Saturday, July 14, 2012

Francesco Il Santo: An Exhibition in Rieti

Francesco Il Santo/ Francis the Saint
Rieti, Italy
June 16 – November 4, 2012

This panoramic exhibition of artifacts and artworks inspired by the person and persona of Francis of Assisi represents a concentrated effort to situate the saint historically, aesthetically, and spiritually within the context of his presence in Italy’s Rieti Valley. This region, situated midway between Rome and Assisi, is second in importance only to the region of Assisi in terms of Franciscan interest. Rieti and its environs describe and preserve the ambit of Il Poverello’s intermittent residence and ministry here during the period 1209 – 1225 (just a year before his death). Subtitled “Capolavori nei secoli e dal territorio reatino/ Masterpieces through the Centuries and from the Rieti Region” this show articulates in a decisive way the impact of the presence of Francis here over the past eight centuries.

Exhibitions which attempt to consider the role of the sacred in art are not infrequently perilous adventures. The curator must always be aware of the multivalent nature of the works represented: their historic, cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual interest to the contemporary viewer. In this particular case, the curators are frank in acknowledging the complex and protean nature of the figure of Francis as one who has perennially inspired the creation of numerous works of art “interpreted in different stylistic variations that … spiritually share the expressive intensity with which the figure of the saint is inseparably connected.” This show— involving more than 100 artifacts and works of art—accomplishes its task in a persuasive and balanced way which is both informative and inviting.

Distributed as it is over three venues in the city center Francesco Il Santo showcases works relating to Francis which are organized according to specific themes: the development of early Franciscan culture and spirituality, or francescanesimo (the Fondazione Varrone); specific work produced in the Rieti region (the Diocesan Museum/ Mueso dei Beni Ecclesiastici), and, finally, representative masterworks by Italian artists from the XIII to XXI centuries expressing Franciscan motives (Civic Museum/ Museo Civico). The viewer is able, then, to move easily from site to site, taking in the works either in sequence or as independent modules.

Testimonianze della Storia/ The Historical Testament (Fondazione Varrone) features artifacts from the early Franciscan era starting in the XIII century. Here, for example, is the simple homespun habit of Blessed John of Parma (XIIIc)—an early Minister General who, in spite of his subsequent beatification, was once suspected of heresy and placed under house arrest at Greccio for more than thirty years. Here also are representative ecclesiastical codices of the period, as well as reliquaries, church silver, and devotional “instruments” (including the notorious ‘discipline’) which convey a sense of the penitential movement Francis inspired and shaped.

Opere dal Territorio reatino/ Works from the Rieti Region. This segment of the exhibition involves the display of some 22 pieces, primarily paintings, on display at the Diocesan Museum (and former papal audience hall). The works range from the XIII to the present century. Some have been made available for public viewing for the first time, while others have been recently restored in connection with this exhibition. Included here are both anonymous/unsigned works such as a Croce dipinta (XIV s) or San Francisco piangente (XIX c) as well as works by better-known figures such Manfredi ca.1615), and Manenti (ca.1638). Also featured are works by artists of more contemporary renown such as Stefano DiStasio. DiStasio's San Francesco nel lago di Piediluco 'vede' il Natale di Greccio"(2003), is representative of the "Anachronomismo" tendency in some  contemporary Italian expression, juxtaposing as it does elements of an historical narrative, contemporary composition, and a stylized, surrealistic rendering.

There is also an exceptional piece of textile art—a wonderfully preserved chasuble from the XVIc-- on display. What unites these diverse works expressively is their shared, often quite literal depiction of the saint. In all of these works, the figure of Francis never addresses the viewer directly; his gaze and focus are constantly and continually riveted on the Lord, the obvious object of his devotion.

This same fixed and fixated focus is evident in the “masterworks” section of the show, appropriately entitled Capolavori nei secoli/ Masterworks through the Centuries” and on display at the Civic Museum/ Museo Civico. Here, signature works by artists of national and international reputation demonstrate the consistent stream of artistic output in Italy over the past eight centuries employing the figure of Francis as its common thematic focus. Those familiar with artistic renderings of Francis will instantly recognize the San Francesco paintings by Margarito d’Arezzo (1260-75) and Cimabue (1280-90). These works are not only devotionally significant pieces; they also provide emblematic portrayals of the saint which are arresting in their honesty and directness. Francesco, Il Poverello, was not known to have been a particularly handsome man. These pieces in particular, produced so close to his lifetime, set the template for future representations of the saint, which depict his identifying virtues of poverty and humility.

There is an impressive sense of continuity in these assembled works, demonstrating that artists over the centuries the appeal and allure of the life and legend of Francis. Italian artists, in particular, have persistently sought to capture something of the essence of Francis the country's patron saint: There is the stunned and stunning pose of Francis in ecstasy/ San Francesco in estasi (1606-07) by the school of Caravaggio, as well as the twilight pathos of Alessandro Magnasco’s Cristo crocifisso e San Francesco (1720-1775), and the poignancy of Tiepolo’s San Francesco in meditazione (c.1713). All of these works seek to capture something of the sense of a man so completely consumed by the spiritual journey. Francis the saint is both transfigured and transformed through his suffering and identification with the crucified Christ. Francis the man struggles mightly in the quest-- a man whose body can scarcely contain the greatness of his soul and his longing for God.

This is an excellent exhibition, and one which serves as a significant guide and companion to an exploration of  the Rieti valley itself. Nearby Greccio, Poggio Bustone, La Foresta, and Fonte Colombo—are all Franciscan shrines of great significance to seekers and believers alike and deserve greater exploration—as does this significant exhibition.

For further information, including exhibition catalogue (EU50-):

Key to artwork featured (top to bottom):  Cimabue, San Francesco (detail), 1280-90; Margarito d'Arezzo, San Francesco, 1260-75; Habit of Blessed John of Parma, (XIIIc., second half);  Chasuble (w/ detail), wool and linen, XVIc., first quarter; Stefano Di Stasio, San Francesco nel lago di Piediluco 'vede' il Natale di Greccio, 2003; Caravaggio school, San Francesco in estasi, (1606-7); Giambattista Tiepolo (attrib), San Francesco en meditazione,(ca. 1713).  View of Rieti Valley.

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