March 6, 2017 Leave a comment
Blog written by Meg Hyland
Just as a cold snap descended upon St Andrews, our Special Subject class left the auld grey toon behind for five incredible days on a tour of mendicant Italy with Professor Frances Andrews. In her module The Early Mendicants: Francis, Clare and Dominic, we have been studying these three thirteenth century saints through close reading of the texts that flowered around each of them in the wake of lives, characterized by intense religious fervour. After a great deal of planning, we were able to take our research out of the classroom and into the medieval cities where these individuals lived, preached, prayed and died.
Where else to begin our journey through medieval Italy than the city to which all roads lead? Rome was not built in a day, but we certainly tried to walk it in one. Although our feet ached by the end of the day, the payoff was a whirlwind tour of the city’s medieval mendicant landscape (and an impressive Fitbit step count). Visiting the city’s medieval churches brought fresh clarity to many of the issues we encounter in the sources. The chandelier-decked nave of the Franciscan church Santa Maria in Aracoeli and the glittering cosmatesque pillars of the Lateran cloister, for example, served as architecturally didactic emblems of the eternal tension between the ideals of apostolic poverty and the “beauty of holiness” that plagued the medieval church.
The texts we labour over in the library came to life nowhere more vibrantly than in Assisi. The translation of Clare’s body up the mountainside from her monastery to San Giorgio in the hot Italian summer takes on a new physicality when you have scaled the steep path yourself. The delight in the natural world that inspired Francis to compose The Canticle of Creatures is easily shared by anyone watching the sunset over the olive groves beside San Damiano. Perhaps the most incredible match of experience to text was in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco. Medieval history has never been so tangible as when we gazed upon the phenomenal frescoes on the walls while Frances Andrews read us the passages of Bonaventure’s Life of Francis that inspired each image in a whisper (so as not to arouse the ire of the policeman patrolling the pews).
Of course, the landscape has changed since the time of the mendicant saints, sometimes dramatically – there were probably not so many gelaterias in Innocent III’s Rome, nor such affordable pizza places in Dominic’s Bologna. The museums of Perugia and Bologna house a concentration of valuable religious art so dense that it would have overwhelmed the medieval mind. But other things remain the same. A kitten scurries around the monastery where Clare once told a cat to bring her a towel. The Pantheon still lets the rain in through the roof. Beneath the layers of modern industry and ornament, a more ancient bedrock remains, from the Etruscan stones of Perugia to the tiny church of the Porziuncola huddled beneath the dome of the vast later basilica.
To study medieval history is often an exercise in the imagination, building up in the mind an image of people and places remote in space and time. On this trip, however, we had the incredible opportunity to see for ourselves the incredible art and architecture that these charismatic figures inspired their followers to commission. We are grateful to Frances Andrews and the School of History (not to mention anyone who patronized our library bake sale) for giving us this opportunity. Our thanks are also due to the people in archives and museums who helped us access the primary sources and those who showed us great hospitality: the Dominican archivist in Rome, the director of the museum of the Porziuncola, Professor Giovanna Casagrande and Amilcare Conti. All of these people enabled us to experience first-hand the rich physical world that the early mendicants inhabited, adapted and created.