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Return to "Being Saint Francis" (August 2000), by Valerie Martin
In 1225, a year before his death, Francis of Assisi, then in his mid forties, agreed to go to the papal court at Rieti for treatment of an eye ailment. He was nearly blind, he was subject to horrific headaches, and he suffered from the wounds of the stigmata, which made it difficult for him to walk. When he came to the convent of the Poor Ladies at San Damiano, he was unable to go further. Friars traveling with him built a reed hut near the convent wall, and there he lay for fifty days. Early accounts of his convalescence mention the mice that plagued the hut, making it impossible to rest. It was in these conditions that Francis composed "The Canticle of the Creatures," also known as "The Canticle of Brother Sun," which the French historian Ernest Renan called "the most beautiful piece of religious poetry since the Gospels." Written nearly fifty years before the birth of Dante, it is the earliest poem we have in the Italian vernacular, the language of The Divine Comedy.
Listen to a recording of "Canticum creatorum" ("The Canticle of the Creatures"), from the CD Saint Francis and the Minstrels of God (1996), featuring the Altramar medieval music ensemble (requires the RealAudio RealPlayer). The CD, on the Dorian Discovery label (catalogue number DIS-80143), may be ordered directly from Dorian Recordings (tel: 1-800-DORIAN-6).
A Wonderful New Song
"So he is happy here, in the place they have made for him. Despite his illness, his blindness, the constant pain in his head, he is singing as cheerfully as a morning lark." An excerpt from Valerie Martin's Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis.
Saint Francis was delighted with his canticle and wanted the friars to go about singing it from town to town. The music has been lost, but the musicians of Altramar have researched the songs and lyrics of the period and discovered a setting that is probably close to the original. In the liner notes to their CD Saint Francis and the Minstrels of God, they write:
When we undertook the task of setting Francis' words to a melody, it seemed appropriate to turn to the earliest laude spirituali for melodic sources. While working through the laude in the Cortona manuscript, we came upon a Marian lauda with the following refrain:
There are a great many miracles attributed to Saint Francis, but the composition of a hymn of praise and thanksgiving for the gift of the natural world, when the poet was so near the portal that leads away from Brother Sun and into the dark embrace of Sister Death, is surely not the least among them.
Altissima luce col grande splendore;
in te dolce amore abiam consolança.
(Exalted Light, with great brightness;
in you, sweet love, we take consolation.)
We compared this to the opening lines of Francis' Canticle:
Altissimu omnipotente bonsignore;
Tu sono le laude, la gloria e l'onore ...
Serendipity, perhaps, but the match is remarkable, not only in terms of meter and rhyme, but also in terms of the analogous light/sun image. With a few adjustments to the melody (Francis' verses are not symmetrical), we had our setting, with which we began this recording.
Return to "Being Saint Francis" (August 2000)
Valerie Martin is the author of two collections of short fiction and six novels, including Italian Fever (1999). Her article in this issue is taken from her biography Salvation: Scenes From the Life of St. Francis, to be published by Knopf next spring.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.