Saturday, March 09, 2024

St Frances of Rome

March 9th is the feast of St Frances of Rome, who died on this day in the year 1440. She was born into a wealthy and noble Roman family in 1384, and felt called to the religious life at a very young age, but yielding to her parents’ wishes, agreed to be married to a young nobleman named Lorenzo Ponziano when she was only thirteen. Taking up residence in her in-laws’ palazzo, she soon discovered a kindred spirit in her sister-in-law Vannozza. The two young wives became close friends, and began to live a kind of common religious life, insofar as this was compatible with their station in life, eschewing the rich dress typical of women of their class, dedicating themselves to the poor, and tending the sick in the great hospital of Rome, Santo Spirito in Sassia in the Borgo, near St Peter’s. Unlike many other devout women in similar positions, they had their husbands’ complete support in this way of life, despite the reservations of their mother-in-law.

The Virgin and Child with Saints Benedict and Frances of Rome, 1468, by Antonio di Benedetto Aquilo degli Aquili (ca. 1430 – ca. 1510), commonly known as Antoniazzo Romano. St Benedict is shown in the white habit of the Olivetan monks, to which the congregation founded by St Frances was affiliated; Frances herself is shown with an angel, for reasons which are explained below. ~ This fresco is one part of a large cycle which shows many of the major events of Frances’ life, in a room of the oldest part of the religious house which she founded. The building is only open to the public each year on her feast day, and the following Sundays of March, and photography is strictly forbidden, which is why very few pictures of the cycle of available on the internet. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The first of Frances’ three children, a boy named Battista, was born in 1400, when she was 16; two others would follow, a boy named Evangelista, and a girl named Agnes. (None of these names were unusual at the time, but it is interesting that her children should be named for the two Saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist, who share the title of the cathedral of Rome, and the most prominent among the great Roman female martyrs.) The following year, upon her mother-in-law’s death, her father-in-law made her the head of the household, a position which would normally have fallen to Vannozza as the wife of the older brother. His choice was fully vindicated not only by her excellent administration, but also by the great charity with which she treated all her charges, both family and servants; but in the midst of all her duties, she was always first and foremost an exemplary and devoted wife.
St Frances heals a mortally wounded young man. (Part of the fresco cycle described above.)
Although the household she had married into was peaceful and prosperous, Italy in the early 15th century was not, wracked by civil wars, and the famines and plagues that often resulted from the constant unrest. Rome suffered in particular from the disturbances brought about by the Great Schism of the West, which drew the popes out of the city for long stretches of time, with bad effects on its governance. When the plague came to the city, Frances and Vannozza emptied the supplies of the house to assist them, then sold off their jewels and fancy clothes, and finally went begging on behalf of the poor, earning the sharp disdain of some among the nobility for whom social position held greater importance than Christian duty.
The Ponziano family had always been leading supporters of the legitimate line of popes, the successors of Urban VI. In 1408, the city was taken by mercenaries in the pay of Ladislaus, the king of Naples, a supporter of the antipopes, and in an ensuing disturbance, Lorenzo was stabbed, although not fatally, while his older brother Paluzzo, Vannozza’s husband, was taken prisoner. Ladislaus’ troops withdrew, but returned two years later, and Lorenzo was forced to flee the city, leaving his family behind. His palazzo and countryside possessions were ransacked, and many of the peasants on his land murdered; Battista was taken captive, but soon managed to escape and reach his father. Frances and her two younger children, and Vannozza, whose husband was still a prisoner, were now reduced to living in just a small part of the house that remained habitable, but still found ways and means to care for those even worse off than themselves.
A sculpted medallion of St Frances with her angel on the outside of the Tor de’ Specchi monastery in Rome; image from Wikimedia Commons by Deb Nystrom, CC BY 2.0.
Three years later, Evangelista died during another outbreak of plague. After a year, he appeared in a vision to his mother as she was praying, accompanied by an angel, to tell her that Agnes would soon die as well. However, Frances was to receive a special consolation for this, which has given rise to the traditional manner of depicting her in art. The angel was to remain with her as her guardian, and be constantly visible to her alone. Agnes did indeed pass away soon thereafter, and from the moment of her death, the angel was always with St Frances; it would disappear only when she had committed a sin, and return as soon as she confessed it.
In 1414, there began the Council of Constance, which would put an end to the Great Schism. Lorenzo was able to return to Rome and regain his property, and Frances returned to her duties as the head of the house. However, the city remained very unsettled, much of it in ruins, and with many poor and dispossessed persons in need of care. Frances devoted herself to the needy as before; a very considerable number of miracles, diligently recorded in the acts of her canonization process, are attributed to her from this period of her life, including more than sixty miraculous healings.
The Tor de’ Specchi monastery complex.
On the feast of the Assumption in 1425, she officially founded a religious community for women, according to a plan that she had long been forming. Much like the women called “beguines” in the Low Countries, the members did not take vows, although they were affiliated to the Benedictines, but simply lived in common and served the poor. They were originally known as the Oblates of Mary, but the name was later changed to the Oblates of Tor de’ Specchi (tower of the mirrors), from the name of the building which they took as their residence. (This derives from a late medieval legend that on top of a tall tower nearby, which no longer exists, the ancient Romans had a room full of magic mirrors which they used to spy on their provinces and make sure that no one was plotting to rebel against them.)
Frances spent as much time with this community as her familial duties permitted, and after Lorenzo’s death in 1436, entered it herself. She had always refused to be called the foundress, but as soon as she took up permanent residence within the house, the superior resigned in her favor. Less than four years later, Frances died while visiting her son at the family home, having lived the last years of her life in the greatest austerity. (The breviary notes that her confessor had to order her to moderate her mortifications.) Her body was taken to Santa Maria Nuova, the Roman church of the Olivetan Benedictines, where her congregation of oblates had a burial chapel. This church is now generally known as Santa Francesca Romana, since her relics have been exposed for veneration in its crypt since at least the time of her canonization in 1608.
The confessio of the basilica of Santa Francesca Romana, built between 1638 and 1649 on a design by the great Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The Saint’s relics are immediately behind this in the crypt, which can be seen through the grills to either side. Bernini’s original sculptures of St Frances and the angel were destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Rome, in 1798; the replacements seen here were made by Giosuè Meli in 1866. (This image and the one below from Wikimedia Commons by Kent Wang, CC BY-SA 4.0.)
The chief patron Saints of Rome are, of course, the Apostles Peter and Paul, together with St Lawrence, but Frances has long been honored as a secondary patron, together with St Philip Neri. With the coming of the motor age, the custom emerged that the Romans, who fully deserve their reputation as terrible drivers, would bring their cars to her church to be blessed. The joke has often been repeated that she was chosen for this role because she had great power over demons, and the Romans all drive like they are possessed.
From the archives of the Italian film company Istituto Luce: “The traditional blessing of vehicles on the day of the patron, Saint Frances of Rome, has gathered together before the Colosseum more than 700 private cars, flanked by buses of the governorate (of Rome), tourist buses, automobiles of the police service, and military vehicles. The blessing was imparted by His Eminence Cardinal (Enrico) Sibilia, titular of the basilica of St Frances of Rome.” (In point of fact, the cardinalitial title of the church has always been officially under its old name, Sancta Maria Nova; it is currently held by Péter Cardinal Erdő, Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary.)

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