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.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On the Way to Rieti: Lost, Lost, Really Lost, and then Found

I sat with a few other members of our Franciscan study pilgrimage to do some faith sharing. The topic: What have we learned so far from our experience? Have there been any “A-ha!” moments of insight so far?

Well, what have I learned so far-- after one week into this 21-day experience is that nobody has the whole picture, but that everyone has a piece of it. And the more pieces I have access to, the richer my experience and the better off I am. Let me explain myself a little by telling you about my experiences (plural) of getting lost and found one recent afternoon.

We were at the Franciscan shrine in Ponte Colombo—the beautiful and still-secluded wooded hillside where Francis wrote his Rule for the order he was founding (approved in 1223) I noticed a poster on the message board announcing “Francesco: Il Santo”— a special temporary show of artworks and artifacts relating to Francis of Assisi on display in Rieiti, about three miles from where we were staying at the Centro de Spiritualita di Madre Cabrini in suburban Quattro Strade.

I got very excited and spread the word among my fellow travelers. Would they be interested in coming along during our free time in the afternoon. “I might be interested….. I’ve got to fold my laundry….Oh, I’m so tired, I need a nap. You go. Tell me if it’s interesting and maybe I’ll go tomorrow…” So. This Little Red Hen was prepared to trek on alone when one of our companions, Margaret, offered to accompany me on the adventure. I eyed her skeptically: a grandmother in ankle-length dress, no hat for the blazing sun, and flat shoes, no socks. Only a purse and a water bottle for the journey. This ain’t gonna work….. Margaret insisted she would be fine (and she was). Oh, what the heck, never mind, let’s just go.

I had heard that there was something called the Cammino di Francesco—a posted walking path stretching the 150 miles from Assisi to Rome. Right now, we just needed to access the tiny slice of the Camino which would get us to Rieti without having to hassle with the main highway. So, first, I did what any self-respecting world citizen of the 21st century would do. I went online to get Mapquest directions. Then, I asked Sister Franca, who was working in the kitchen, for directions. With Sister Franca, I tried to test one of the fundamental operating principles of travel here: If I pretend to speak Italian, people will pretend to understand me. In doing so, I ran up against a basic assumption The World has about travelers: That when you (honestly) tell people you speak only a little bit of their language, they (honestly) think you really know a whole lot. So I was able to follow her directions as far as “You go down the drive, turn right, and then you come to the sign for Aqua Martina….” And after that, I / we were totally lost. Brother Conrad, fluent in Italian, came into the picture to help with the translation. With his good help, we got a bit more information, “… but I’m not exactly sure what she’s saying,” he confessed. “Her directions are so complicated. Anyhw, good luck.”

At the end of the drive, we ran into a young couple on their scooters. They confirmed the part of the directions we understood from Sor Franca. Ten minutes later, an older man in his front yard gave us another bit: Turn right at the next corner. Great. After that, we suddenly found ourselves on somebody’s suburban shortcut as cars whizzed by us at 50mph. And no sign for the Camino. But we kept trudging, bravely chatting along, gobbling up our 8-ounce water supplies in the blazing afternoon sun. Onward! Lots of cars, lots of curves, and no human beings. Our spirits began to flag when we passed a ‘descanco’—a homemade memorial to the victim/s of a fatal accident at that very location.

Buses (plural) passed us in the opposite direction. None of them going anywhere close to where we were headed. An elderly couple sitting in the shade of their garage came up to the gate and gesticulated eagerly. What are they saying? That we’re going in the wrong direction. Oh. Well, should we take this bus that’s coming now?

He who hesitates is lost. The bus slowed down, then decided to pass us up. Trudge on. Another farmyard. This time, a teenager hanging out in his car, listening to the radio, probably dreaming of getting his license (and out of the farmyard) soon. “You are headed in the wrong direction,” he told us. Oh really? Well, could you fill our water bottles? Sure. By the way, I noticed a sign to a sanctuary for Padre Pio. How long would it take to get there? On foot? About 3-4 hours. Oh. Thanks for the water. Mille grazie.

Okay, we’re out of here. Should we find some shade and wait for another bus? How about if we hitchhike? How do we do that? It will work better, I told Margaret, if you try instead of me. Just stick out your hand and thumb. Like this? Screeech!!!.... Door opens, into the back seat. Grateful gesticulations in Spanitaliano. Americani. Locos. Perdidos/ lost-os. Smiles. Then zoom….. reducing our travel time from hours to less than five minutes.

Sorry, I’m not going to Rieti. I have to let you out here. No no, that’s great. Where’s here? In front of the gelateria, across from the parish church. In Quattro Stade. Exactly where we started out more than an hour ago. Okay, now what. Let’s keep going. How about the bus? What does the schedule say? Let’s wait in the shade; if it takes longer than 20 minutes, let’s walk home. No. Let’s get a gelato first and then walk home. Okay. Deal.

Truck, truck, car, truck, bus (no, another truck). Bus! Right! Rieti? Si si si. Cathedrali? No no no. Stazione de busses? Si? Cuanto cuesta? 3 euros, but don’t pay me now. My colleague will come in about five minutes. Great. Grazie…. Five minutes later, bus stazione, no colleague, no fare. Grazie. Now what?

There’s an exhibition poster. Let’s follow it. An Italian man walking down the hill: keep going up and up. Bilgeterria. Okay, grazie. Ticket office. Benvenutti. 10 Euros, please. Three shows, three venues. You can use the tickets until November. Grazie! Actually we just have one hour. Today. Okay, first, go to the Diocesan Museum. Over the square, to the left, across the piazza, next to the Cathedral. Clear! Great! …. Here’s the cathedral. No exhibition signs, just a red “T” (Franciscan tau?) and an arrow. Through the entrance to the underground parking garage. Up a flight of stairs. Up two more flights of stairs. Into a darkened, unlighted room w/ paintings all around. This must be the place.

And so the rigamarole continued. From the first venue to the second, to the third (top floor of the municipal building). Eureka! Beautiful show, but we were followed by an excited curator: “I love America! California! Facebook friend, Burbank, maybe September. Maybe. Hollywood! American boyfriend! Maybe maybe. I so excited!

Show’s over. Get home. Buy ticket. Tobacco shops. No ticket. Tia, where do they buy tickets? On the square. Tobacco shop Number 2. No tickets. Cluster of corporate t-shirted people. Tickets? Bus stop? Four Italians, four different answers until one gentleman guided us physically to the corner: Tobacco shop. Buy your ticket there. Tobacco shop Number 3. Ah! Tickets! 90 cents each. Schedule? I have one, but it’s for winter. Oh. Bus stop? Well, you have two options. Grazie grazie. Did you understand anything he said? Of course not, but I didn’t want to be rude. Where do we go? The bus stazione where we got off.

Bus stazione. Tobacco stand Number 4. Tickets? No. Bus stop. Outside, next to the police booth.
A one-way street. Only interurban buses pass: Roma. Wanna go to Roma? Let’s wait 20 minutes then take a taxi. Good. Fifteen minutes. A teenager gets out of his car. Great. He won’t know anything. Try anyhow. Bus stop? Number 423/424? You’re in the wrong place. Straight ahead two minutes, turn right at the fountain. Grazie. Two minutes. No fountain. Three grandmothers on a park bench. Si si si. Straight ahead. Duay minuti. La Fontana. Grazie. Duay minuti. Bus 423 is turning the corner. Hey! HEY!! Stop! Wait for us! In perfect American. And the bus stops.

Quattro Strade? Si si si. Ahhh. Let’s just relax now. What are we going to tell them when we get back? Well, we don’t have to tell them everything. Just the part about hitching a ride, then finding a bus. And then, the great exhibitions. Right. That’s our story…. Off here? Aqui? No…. you missed your stop? Madre Cabrini? Ahh, next stop!
Ahh. Grazie. Off the bus, back to the gelateria, Slow stroll home.

How was your trip? Great exhibition! Great exhibition! Gosh, what you missed?
Oh? I knew I should have gone. Yeah, you should have come along.

I counted. We asked a total of 22 (!) people for different directions within the space of four hours. My Italian direction asking vocabulary is now perfect….Everybody had a piece of the story. But nobody has the whole thing.//

New Church Movements in Old Rome

Situated not far from the ruins of the Roman forum, the basilica of St. Clement (San Clemente in Laterno) may well serve as an appropriate visual metaphor for the process and progress of the Christian faith in this city over the past two millenia. Continuously occupying the same site since Roman times, San Clemente has evolved, in turn, from an insula (residential apartment complex) under the rule of the Caesars, to a semi-clandestine house church in the early Christian era, to a public basilica/ worship space under Constantine starting in the fourth century, to a thriving urban parish and pilgrim destination today. Through multiple reconstruction and restoration efforts, the development of ‘church’ as both physical structure and faith community can be described in terms of layers: one level of identity and activity superimposed and pressing down upon its predecessors. One generation’s roof is another one’s cellar. I have to confess, the image of layering is not my own. The day I visited San Clemente, I met some students from a creative writing program at the University of Washington, Seattle. Their assignment? You’ve got it. To spend an hour exploring the building’s various levels and then to write a poem on the subject of layers. I wish I could have read the results of their work.

“Layering” may be one way to describe the continuing transition within the contemporary Catholic community in Rome as a whole —most particularly as some groups and movements within the Church appear to approach their natural expiration date, while others crop up to take their place or to devise a new space in response to the needs of the times. In my all too brief stay in Rome, I happened to notice just signs of such new layers of activity. I can only offer a cursory observation; I do not have sufficient information to present any kind of in-depth analysis. That said, here are a few groups I experienced and observed:

The Tra Noi (“Among Us”) Movement. When I learned that the name of the hotel where our Franciscan study pilgrimage would stay during our first few days in Rome, I just assumed it would be one of a vast number of reasonably-priced pensiones which are the mainstay of Rome’s pilgrim and tourist trade. But, after a little digging, though, I learned that the Casa Tra Noi was not just another budget hotel, but really a very interesting project and outgrowth of a broad-based lay movement. Started in 1952 by Father Sebastiano Plutino, the Tra Noi movement developed in response to the needs of women who had come to Rome from poorer areas of Italy in order to find work in domestic service. Tra Noi emerged to protect women’s rights in this area, but also to give them meaningful material and spiritual support and accompaniment.
Over the past half-century, Tra Noi has grown into a thriving lay evangelization movement which offers prayer groups, retreats and ongoing spiritual direction for its members in both Italy and Brazil. Its range of involvement in recent years has broadened to include several “plans” or priority programs to serve young people, women, couples, and families. Not coincidentally, several members of the Casa Tra Noi hotel staff itself are also actively involved and committed members of the movement.

The Sant’Egidio Community. Increasingly international in both vision and scope, this lay-directed movement with its emphasis on prayer, common worship and service to the poor and marginalized has its roots among Italian students in post-Vatican II Italy. Founded in Rome in 1968, the Sant’Egidio (the name is translated as “ Saint Giles”— the close companion of St. Francis of Assisi)—the movement takes its name from the parish church in the city’s Trastevere neighborhood where it originated. Over the past forty-plus years, it has grown and transformed from a student/youth movement to an international organization with more than 60,000 members. In the United States, Sant’Egidio communities are active in urban areas from Boston to New York, to Washington, D.C. and South Bend, Indiana. Its range of commitments has also grown and now includes ecumenical dialogue, efforts to promote peace and justice (it was directly involved facilitating peace accords ending civil conflict in Mozambique), and initiatives to end capital punishment worldwide. Its founder, Mateo Riccardi, presently holds a brief as special minister to the Monti government in Italy.

Every evening at 8:30, members of the local group in Rome gather for evening prayer. Weekly liturgies are held on Saturday evening in the ancient church of Santa Maria in Trastevere , attracting numerous worshipers and guests. The Mass I attended was quite a moving experience for me: spoken prayers alternating with beautiful hymns offered by a fully engaged and focused congregation.

The Missionary Sisters of Charity. This is perhaps the oldest of the ‘new’ groups active in Rome, but in view of the Church’s long history, they are still something of neophytes. Founded in 1950, this community of religious sisters is so closely associated in the public mind with the charismatic figure of (now Blessed) Mother Teresa. In fact, it is difficult even to mention them without making reference to their founder’s commanding presence. Nevertheless, even after her death, the order presently includes some 4500 members worldwide. On several occasions, I saw sisters in their trademark blue-trimmed saris—walking about the city of Rome in pairs, rosaries ever in hand. One of the more poignant aspects of their life and presence is the dining room for homeless men they operate—literally on the edge of the St. Peter’s Basilica complex in the Vatican. Every evening at 6pm, indigent and homeless men from throughout the city gather and line up for a meal, clothing, medical referral, or perhaps just a word of comfort and acknowledgment from the sisters and their volunteers. In the course of a half-century, the sisters and their ministries have become fully woven into the fabric of this and other cities around the world.

The Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus and Mary. A more recent manifestation of the flowering and ongoing ‘layering’ of both religious life and lay associations in the Catholic world is the relatively recent emergence of a new religious community I heard about called the Piccoli Frati e Sorelle V.V. de Gesu e Maria (Little Brothers and Sisters V.V. of Jesus and Mary) . Presently based in Italy, its core group includes Fra’Antonio, who has been involved in the establishment of the Roman group over the past six years. Fra’Antonio represents a ‘new breed’ of young religious—educated, media-savvy, and eager to find new ways use their technical expertise—combined with personal asceticism and commitment to community-- in evangelization outreach. Trained as a graphic designer in his native Australia, Antonio left a potentially lucrative career in his homeland in order to pursue a ‘career’ as a modern-day mendicant friar in Rome.

The members of this emerging community, which accepts both male and female members who live in separate houses subscribes to a hybrid spirituality of Franciscan and Carmelite inspiration. They place a strong emphasis on prayer, community life, and evangelical poverty and their ‘take’ on religious life is both refreshing and fascinating in its idealism and creativity. For one thing, the group’s members do not possess, hold, accept, or otherwise handle money. Neither do they have a ready ‘home address’ or phone number: inquirers can contact them via email at the website hosted by lay supporters. They stress direct contact with people and so are engaged in street ministry as well as a ministry of hitchhiking (!) to spread the Word. And wherever they go, they are dressed in their trademark light brown habit—the men tonsured, and the women veiled. Facebook and Youtube are part of their ‘tools of the trade.’
Stay tuned; it will be very interesting to see how this community evolves and matures over time.

All of these groups—and I am sure I have just scratched the surface—represent some of the most recent ‘layers’ of contemporary Church participation and commitment in the city of Rome. They do not fit into easy categories of ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’. What they share is essential to their self-definition and survival: a deep and consistent prayer life (often involving ongoing Scripture study and faith sharing), direct service to the poor and marginalized, open and clear identification with the Roman Catholic church, and a willingness to engage in dialogue with ecclesiastical leadership. Although they often provide outreach to the marginalized, they are not themselves alienated or disaffected.

It will be very interesting to see how these and other groups survive and/or thrive. What is encouraging is that in the midst of such complex and often contentious times both in the Church and in the world, women and men continue to come forward to give a personal and collective witness to the Gospel in our times with their time-- and talents and with their very lives.
In doing so, they provide yet another layer to the already rich and living archaeology of faith expression both in Rome and in the Roman Catholic community at large.//