of such surpassing literary charm the imprint of two unusual personalities.
The one must be that unknown monk of Tuscany who translated these stories (or compiled them, as the case may be) in such a sparkling and vivacious Tuscan idiom, an idiom as simple, direct, and limpid as may be imagined, but with an unfailing instinct for the enduring elements in a still future Italian language, and an idiom, withal, that retains the full vigor and picturesqueness of a peasant intelligence, wise in its worldly wisdom but unspoiled by any involutions of culture.
The second must be that same Ugolino of Montegiorgio, who somehow managed to condense into the pages of the old Floretum such a distillation of the pure spirit of early Franciscanism as to strike a tone and establish a mood which no later re-workings of his text could vitiate. In the sphere of fact, we may say that through Ugolino, who borrowed from Jacopo dalla Massa, an “eye-witness”, and from legends going back to Brother Leo, these stories arrive at the very days of Saint Francis, without, for that matter, attaining any very great amount of historical plausibility. But it is a case where the truth of art transcends the truth of fact, and creates a verity more real than science or scholarship could by themselves attain. To possess the Fioretti is to re-live the early period of Franciscanism much as it was lived by the friends and disciples of the Saint.
But, in this connection, one must raise a warning against reading the Little Flowers with that long face of piety which is so easily put on in the presence of any literature that has a sacred look. Such sentimentalism, which blinds so many devout Christians to the art of the Bible for instance, is a variance with the shrewd simplicity of this folk masterpiece of Central Italy. What we have here, let us insist on the point, is humor; and one who cannot – I will not say laugh – one who cannot smile, will have read the Little Flowers in vain. I am not so sure that this smile did not, on occasion, play about the lips of Brother Ugolino himself. The world of humility, self-denial and “love” is one thing; and the world of self-assertion and competition is another thing; and they are things so antithetical to each other, in their perfection, that the wisdom of the one is the lunacy of the other, and vice versa.
One need not and perhaps should not further analyse the motivation of the smile, which is the smile the sophisticated must always have for the I. The I is always humor because it tends to simplify the majestic and the complex, making it mechanical, but at the same time more approachable and more lovable. The smile cannot be a laugh. A tear lingers just behind it.
The artless art of Ugolino (if it be his) was pure art in the sense that it presents concepts as image, each image replete with conceptual suggestiveness. Saint Francis nibbling at his “second loaf”, in order not to sin by presumption in etaphor the Lord’s fast of forty days; the Pope’s curiosity to see Saint Clare make the Cross appear in the crust of her buns; the two dialogues of the friars with their translated brethren; the Saint’s long wrestling with the Devil; Satan’s revenge by causing a landslide with the swish of his tail; the astonishment of the “ladies and the cavaliers” at the holy spectacle of the first “Chapter”; Brother Bernard’s founding of the Order at Bologna – the Fioretti are all scenes that could be painted (and were painted, as legend asserts, by Giotto). As the pictures multiply, the mood deepens in beauty and richness – and we must not forget to smile, meantime; for the perfection of humility and Christian love which the friars exemplify is attained by the most humble and direct of mechanical means. One can well understand the ancient quarrel in the Order. These untutored converts of Saint Francis were playing with a magic art, which evoked the Devil when it was black, and constrained the appearance of the Divinity when of brighter hue (XLIX).
There is little, if any, theology about these simple friars. Such questions belonged to those who were lettered and knew people off in the big towns, Rome, perhaps. They cared little about such things, having found in faith at all times, and now and again in “rapture”, a direct access to the benign powers. One feels a sort of regional secretiveness in this technique of virtue, which also was practised in individual secretiveness, lest pride success give Satan his chance. The sweetness of this child-like literalism resides in part, I believe, in an absence of a note of spiritual “arrivism”, or spiritual “climbing”, which one so minded can find even offensive in a Dante or a Savonarola. These straightforward souls of the brotherhood of Saint Francis wanted to keep out of Hell because it was hot, and to get out of Purgatory because it was uncomfortable. Yet they, too, like Jesus, visioned a love so great that willingly the least of them would have accepted damnation so only the world might have been saved. If one seek the moral theme in this early Franciscanism, one finds at least a morality that is made always for oneself and not for other people. Here again on earth were men who judged not, who loved the lost even more than the virtuous, and the bandit as much as the cavalier.
It was, after all, a snug and cosy world, the world in which these early Franciscans lived, a world personally supervised by its Creator, who walked the earth as a man among men, and who loved His creatures with a parent’s love, assisted in His care of them by His Son and His Son’s Mother. Thus warmly had Jesus thought of the world in His time – a projection, perhaps, as Renan suggests, of a verdant Galilee blossoming in the Syrian desert. This “naturalism” of the early Franciscans, so beautifully expressed in the lauds and in the “Canticle” of the Saint himself, finds surely in the Little Flowers its most complete and beautiful expression. It has been through them that the birds who stretched their throats and bowed their heads in approval of the Saint’s exhortation to praise have ever since made their chirping voices heard above the noisy history of Europe. To savor this naturalism in its full freshness one need only turn to some expression of the naturalisms of a later day, that of the Rousseauians or of our own Emerson or Thoreau. These two were efforts to being God back into the world (from which He had been exiled by Cartesian logic). But how vain the effort! How unsatisfactory a God that is only Nature, and how literary and etaphorical a Nature which we must think of as God! It is a more real and understandable thing, this Nature of the early Franciscans, the “useful”, “humble”, “comfortable” invention of a God who could be used, if one treated Him right, for the humble commonplace needs of common everyday people.
And we have said nothing about Frate Lupo! There are those who say he was a man, perhaps a bandit by that name. Anyone who can read the Little Flowers without understanding that Frate Lupo was a wolf, will, like those who cannot smile, have read them in vain!
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