The Mission of Francis of Assisi

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ITALY did not know the centuries of silence into which the annihilation of the Latin world plunged Gaul. Visited, as Gaul was, and more frequently than Gaul, by invasion, Italy retained, nevertheless, the memory of a well-ordered world of imposing aspect, one which resembled her own desire. The world of the ancient Mediterranean was to enter the modern world along the slope of her natural genius. Rome installed in the basilicas its rebaptized gods. The old races called upon the old civilizations to furnish them the means of awaiting the return of life.

The Barbarians overthrew the temples, their Italianized sons set them up again. And nothing is changed. From the ruin of yesterday still another basilica comes forth. The role of the conqueror is not to teach new processes, but to infuse new energy. He offers his virgin senses to the revelation of the glorious landscape. Thus was Greece rendered fecund by the Dorians. New generalizations are born from the melting of the human material from the north in the Greco-Latin crucible.

We know it well. We must tell it. The greatest men have confessed it to us. Montaigne will ask Italy to approve his wisdom, Shakespeare invokes her name daily to justify his passion. Goethe lives through her, and Stendhal, and Nietzsche. Byron dies through her. In the days of Rembrandt's affluence, Giorgione reigns over his studio, and when he becomes poor there is always something of the Italian flame at the center of the ray of light which follows his descent into the shadows of the mind. It is Italy that organizes the tumult of Rubens, that reveals space to Velasquez, to Poussin the architecture of the earth, to Claude Lorrain the architecture of the sky. As soon as one touches Italy, one feels oneself overwhelmed by the intoxication that comes of understanding. Intelligence and instinct merge, the scientist agrees that the artist shall take possession of mechanics and of geometry, the artist willingly grinds the colors and mixes the mortar. The most atrocious voluptuousness is only a step from sainthood; chastity burns like an orgy. Here love is as funereal as death; death has the attraction and the mystery of love. The ambition to dominate increases the thirst for conquest and knowledge, and yet knowledge and conquest are never definitive enough to make him who desires them worthy to command. Here pride is so strong that it will invariably abase itself before the things it still must learn in order that, with them, it may affirm itself before the world. Nowhere do crime and genius approach so closely to each other. Cain and Prometheus may be divined in the curve of every brow, in the depths of all eyes, and in all the hands that clutch the handle of the dagger or the tool of the workman. The earth trembles, and yet one feels something eternal in the profile of these mountains and the curve of these shores. Everywhere in Italy the world incorporates the mind with its form, and demands insatiably that the passion of men's hearts shall tear it forth. Italy! There is something that pains in the love that we have for you; we are afraid that we shall never know fully what you desire to teach us.

The potential force which is there must impose itself despite everything. Byzantium itself contributes less than is generally believed. Save at Ravenna, a colony of the Greek empire, save at Venice, where the Orient lives, save in Sicily, a Greek country where the Byzantine elements mingle with the Arab and Norman elements developing, in the Middle Ages, a voluptuous, cruel, paradoxical, and barbarous style that is impossible to define and difficult to recognize, Byzantium does not furnish Italy with a single idea which, on being transplanted, can originate a new architectural order. Italy accepts the cupola only because it already covers the Pantheon. In the middle of the thirteenth century, when the French image makers, the masters of Occidental sculpture, are in demand everywhere, Nicola Pisano studies Roman sarcophagi to learn the working of marble; he cuts, as if with a hatchet, his crowds of figures, glowing with life, rough and tense from brutal effort; and so he sets up the trenchant claim of the primitive Latin genius as opposed to the claims of the artists of the north. Italy does not forget, because she remains Italy.

Too often people look upon the perpetuation of certain essential forms as the result of a traditional desire transmitted by the schools, when in reality the forms are only an expression of the desires of a race and of the indications of its soil. In all the Mediterranean countries, where palm trees, pines, and yew trees detached their smooth trunks against a hard sky, the column which reappears on the front of the churches and which is used from the top to the bottom of the towers of Romanesque Italy was a natural expression that could not disappear. Antiquity and the new Italy are in accord in these lines of galleries bordered by arcades which spread their carved tracery over the round baptisteries, the bare façades of the temples, and the square campaniles. The basilica has called to its aid the trees whose clearly marked foliage allows the transparence and the limpidity of the world to shine through their overhanging branches, and it is with their grace and pride that it covers the great Roman vessel.

The daily needs and the riches of Italy required this architecture. The image of her powerful cities and her villas, scattered over the sides of the hills among the cypresses, is imprinted on the hearts of those who cannot forget the educating power of her severe and melodious contours; it is in the hearts of all those who retain the clear memory of the white arcades and of the sheathings of black and white marble which from afar mingle the cathedrals with the blurred reds of the roofs. At the hour when the theocratic Romanesque was defining architectural dogma in the north and west of Europe, Pisa and Lucca and many other cities of continental Italy were already passing beyond the towers and the temples to the popular expression that suited the Italians, as the French Commune was to pass on, a century later, to the popular expression that suited the French. The Italian Romanesque derives from the living spirit of the race with perfect ease. Italy will not have to rise up throughout its whole extent, as the north of France had to, in order to claim the right to assert its vision. Catholicism here never ceased to employ external magnificence as an expression of political domination, which, if it does not leave freedom of thought to man, at least permits him complete freedom of sensation. The gallery with colonnades defines the church and the loggia, and the city house and the country house which the Tuscans and Lombards would still be building to-day, had they been left to their own devices. Along the streets paved with their broad flagstones, it is still the gallery with colonnades that shelters the crowd from showers and sun, and supports the pink or white façades whose rows of green shutters rise to the line of the roof. Under the pines shaped like parasols, it is the gallery that detaches its profiles against the straight-lined terraces of the Florentine villas. And at the gates of the cities, it protects the cool Campo Santo, paved with marble, where one walks over the dead.

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