One of the essays in Rachel Cusk’s recent collection, Coventry, recounts a visit to the Italian city of Assisi. In it, Cusk reflects on the life of St Francis and the artworks of Cimabue which adorn Assisi’s famous Basilica
I have been reading about St Francis. He was not always the poor anti-materialist who befriended the birds: he came from a family of rich Assisi cloth merchants. He was born in 1182, to doting parents who freighted him with their care and their ambition. His mother named him Giovanni, after John the Baptist, for she desired him to be a religious leader; but his father, who was away on business at the time of the birth, changed the name when he returned, furiously asserting that he did not want the child to be signed over to God. He intended him to work in the family business and drove him hard at his studies of Latin and mathematics, but no doubt he approved of his son’s popularity and vigorous social appetites too, for these were suitably ungodly pastimes, and besides, ambition is gratified wherever its object finds approval in the world. Francis danced and feasted and passed his nights in riotous style with his aristocratic friends, while by day he studied and worked in his father’s shop. One day a beggar came in to ask for money and Francis threw him out, but a feeling of compunction made him go after the man with a bag of coins and beg his forgiveness. Francis’s father disapproved of such spiritual melodrama, and his friends ridiculed it.
Some time later Assisi declared war against neighbouring Perugia and Francis immediately enlisted. He was ambitious for knightly glory and prestige: and for escape, too, it would seem, from his parents and their conflicting desires for him. Later this need would take desperate forms, but as yet Francis perhaps believed that he could free himself by a worldly route. Almost as soon as he set off he was captured, and was imprisoned for a year. When he returned to Assisi he was ill and took to his bed. There a change took place. It expressed itself in a need to give away his own possessions, a form of behaviour that was also the deepest challenge he could offer to his father’s authority.
Francis began to spend his days alone, forlornly wandering in the countryside around the town. One day he came across a small church that lay in ruins and believed that he heard a voice telling him to repair it. More precisely, the voice is said to have ordered him to ‘repair my house which has fallen into ruin’. Another man might have acted on this injunction in the grand manner for which it appears to legislate, but Francis responded by selling some of his father’s cloth without permission and beginning restoration work on the little church with the proceeds. It is rare for the voice of God to initiate a direct attack on the property of the human father. It is as though Francis’s God were a projection of himself, a kind of universal victim ravaged by the world’s misunderstanding and neglect. Perhaps his spirit had been crushed after all, for like a child his sympathies ever after lay with dumb creatures, with the birds and bees whose patron saint he became. His father, Pietro, accused Francis of theft and led him before the bishop. Pietro explained the whole case, the wealth and education from which his son had profited, the ingratitude his increasingly strange behaviour evinced and the crime in which it had culminated, a crime the more outrageous for being perpetrated against his own father, to whom he owed everything, down to the clothes on his back. At this, Francis committed his final act of rejection: in front of the bishop he removed all of his clothes and gave them back to his father. What lengths he went to, both to goad and to free himself from his oppressive parent! To hand back your own clothes is the prelude to immolation itself, to the giving back of the body that has struggled to be free and failed. And Francis did go on to lead a life of great privation and denial, in which his interest in his new father and patriarch – God – seems to have been more than a little abstracted. His was a pure brand of nihilism that sought only to shield its most abject and defenceless victims from the evil of humankind. At the end of his life he instructed his followers to bury him at a place called Hell’s Hill, a bleak tract of land where executions were customarily held.
Two years after Francis’s death in 1226, the cult of his celebrity was born. He was canonised, and the Pope laid the foundation stone for the basilica on his grave. He who had suffered so bitterly from the tyranny of identity, whose psyche found relief only in the dissolution of ownership and the casting off of material things, whose eyes dwelt for consolation on what was small and beneath notice, was to be pinioned for ever beneath the weight of a giant edifice of unparalleled splendour, in a place he had chosen for its lack of prestige, but which was henceforth to invoke the very origins of human aspiration itself and bear the name of Paradise Hill.
Extract from Coventry by Rachel Cusk (Faber, £14.99). Buy a copy here.
You can explore the Umbrian hills that were home to St Francis on the Idler Retreats to Villa Pia in September and October 2020. Find out more here.