Home  |  Authors  |  Books  |  Stories  |  What's New  |  How to Get Involved 
   T h e   B a l d w i n   P r o j e c t
     Bringing Yesterday's Classics to Today's Children                 @mainlesson.com
Search This Site Only
 
 
Boys of the Ages by  Laura Woolsey Lord Scales


 

 

FRANCESCO AND THE SONG OF THE BIRDS

THE ITALIAN PAINTER

[116]

U
P the narrow stone street of his mountain village, little Francesco went dancing and capering and singing, burst into the room where his mother sat, and held out to her a bunch of anemones, colored like the rainbow.

"See what I bring thee," he shouted. "See the pretty darlings!"

"Francesco, meschinello, where hast thou been this long time?" his mother scolded him, but she pressed the lovely flowers to her face. "Ah, the dear springtime!" she murmured, "the blessed flowers! Thank thee, carissimo."

But she put them down in a moment to go back to her embroidery. Lucia's fingers were never quiet long, for their work meant bread for her little son. Her beautiful embroideries were all that stood between him and hunger. He had no father, and he himself was still so little and so full of joy that she could not bear to set him to work.

"Ah, mother, such a pretty day!" he was telling her, as he danced and hovered about her, though realizing even in his eagerness that he must not interrupt [117] her work. "The hills are all flowers,—tulips and lilies and these bright ones everywhere on all the hills. Piero and Maria and Giovanni and I, we have picked our arms full. We climbed very high, right under the great bell of Santa Scholastica."

"And what hast thou done with the rest of thy flowers? Tell me not that thou hast left the poor things to die!"

"No, no, mother dear, no. I brought mine all the way back to the Cappucini and left them for my own San Francesco."

"That was a good boy," his mother kissed him. "Though thou art very idle, thou hast a good heart. The Brothers say I should set thee to work and not let thee waste thy time all day on the hills."

"But mother," Francesco jumped up and down as if so his words could be hurried faster, "mother, the flowers! Who would pick them? And my good saint, who would bring them to him? And you told me he loves flowers. And today, mother," for a moment he stood between her and her work, looking up into her face with big eyes, "I thought he smiled at me. I looked long, hoping he would do it. And the wolf, too; Brother Wolf did not look so fierce as usual. And I thought, perhaps does he like flowers brought him besides his food?"

It was a picture of St. Francis shaking hands with the wolf to which Francesco had taken his flowers. For as the old story told, St. Francis had made the [118] wolf agree to stop eating sheep and cattle and men and had promised him that instead he should be given food each day, and then the two had shaken hands to seal their pledge.

Lucia kissed her boy again. "Thou art full of fancies, and as dear as thou art naughty. And who knows?—it may be thy flowers as well as my prayers that have pleased the good saint, for today I have an order for a cloth for the altar of il Sagro Speco. It will give me work for months, and the pay is good."

"O mother, why must thou work so late? If I could but show thee! Hark, dost thou hear the river tumbling and running faster than ever and with such a noise? And the flowers—each day I will bring them to thee and San Francesco." Already he was out and off again, to feel even in the village street the last of the soft spring day.

Lucia smiled. In this little mountain village she was alone and far from her early home and friends, and she was poor and ill, but from Francesco's sunny spirit she drank a sweet wine that gave her life. So she had struggled on, and the monks of the convent high up on the hills had given her work for her fingers, and, what was more, had promised that if anything happened to her they would care for her boy.


[Illustration]

THE MONASTERY AT SUBIACO

St. Francis is said to have visited this monastery about 1218, and according to the story changed the thorns in its garden into roses. There is still in the church a portrait of St. Francis, said to have been painted during his lifetime


When Francesco was ten years old the day came when they had to make good their word. For his mother died, and he was taken from the poor little room they had called home to live in the old monastery [119] of St. Benedict, which high above the town clung to the mountain side like one of its own rocks, and there he was taught as a novice. At first he was very unhappy. To lose his dear mother, to give up the gay roaming of the fields, to do always as he was told, to leave behind his loved saint and wolf, in fact to belong now to St. Benedict and not to his own saint,—why, he wondered, if he must be shut up, might it not have been at Cappucini with them?—it was all very [120] hard. Still there was food in plenty, such as he had never known, and there was the singing from the big books. He learned to read quickly so that he might sing from these big choir books, for until now he had had no schooling; and also he liked to read and look at the books with beautiful pictures which were a wonder to him. And then after the evening meal the prior often read to them, and sometimes besides the lesson of the day, he read stories of the saints.

One time, to Francesco's joy, it was the story of his own saint which the prior read: how St. Francis had changed from being a wild, gay boy, and had given his coat to a beggar and taken his rags in exchange; how he had left his father and great riches to go to live in a cell and build a chapel and choose our Lady of Poverty; how he had gone out to teach both at home and in distant lands, and had preached even to the birds, since they too were God's creatures. This story Francesco loved above all the others. "For as he came to Bevagna," so the prior read, "he saw a flock of birds and stopped and preached to them; 'Brother birds, you ought to praise and love your Creator very much. He has given you feathers for clothing, wings for flying, and all that is needful for you. He has made you the noblest of his creatures; he permits you to live in the pure air, you have neither to sow nor to reap, and yet he takes care of you, watches over you and guides you.' Then the birds began to arch their necks and spread their wings and open their [121] beaks as if to thank him, while he went up and down stroking them with the border of his tunic."

This and other stories of St. Francis and the birds the prior read: how he quieted the swallows when their loud twittering disturbed his preaching, how he sang a duet with the nightingale in praise of God and had to acknowledge that the bird sang better than he did, how he built nests for the doves in his monastery. To little Francesco these stories suggested new delights. Each day he went out and tried to coax the doves to come to him and even to tame the three ravens which lived at the monastery. He talked to them gently and fed them until at last they came to him without fear.

And there was one other story which the prior read that made the monastery a very different place to him. For it seemed that his own good saint had once visited this very monastery, and his picture which had been painted then was still in the lower church, and the roses which had sprung up at his touch in place of the thorns of St. Benedict were still in the garden. After that, no one had to urge Francesco to work in the little terraced garden, and he was always ready to say his prayers, if he might slip away into the lower church to say them before his own saint. Looking up into the face of the kind young monk of the picture, he used to tell him his troubles and feel better.

In the chapels of the monastery there was not only St. Francis's picture, but there were many other [122] paintings, beautiful and rich in color, like the pictures of the books. Francesco loved them. He studied them until he knew every line by heart, just how an arm was bent or a horse's neck arched, or the eyes of a saint looked out from a long, sweet face. Then he tried to copy them, and his lessons were neglected, and the monks were constantly scolding him. But he was too busy to care what they said. Wherever he could find a bit of charcoal and a pavement or a wall to draw on, he was making his own pictures. Even the margins of the beautiful books became only empty spaces to him where he could copy the lines of the pictures; and so over and over again he was punished. Nevertheless, his pictures were improving. Month by month and year by year he kept at it until the arms of his people, too, bent as they should, and the men even walked and the horses looked like those in the pictures. Then he was ready for something new. He watched the monks and began to draw their faces on the wall, better and better, until one day a brother recognized himself, and then there was trouble. Francesco was brought before the abbot, and after he had been found guilty of every sin of laziness and irreverence he was shut up by himself in a cell to live on bread and water and do penance. Picture-making was not a deadly sin, and Francesco did not think it fair to punish him so hard. And as he could not get hold of even a bit of charcoal, and the best he could do was to wet a finger in the water they brought him and make pictures that were [123] faded as soon as they were done, he grew desperate and began to question whether it was not desirable to run away.

One evening he called to one of the younger brothers and persuaded him to let him into the chapel to make his prayers. The Brother, knowing his devotion to the picture of St. Francis, let him in. Somehow he was forgotten, and Francesco, thankful to be out of his bare cell, crept behind a pillar prepared to spend the night on the floor. It became very dark and cold and still, but he was just getting off to sleep when a little noise startled him, and in the candlelight from a shrine he saw a man's shape. One of the brothers must have come for him. But then he saw that the man was not dressed in the long robe of the monks but had on trunk hose and a pointed cap, and a second man was beside him with a sack flung over his shoulder. They were going from the altar to the wardrobe where the church furnishings were kept,—the embroideries and the gold and the silver dishes. Francesco could not understand what it meant, and, curiosity getting the better of him, he crept up toward them, trying to go quietly and yet to see.

The men heard and turned. One raised an arm to strike, but then saw that it was only a boy. "What doest thou here?" he said in a gruff, thick voice.

Francesco was frightened. "I—I am running away," he said, not knowing how else to account for his being there.

[124] "Ho, indeed, a likely place this!" the man sneered; and the other one snorted, "Run away! Thou wouldst, wouldst thou? We'll see about that. Perhaps thou shalt run away in truth." And the two men laughed and whispered together, and Francesco tried to slip off into the darkness. But a heavy hand caught him, for these robbers of a church had decided to steal a boy too, since it was safer to leave nothing behind to tell tales. Also a boy would be useful to them.

So, by morning Francesco was out on the open road, farther from his little hill town than he had ever been in his life. He was of course terribly frightened at first, but the men were not cruel to him, gave him food and, except for a little work, left him to do pretty much as he pleased. He found that whatever their occupation by night might be (and he was never with them then), by day they were jugglers who went from village to village doing their tricks and entertaining the folk in return for food and a few pieces of silver. For the traveling jugglers and singers were the theater of Francesco's time, and brought the villages entertainment.

It was a happy-go-lucky, picturesque life: no rules, no hours, no lessons at the monastery; no confinement inside walls, but the whole wide world to roam in; new sights to see, everything to learn, and the old freedom and joy of the flowers of the field. Francesco was glad. And when the two jugglers found that he had a clear, ringing boy's voice, they were even kind to [125] him. Since he knew only the psalms and hymns of the brothers, they taught him some boisterous, rousing songs, and he sang from village to village to the delight of the people. Then, too, he made his pictures for them, and the jugglers themselves were proud when they saw what this boy could do. On the stone walls of the houses, on the pavements, in the sand, he traced pictures for the crowd, now showing them a monk with his cowl, now a donkey with his load, then, best of all, pictures of themselves,—often a caricature of some man in the crowd, done while he watched amid the jeers and shouts of his neighbors. Every Italian loved a picture: that was something that high or low could understand. A man might not read or write, but he could tell a good picture when he saw it. And so Francesco was immensely popular and so his masters, who made much money through his skill, treated him well, unless they were very drunk indeed.

At any rate they left him free, and when he was not making his comic pictures in the village square, he could go where he pleased. And there was always one thing he wanted above everything,—to go where there were pictures. In every town he found church, cathedral or town hall,—wherever the best paintings were—and there he spent hours studying the ways of the different artists and storing his mind with things to help his own work. For though these were holy pictures and though he was only making coarse, clownish things, he wanted to know the better way.


[Illustration]

MADONNA AND CHILD AND SAINTS, BY SANO DI PIETRO

Such paintings of the Madonna with long face and sad eyes, the work of the painters of the earlier times, were in many of the churches of Italy


[126] It was the best of chances for a would-be artist and the freest of lives for a convent-bred boy. Yet something was wrong. Francesco felt it. When he went into the churches, the eyes of the Virgin looked at him reprovingly. He had noticed it once, and then it happened again and again, until in each town he went to see how it would be, and always it was the same: the Virgin and the saints looked at him with disapproving eyes. At last he felt as if he could bear it no longer. What did it mean? Was it because the Virgin was displeased that he made such rude pictures of [127] coarse, unholy things? Was it because he shouted out wild, boisterous songs and lived with men who talked foul language and had robbed a church? His convent training reminded him that all these things were wrong.

On their wanderings they came to Assisi, his own saint's home, and Francesco flew at his first free moment to the church where St. Francis was buried. There he felt again the rapture of devotion of his early boyhood as he knelt at the saint's tomb and saw the many pictures of his life. For a time he could do nothing but go over and over the story that they told and let their beauty sink into his soul, but after a little the pictures began to talk to him of other things: St. Francis in prayer, St. Francis marrying our Lady Poverty, St. Francis living in each picture his holy life; and what was he, little Francesco, doing? He was living riotously with evil men, and too, as his conscience of a would-be artist reminded him in the midst of these pure and lofty pictures, hurting his own mind and fingers by making low, coarse drawings until some day he would not be able to do anything better.

But what was he to do? He knew that his masters would never willingly let him go, for he was too valuable to them now. By chance he heard some men in the town talking of the many robberies in the churches,—embroideries, silver and gold dishes, even jewels from the shrines of the saints stolen,—and the midnight scene in the little chapel of his own monastery came [128] back to him. He saw his two masters in the candlelight stuffing their sack with the precious things of the church! An idea came into his mind to solve his problem.


[Illustration]

St. FRANCIS AND POVERTY, BY GIOTTO

This is one of the paintings in the church of St. Francis at Assisi, and in an imaginary scene of the marriage of St. Francis to Poverty suggests his vow of poverty. The figure of Poverty is in the center beside that of Christ, who is performing the marriage


That afternoon when the crowd gathered in the village square and he, his charcoal in hand, must make his picture to amuse them, he drew on the pavement a new sort of scene,—the inside of a church, pillars, altar, candles, and two men catching up a chalice to stow it into a bag slung across their shoulders. And [129] then he drew their heads. And their heads were portraits, exact likenesses of the two jugglers who were there in the crowd watching. As he drew feature after feature and made the whole face come true to life, the crowd began to understand. A gasp, a shout, hands reaching out to clutch the men whose evil deeds they saw pictured! But the two jugglers, or thieves as they were, had understood their danger and had slipped through the crowd and vanished no one knew where. Francesco was beset with eager questions, and the picture became so famous that all the countryside came to see it, and it was carefully preserved.

It chanced that the next day Messer Luigi, a nobleman of Florence, came riding by, and he saw the crowd and saw the picture and stopped to look. "Who did this?" he cried. "Why this has merit! See the sly movement of this fellow as he tucks his loot into his bag! And the faces,—I declare. Who did this?"

The crowd pushed forward Francesco, and he stood very bashfully before this great nobleman. He was only fourteen, and he was dressed in bizarre, jaunty fashion, as befitted a companion of jugglers, and Messer Luigi looked at him in astonishment. "Nay," he said, "not thou! A youngster like thee! Who art thou, then? And who hast taught thee?" No one had taught him, Francesco answered. He had just done it, and that was all. Messer Luigi talked with him and bade him draw other things for him, with the result that he was more and more pleased. "Come, then, [130] with me," he said. "If this is what thou canst do untaught, come and we'll give thee to a master, and then we'll see what thou canst do. Wilt come with me to Florence?"

There was no one to cry stay, and Francesco was aglow at the mere thought of such a future. Learning to paint, as the real business of his days! It was a miracle. Messer Luigi put him behind him on his powerful horse, and together they rode through the gray-green olive groves and under the castle-crowned hills and beside the rich, growing fields until they came to the city of Florence. Never had Francesco seen anything like it: the stately Palace of the Signoria, or city government, the great domed Cathedral, the beautiful bell-tower, like a tall, pink lily of stone, the many shops, the open squares filled with people as handsome in their faces as in their dress—all the gay, merry life of the heart of Tuscany was to him a magic world. Messer Luigi took him to his home, a palace near the new one of the Great Duke, and here the fairy world of beauty was continued. Beautiful rooms, beautiful hangings, rugs and furniture, beautiful faces, for Messer Luigi's wife and daughters were like angels to him in their loveliness. That night when he went to sleep in a great bed covered with crimson damask, he told himself that he would surely wake to find it only a dream. But in the morning he was still there in the midst of all the splendor, and there he stayed.


[Illustration]

A BEDROOM IN THE PALAZZO DAVANZATI, FLORENCE

[132] For Messer Luigi, though he did not tell the boy, thought he had discovered a genius, and as with so many of his fellow citizens it was a matter of great pride with him to become patron to a rising artist. So he determined to have Francesco taught, believing that some day he as well as the boy would be famous through his paintings. He put Francesco to study under a master renowned for his studies in the new art of perspective, but Francesco also studied in every church and palace of Florence, which was already becoming a treasure house of art. Giotto, Orcagna, Donatello, della Robbia, he knew each work of theirs by heart.

The years went by, and the promise of his early work began to come true; yet work and play were both made too easy for him. People made much of him; he was feasted in the palaces of the rich, Duke Cosimo himself sent asking him to bring his sketches, and Messer Luigi was so pleased that he only added to what the others were doing to turn Francesco's head. It was the boy's sketches that especially pleased his friends, for, thanks to his early practice, he could make a rough, quick drawing that was full of life and fire, and to the people whose affections were turning away from the stiff, unreal saints or Madonnas of the early masters, these sketches were appealing. Often they were jokes or caricatures or scenes of trifling importance meant only to raise a laugh. But they were in such demand that Francesco had time for little else. [133] Occasionally Messer Luigi would say to him, "Look out, young man, thou art spending all thy time on gewgaws. Where is that great painting of thine that shall make both thee and me famous?" But Francesco was being carried along dangerously fast on the stream of sudden popularity. Hard work and thought seemed scarcely necessary.

He still visited the churches, for he still loved the masters' work; especially he liked to go under the high arches of Santa Croce to see there again Giotto's story of St. Francis. Wherever St. Francis was, there he felt at home. Yet now he began to feel a sadness in the pictures of the saints, and once again wherever he went the eyes of the Virgin seemed to look at him reprovingly. He laughed now at the notion, for he was seventeen and beyond such childish fancies, but still he kept going back to see, and still it seemed that the Virgin reproached him with her look. "It is because I do not paint her picture as the other painters do," he said, and in order to gain her favor he started a hasty likeness of a Madonna. But he soon realized that that was not the spirit in which to paint a holy picture, and he stopped.

A struggle was going on within him. Like the times he lived in, he was two boys—one light-hearted, luxurious, pleasure-hunting, in love with every kind of outward beauty; and the other speaking the same message that the eyes of the Virgin were saying, "Was it to do such light, unholy work that thou hast loved [134] beauty ever since as a child thou gatheredst flowers? Those thou used to bring in loving gift to San Francesco—now what doest thou?" Then he would look at the stiff, unnatural figures in the paintings of the early masters, and he would answer back rebelliously, "Must I, then, do such as these? These are not beautiful. These are not flesh and blood, as I see people. If I were to paint what I see, is that to serve the devil?"

He was more and more restless and went wandering around the city, doing little work. One day he passed the monastery of San Marco. He had heard of some great paintings that one of its monks had painted on the walls of the cells, but his boyhood memories had kept him away from monasteries. Now, a sudden impulse sent him in. He saw in their freshness the work of the blessed monk, Fra Angelico,—Brother Angel. Here were paintings of saints and Madonnas and of our Lord, full of devotion and purity and love, yet natural, lifelike and charming—real persons, only with an added beauty beyond that of this world. The colors were rich and glowing, the drawing fine and true, and the spirit was one of loving devotion. Francesco lingered for hours. It was as if new blood were being poured into his artist's heart.


[Illustration]

MADONNA AND ANGEL, BY FRA ANGELICO

This is one of the paintings in the monastery of San Marco, full of the spirit of devotion and of the love of beauty which is characteristic of the painter-monk, Fra Angelico


When he left, it was late in the afternoon and he wanted to get away from the city and across the river to the hillside opposite. But on the way, in crossing the Piazza of the Duomo, he saw the place crowded [135] with pigeons. It was years since he had tried to talk to the birds, but now he stopped and fed them and called to them in the old way, and the birds flocked about him in friendly fashion. It sent him on in a happy mood. It was sunset. The last level rays of the sun sparkled in the river, sent out beacon fires from the many towers of the city, and turned its roofs to gold. Francesco stretched himself under a tree. The air was soft, the birds were singing their goodnight songs, the fragrance of flowers came home on [136] the evening breeze. The world itself seemed such a paradise as the Blessed Angelico loved to paint. It was the world of St. Francis who loved every flower and blade of grass and every bird, beast and insect. Francesco closed his eyes the better to feel it all.

It was only a moment after, it seemed, that there was a flocking together of the birds and a great twittering all about him; and then a man appeared dressed in a long gray robe and monk's cowl, with dark brown eyes and an expression of wonderful sweetness. The birds were lighting about his feet, and stretching out their necks and opening their beaks to speak to him. It was St. Francis. He began to sing his hymn of love for the beautiful earth, and the birds took up the song and joined with him. "Praised be my Lord God of all his creatures, and especially for our brother the sun. Praised be my Lord for our sister the moon . . . for our brother the wind, and for air and clouds. Praised be my Lord for our mother the earth, the which bringeth forth divers fruits and flowers of many colors and grass." Then the saint seemed to stoop and bless the birds and bade them good-by. He disappeared as he had come, but the birds lingered, and led by one who had perched on the saint's hand, they sang on, and soon Francesco caught words and meaning in what they sang. "Our brother," they twittered, and came closer and closer to him, "our brother, we praise God with our voices; praise thou him with the work of thy hands. Praise him with beauty. Sweet is the [138] earth and sky, and good and pleasant are all his creatures. Refresh the hearts of men with beauty through the works of thy hands. There was a whirring of wings and then a silence, and when Francesco opened his eyes, the night was about him and nothing was to be seen but the stars in the sky above and the little lights of the town. Then he knew that he had had a vision. His saint had sent word to tell him what to do. He leapt to his feet. "Refresh men with beauty!" He had his commission now. He would paint the world he saw,—the world that St. Francis loved—for the joy of men and the glory of God. He would paint the serene earth and blue sky, the circling hills and soft green woods, noble men and women with faces sweet and pure as a Madonna's.


[Illustration]

St. FRANCIS AND THE BIRDS, BY GIOTTO

This painting, made not very long after St. Francis' lifetime, seems to have much of the poetry and beauty of his character, which made him a friend of the birds


He left Florence, his gay life and his trifling sketches, went into the country, and set himself to work. And there, as long as he lived, he painted the goodness of earth and sky and all God's creatures, as a namesake of St. Francis should do.


 Table of Contents  |  Index  | Previous: Christolphe and the Golden Fleece  |  Next: Hugh and the Quest of the Unknown
Copyright (c) 2000-2017 Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.