Newspaper article International New York Times

St. Francis Manuscripts Head to U.S. ; Project at Abbey Restores Artifacts That Document Saint's Life and Theology

Newspaper article International New York Times

St. Francis Manuscripts Head to U.S. ; Project at Abbey Restores Artifacts That Document Saint's Life and Theology

Article excerpt

Leaving Italy for the first time in 700 years, 13 artifacts underwent meticulous last-minute restoration before beginning their journey on Monday.


Scattered around the steel table of a monastery in the Veneto region of Northern Italy are manuscripts, one with green, red and intensely blue medieval miniatures of dragons, another adorned with ornate leaves culminating in golden flowers.

A monk gently lays an off-white leather book on the table, and opens it at a long letter A drawn in red ink, the start of a paragraph in gothic letters.

"I never I thought I would have had these in my hands," said the Rev. Pierangelo Massetti, responsible for the restoration laboratory at the Praia Abbey, near Padua. "St. Francis wrote this poem. And this text may be the foundation of the Italian language, the first text ever known in vernacular."

New Yorkers will see it soon, as Father Massetti and his collaborators are finishing restoring 13 medieval manuscripts of the 19 artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi, before their departure for the United States on Monday.

Leaving Italy for the first time in 700 years, the documents will be shown at the United Nations headquarters Nov. 17-28, and then be open to the public in Brooklyn Borough Hall until mid-January in an exhibition, "Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images."

The signature of the saint of the poor and neglected, who inspired Pope Francis to choose his name, is nowhere to be seen. Historians agree that he most likely dictated his writings, but certainly his hand touched the papal bulls that in the 1220s registered the pope's messages to the order.

However, these 19 artifacts are the most ancient documents of St. Francis' life and theological tradition.

St. Francis, born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, chose to give up his prosperous, worldly life and live in poverty, preaching peace and respect for all forms of life.

"St. Francis was a man, a saint, of the people, who truly stood with those who are the least every day," Ken Hackett, the United States ambassador to the Vatican, said at a news conference in Rome last week. "We can see Pope Francis exemplified in his trace, as he puts in into practice every day his advocacy for the marginalized and the disadvantaged.

"This exhibition's arrival in New York will give Americans the chance to know the history and the spirituality of St. Francis, and the chance to be inspired."

Among the artifacts, the highlight is Manuscript 338, a miscellaneous collection of medieval texts inscribed by at least nine different amanuenses. It contains "Canticle of the Sun," a praise and thank you to the Lord for such creations as "Brother Fire" and "Sister Water."

"Francis' hand is not in this poem, not even a line, but there is all of his spirit in it," said Franco Cardini, professor emeritus of medieval history in the Florence branch of the Scuola Normale Superiore. "It's unique."

For this manuscript, the challenge was to restore the original cover, in 13th-century wood covered in goat leather, and then reconstruct the missing fragments, like the spine and the borders, Father Massetti said.

Over the past five months, Father Massetti, two other monks and three young restoration experts have cleaned all the manuscripts with a soft paint brush, page by page. …

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