Inspired by the fresco cycles that depict the life of St. Francis of Assisi, acclaimed author Valerie Martin tells the life of Francesco di Pietro Bernardone in a series of vividly realized "panels" of moments both crucial and ordinary. Drawing from myriad sources and moving in reverse chronological order, she begins in the dark, final days, with a suffering Francesco on the verge of death, then shows us the unwashed and innocent revolutionary, unafraid to lecture a pope on Christ's message. We see his mystical friendship with Chiara di Offreducci, a nobleman's daughter who turns her back on the world to join him, and finally, the frivolous young Francesco on the deserted road where his encounter with a leper leads him to an ecstatic embrace of God. Salvation is at once an illuminating glimpse into the medieval world and an original and intimate portrait of the man whose legend has resonated through the centuries.
Captivated by the various frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Martin, a writer of fiction (Italian Fever), was inspired to create this series of word pictures about the medieval saint who has been declared patron of ecologists and animals. Her book is an album of written scenes in which she invites the reader to see her own vision of how the various events of Francis's life might have played out. Although, as Martin confesses in the introduction, she is neither Catholic nor "particularly religious," her fascination with Francis is not unusual. Indeed, the saint's embrace of poverty and love for creation seem to hold special appeal for moderns. Martin's scenes from Francis's life are exquisite and imaginative, though they do not always make for pleasant reading and definitely are not for seekers of sweet stories about the saint. For instance, the author's rather graphic opening treatment of Francis's illness and death is bereft of any of the glory often found in hagiography or religious paintings. Likewise, her study of Brother Leone washing Francis's stigmata wounds is centered almost wholly on pain and discomfort. In painting such details so starkly, Martin effectively confronts the material poverty of Francis's life, but sometimes seems to miss the transcendent values that motivated him. This portrait will be most interesting to readers who are already familiar with the basic facts of Francis's life and remain open to exploring a new, gritty interpretation of them.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 11, 2002
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Excerpt from Salvation by Valerie Martin
When San Francesco lay dying, he asked to be moved from the bishop's residence in Assisi to the chapel at the Portiuncula, a distance of about two miles outside the city walls. As they passed the city gates, he bid the friars carrying him to set him down on the road so that he might say farewell to the place of his birth. "This town," he began, "has the worst reputation in the whole region as the home of every kind of rogue and scoundrel." Then he begged God to bless the place and to make it the home of all who sincerely honored his name.
According to the brochure put out by the Commune's busy tourist agency, Assisi is a city that cannot just be "seen," it must be "experienced," a place, perhaps the place, where "the spirit of St. Francis pervades all." Every year hundreds of thousands of visitors, art lovers, tourists, and pilgrims from all over the world flock to see the famous basilica where the saint is buried. The narrow streets in which Francesco begged for bread are lined with hundreds of shops selling all manner of atrocious trinkets and some of the worst food to be found in Italy, at prices as breathtaking as the view from the Rocca Maggiore, the late-medieval fortress that glowers over the prosperous town. The spirit that pervades these streets is the same one that whistled down the stone staircases and across the Piazza del Commune in Francesco's lifetime, the same spirit that drove him straight into the outspread arms of Christ: the cold, relentless, insatiable, furious spirit of commerce.
Francesco di Pietro Bernardone was born in Assisi toward the end of 1181, the son of a wealthy cloth merchant, Pietro Bernardone, and his wife, Pica, who may or may not have been French. Francesco had an ordinary childhood, helping with his father's business and attending the church school near their house, where he was an unremarkable student. He grew to be a lively young man, fond of music and parties, given to romantic tales, dreams of knighthood, fantastic treasure quests, and prayer in solitary chapels. During one such occasion, at the dilapidated Church of San Damiano, God spoke to him from a crucifix, bidding him to repair the church. Francesco took some bolts of cloth from his father's warehouse, sold them, and delivered the profit to the resident priest to pay for the repair of the chapel. Pietro, enraged by his son's extravagance, brought a complaint against him, which was resolved in the public square of Assisi. When the bishop advised Francesco to return the money to his father, he declared, "My Lord Bishop, not only will I gladly give back the money which is my father's but also my clothes." He stripped off his clothes, placed the money on them, and, standing naked before the bishop, his father, and all present, announced, "Listen, all of you, and mark my words. Hitherto I have called Pietro Bernardone my father; but because I am resolved to serve God I return to him the money on account of which he was so perturbed, and also the clothes I wore which are his; and from now on I will say, 'Our father who art in heaven,' and not Father Pietro Bernardone." The crowd wept in sympathy, and the bishop covered the youth with his own cloak.
Francesco then took refuge in the poor church, where he devoted himself to making repairs, begging for food, oil, and stones on the streets of Assisi. His former neighbors mocked him and drove him away, but one rich young man, Bernardo of Quintavalle, impressed by Francesco's sincerity and evident contentment in his new life, decided to join him. Together the two men gave away all of Bernardo's money and possessions to the poor.
After that, there were more followers. In 1209, when they numbered eleven, the group walked to Rome to ask the pope to approve a Rule by which they might live as liegemen to the Church. After a dream in which he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing and Francesco holding it up, the pope, Innocent III, gave them a verbal and very conditional approval.
Francesco's brotherhood, the Fratres Minores, grew rapidly. Within a few years, the original twelve had grown to five thousand (by contrast, the Dominican order, the Friars Preachers, as they were known, founded at roughly the same time, had fewer than fifty friars by 1220), and they gathered each year during the feast of Pentecost for chapter meetings at the Portiuncula, a wooded area owned by local Benedictine monks and leased to the friars for one basket of fish per year.