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from issue no. 12 - 2005

De Chirico and Saint Francis

The great painter was particularly fond of the Saint of Assisi. Since 1992 his body has lain in San Francesco a Ripa, the Franciscan sanctuary in Rome, where this year there has been an exhibition of his works on sacred subjects

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Nativity, detail, Giorgio de Chirico, 1945-1946, Vatican Museums

Nativity, detail, Giorgio de Chirico, 1945-1946, Vatican Museums

We are left only with the final issue of the 30Days of 2005 to give a report of the exhibition “The Passion according to de Chirico” held, during the year now gone, in Rome, at the church of San Francesco a Ripa and then in Naples at the church of Santa Chiara, complexes expropriated in the nineteenth century and belonging now to the Fondo edifici di culto del Ministero dell’Interno, which sponsored the exhibition. Having closed last June, it can now only be reconstructed by means of the catalogue. But it is nevertheless worth dealing with. First of all because it enables us to consider a great painter’s works on religious themes, normally neglected in favor of his better known “metaphysical” or surreal works, and in particular the canvas, reproduced on the cover of the catalogue and practically unpublished till now, showing Jesus climbing Calvary. In the second place because it enables us to talk of the church of San Francesco a Ripa on the hundredth anniversary of its elevation to parish church by Saint Pius X.
Let me begin here by saying that San Francesco a Ripa is no ordinary church. It is the Franciscan sanctuary in Rome. In fact it is – not many people know this – the first church in order of time after the Basilica of Assisi to have been named after Saint Francis, because, when in 1210 the Saint of Assisi came to Rome, he stayed here, leaving behind him then a small community of friars. It was nothing but a hospice then, with beside it a small disused church (belonging to the Benedictines of San Cosimato: the connection between Benedict and Francis is a constant), where the sick and the pilgrims landing at the nearby port of Ripa grande were housed. Ceded in 1229 to the sons of Saint Francis, the complex was rebuilt thanks to the Anguillara family and dedicated to the Seraphic Father. Still today, one can climb from the sacristy up into the miserable lodgings of Saint Francis, where later in the seventeenth century another great Franciscan saint, Carlo da Sezze, was to stay. There can be found one of the oldest portraits of Saint Francis, nothing less than one of the marvellous works of art kept in the church. Among the others there is Bernini’s marvellous statue of the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni, the co-patron saint of Rome – this is not well known either – who in the early sixteenth century gave herself for the very poor. And who in her turn is one of the numerous bodies of saints housed in the church. Here is also buried the Franciscan Giuseppe Spoletini, who died in theaura of sanctity in 1951, and who, along with Don Orione, Father Cappello, Don Umberto Terenzi and others less well known, was one of those saintly priests in whose confessional people became more Christian in the decades before and after the last war (so it is agreed).
Why was the de Chirico exhibition put on in this precise Roman church?
Because the remains of Giorgio de Chirico have lain here since 1992. Precisely in the room, next to the chapel of the Immaculate Conception and communicating with it, that, thanks to a cession by the Ministry (whose offices occupy the old Franciscan infirmary adjoining the church) and with the nulla osta in 1987 of the then Cardinal Vicar Ugo Poletti, was set aside for his privileged entombment.
Giorgio de Chirico, who by 1948 had settled in Rome, in Piazza di Spagna (where the permanent exhibition of his work is now housed), and there died in the fateful year 1978, had a special devotion to the saint of Assisi. It was in Assisi that he married Isabella Pakswer (professionally known as Isabella Far) in 1952 and it was again in Assisi in the early ’fifties that he became acquainted with Don Giovanni Rossi and the Pro civitate, that had a not indifferent role in those years in relations with the world of culture. He was initially buried in the Verano cemetery, where his brother, the writer Alberto Savinio had lain since 1952. But his wife asked Germano Cerafogli of the Friars Minor for Giorgio de Chirico and herself to be buried in San Francesco a Ripa: «I who was close to him during many years of life in Rome, would be glad to know that he rests in a sacred and a Roman place in expectation of being once again close to him» (from a letter of hers dated 28 November 1984). The widow at the same time donated three works to the Franciscans of San Francesco a Ripa. First of all two double portraits of herself and her husband. Of these one may remark that, compared to the various self-portraits of de Chirico in pose and period clothes, that the painter here pays attention only to the faces, indeed one would say only to the gazes, for the rest of the two portraits are barely sketched in.
The third work donated is a Station of the Cross showing Jesus falling while climbing Calvary. A work of 1947 almost unknown till now not least because always jealously kept by de Chirico in his studio and practically never shown. In it Saint Francis is in the foreground, and though his position on the right edge is derived, from the art-historical point of view, from the many examples in Renaissance and post-Renaissance painting in which one or more figures turn to face the viewer, it does not seem, however, a mere quotation as do those images. The saint, with lowered gaze, painted almost in monochrome, with the habit as faithful as possible to the original, turns his back not only to emphasize his non-contemporaneousness but also in a suffering reserve to which the hand of Jesus seems to make a gesture of appeal from the distance. In a further admirable conception, the two thieves are set, dark and stooped as Francis, their bleak gaze down-turned, on the diagonal between Jesus and Francis. The thieves, and the soldiers escorting them, also seem addressed by the gesture of Jesus who, positioned on the ground in the background, from there looms small and lucent in his glorious passion. Of course Jesus’ gesture also asks compassion, as in so many “imago pietatis”. But there is no contradiction. Jesus, who has loved so, seems to be asking to be loved in return, pitied in the passion that nevertheless he alone and no one else could suffer for unwitting mankind. And who more than Francis, who was made object on Mount Verna of configuration to his Lord, to the point of bearing the stigmata in his flesh, alter Christus, can accept and transmit that appeal?
Church of  San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

Church of San Francesco a Ripa, Rome

But why does Francis’s face have such markedly Semitic features? According to Erina Russo De Caro, in a article this year in Analecta TOR, so as to indicate on the one hand precisely the configuration of Francis to Christ («the color of the complexion makes him a Francis of the Holy Land»), but on the other, and precisely because of the date of the painting of the canvas, de Chirico meant thus to portray «the martyrdom of Palestine; and for that reason there has always been a strange, discreet silence about this work».
One would like to say more about the other works that were on show. There isn’t space for it, but one should look at the canvas of the Nativity (in the Gallery of Modern Art in the Vatican) painted by de Chirico in those same post-war years. Again Jesus does not occupy the center of the scene, but also here his gleaming lucency and hand gesture welcoming the shepherds attracts one’s gaze towards him. And again the illustrations to the Apocalypse of Saint John, that, perfectly respecting the letter of the source, are however so original, and one might say Catholic also in the lightness of the touch, they mollify the angst with which in the modern period the Apocalypse has always been faced, in the presumption of taking on the mystery frontally. In introducing them de Chirico wrote that, «in order to grasp certain mysteries, one has to reverse the position; frontal attack is no use… I love the long winter nights and the deep sleep into which I sink in those nights. The two most beautiful months of the year for me are November and December… Thus reversing the position I went into the Apocalypse as into a long winter sleep».
One never dies on some chance day. It was granted to de Chirico to die in November, fortified by the sacraments and softly accompanied by two nursing nuns so he could face death without fear, as a winter sleep, just a little longer.

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