Franciscan Saints — January 2017

After a brief detour with Louis Massignon, I am continuing my discussion of the first Franciscan church in Rome, San Francesco a Ripa, and the Franciscan saints associated with it. I was delighted to be able to visit this church during my first trip to Rome back in 1985, and I made a modest financial contribution to the recent restoration of the cell Francis stayed in there. As a result, I’ve become more and more interested in this church.

I’m including a preview of what I hope to write on St. Ludovica Albertoni, whose tomb is here, especially since her feast day is today, January 31. The most notable early Franciscan figure associated with San Francesco a Ripa though, is Lady Jacopa dei Settesoli, who is credited with a role in founding the Franciscan monastery there.

The conventino of Lady Jacopa

Since the early thirteenth century, the Church of San Francesco a Ripa Grande has been an important center of the Order of Friars Minor in Rome. How the church came to be is something most people, even many Secular Franciscans don’t know. But now the details in the traditional written accounts have been supplemented by evidence from recent archaeological excavations.

The church’s name comes from its location near the Porto di Ripa Grande on the Tiber river in the Trastevere region of Rome. Recent excavations have shown that the area served from the earliest Christian period for pilgrims; a building and a small cemetery dating from the second or third century have been discovered; perhaps the cemetery was for foreign pilgrims to Rome who died before returning home. [1]

Sometime in the tenth century, the Benedictines of the Cluniac reform built a monastery on the spot known as San Cosmato. It had its own chapel, dedicated to St. Blaise, with a priest as chaplain, a hospital to care for lepers in the final stages of their illness, and a hospice for pilgrims. By the thirteenth century, it was surrounded by the palazzi and towers of the noble Roman families of the Trastevere. At the same time, the Benedictines seemed no longer to be making much use of the buildings including the hospice and hospital, for which they were heavily in debt.[2] This is how St. Francis first saw it, probably during his trip to Rome in 1212 to consult with the Pope

It was during his 1212 trip that he become acquainted with the Lady Jacopa, as we have seen (see my post on Jacopa from March-April 2016). Wadding says that it was during this stay that

[Jacopa] conceived a heartfelt devotion toward Francis and his companions; she used to always receive them with a hospitable welcome and with all charity, offered them kind services. She offered her aid in obtaining from the Abbot of St. Cosma, in the vernacular Cosmati, in the Trastevere region, near a lodging for foreigners near the bank of the Tiber, a certain refuge or guest-house for the brothers coming to Rome, where the holy father was accustomed to stay and where his cell, converted to a chapel, in which from time to time the sacred act is performed, is still devoutly honored by everyone.[3]

St. Francis’ cell at San Francesco a Ripa, after restoration

Wadding’s account is our basic written source. But we can get a better idea of the details from other documents. Jacopa clearly understood Francis’ preference for a poor habitation. During his trip to Rome in 1209 as he was hoping to have Pope Innocent III confirm his order, Francis and his brothers stayed at the leper hospital of San Antonio near St. John Lateran, where he and his brothers served the lepers.(At that time, he popes lived at the Lateran. [4]

While he sometimes stayed with the noble and wealthy, such as Jacopa and Matteo Rosso Osini, who sheltered Francis at the Castello Sant‘Angelo near St. Peter’s, Francis greatly preferred a poor habitation, and the decrepit and abandoned buildings of the hospice of San Cosmato were entirely in conformity to his desires. It is a relatively short distance from St. Peter’s basilica, which was an important pilgrimage place for him, proved by the trip he made to St. Peter’s at the beginning of his conversion.

A seventeenth- century document, copied from the original signboard in the cell describes the cell of St. Francis:

. . . a large room that was located behind the tribune of the Church for use in the Gothic period for the convenience of the hospice for hearing Mass and also served for use as a Choir for the Religious . . . In this large room the Holy Father made a partition of woven willow branches and potsherds and formed of it a little room and oratory, for his use when he came to Rome. From the same room one went from the pulpit of the church in cornu evangelii [on the Gospel side], according to Gothic custom; at present you can see the walled-up door; there followed from the side of the garden a little religious dormitory with little rooms, likewise of woven wicker branches, for use of [Francis’] religious companions.[5]

Intervening to get Francis and his friars permission to use the building was just the first step in Lady Jacopa’s intervention. In 1229, shortly after Francis’ death, his great friend Cardinal Ugolino, now Pope Gregory IX, wrote to the Benedictines at San Cosmato, asking them to relinquish the “almost abandoned” buildings of the monastery and hospital to the Friars Minor.[6] A new church and convent buildings were erected and while the original cell of St. Francis was preserved, the “little religious dormitory” was rebuilt and formed what seventeenth-century documents call the “conventino [little convent] of Lady Jacoba.” This is an indication that she had the new convent built at her expense.[7] Another Roman nobleman, Pandolfo dell‘Angullaria, helped pay for the construction of the new church, where he was portrayed in a fresco.[8]

But by 1249, the friars were beginning to leave the new church and convent of San Francesco for the new convent at Santa Maria in Aracoeli in the center of Rome, which soon became the Roman center of the order. San Francesco became the home of the Observant Franciscans in the 1500’s and the convent was expanded and rebuilt. The recent excavations have once again revealed Lady Jacopa’s conventino.

Ludovica Albertoni

My interest in Ludovica was first awakened even before I became a Secular Franciscan when I visited the church of San Francesco a Ripa and saw her tomb with Bernini’s renowned sculpture of her. But there is actually very little about her in English; in fact there doesn’t seem to be any modern biography in Italian. Her statue by Bernini is much more famous than she is. This is a shame, because her life is fascinating, she was loved by the poor of Rome for her charity. and there was a cult surrounding her from the time of her death in 1533. It was a friar at San Francesco da Ripa, named Giovanni Pauolo, and a descendant of Ludovica, who wrote her biography in 1671, at the time of her beatification.


Bl Ludovica Albertoni distributing alms

Ludovica, who was born in 1473, came from the noble family of the Albertoni, and married to a nobleman named Giacomo della Cetera. They had three daughters. After her husband’s death in 1506, Ludovica, now age 33, donned the habit of the Franciscan tertiaries, who were centered at San Francesco a Ripa. One of the most memorable events recalled in her biography was her aid to the poor after the sack of Rome in 1527 by the troops of the Emperor Charles V, who breached the city walls in the Trastevere district and poured into the city. The Pope and cardinals took refuge in the fortress, Castel Sant‘Angolo. Ludovica’s biographer recalls:

. . . there was nothing, either profane or sacred, that was not contaminated . . . neither the old men or the young, neither the married women, nor the widows, nor the young maids, nor the children, neither religious nor churches; turning everything upside down, profaning altars, violating the virgins and plundering everything, they left Rome bare of riches and possessions, but completely covered with sadness and infamy.

Blessed Ludovica . . . having compassion on Rome, her homeland, and her fellow citizens, the Romans, and each one without distinction, retired to the remotest corner of her house; having covered herself completely with hair shirt and sackcloth, she gave herself up to tears, weeping continuously for the misfortunes and calamities of the Romans. Forgetting completely the care of her body, she gave herself up completely to most urgently supplicating God. . . . Nor did the Blessed ever fail, as best as she could to exhort everyone to the defense of their legitimate head and true pastor [The Pope], the defense of whom in such a legitimate war was not to lose one’s life, but a changing of the temporal for the eternal.

That raging tempest was stilled: and Ludovica went to let herself be seen in public, as though a new light after a long and fearful darkness, she revived cheerfulness in her fellow citizens, consoling everyone; and distributing to the neediest almost all her possessions, she made herself a beggar, in order to come to the aid of the poverty of everyone. . .

. . having gone with a great sum of money through the city, and to each person she met, she would give, according to need, fitting alms. . . She had the finest cloth spun and woven to keep in this way many young girls from idleness and aided them with wages; with this cloth she later provided the churches with altar-cloths and albs and similar things, necessary for the divine worship.

Every day innumerable poor people came to her palace, and to each she gave either something to eat or money, consoling everyone equally, while to everyone she showed herself to be an equally compassionate mother.[9]

I will try to write more fully about Ludovica next time.

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[1] Paola Degni and Pier Luigi Porzio, eds. La fabbrica del convento. Memorie storiche, trasformazioni e recupero del complesso di San Francesco a Ripa in Trastevere. (Rome: Donzelli, 2011), p. 176.

[2] See the bull Cum deceat vos of Pope Gregory IX, March 1229, in Wadding Annales, 1229, xxix.

[3] Wadding, Annales, 1212, xxxiv. Roger of Wendover, continuer of the English chronicler Matthew of Paris, says that St. Francis “constructed an oratory in the city of Rome,” which, though a bit of an exaggeration, can only refer to these cells of himself and his companions. Matthew Paris, Cronica Maiora, ad ann. 1227, ed. by Henry R. Luard (London, 1876), vol. III, p. 32.

[4] Bonaventure, Legenda Maior, III, 9. We learn this from a note was inserted by the Minister General who succeeded St. Bonaventure, Jerome of Ascoli, the future Pope Nicholas IV. He learned of it form Cardinal Riccardo degli Annibaldi, a relative of Innocent Ill; cf. Chron. 24 General. in Analecta franciscana, III, 365. See Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God, The Tree of Life, The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 204.

[5] Anna Menichella, San Francesco a Ripa. Vicende costruttive della prima chiesa Francescana di Roma (Rome, Edizioni Rari Nantes), p. 15.

[6] Wadding Annales, 1229, xxix.

[7] Wadding notes that Jacopa raised the abandoned buildings “to the dignity of a monastery”"Annales, 1229, xiv; see Menichella, San Francesco a Ripa, p. 13.

[8] Menichella, San Francesco a Ripa, pp. 11-13.

[9] Giovanni Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica Albertoni (Rome: Giuseppe Corvo, 1671, pp. 153-54, 166-67.


Franciscan Saints — January 2017 — 1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Franciscan Saints, January 2018 — Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, Parti 2 | On Pilgrimage

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