Sunday, March 16, 2014

Research diary: Part 2 of 2

Last week on this blog I posted Part 1 of my research diary, covering a six-day week and giving examples of the kinds of problems I find myself pursuing in the course of writing my work-in-progress.

My story takes place in Rome and Assisi, beginning in the year 1210.  It has proved fiendishly difficult to pin down verifiable dates for events in the life of Saint Francis, and if we can't be certain even of the saint's history, you can imagine what it must be like trying to track down the details on anyone else of that period.

Naturally, that's what I'm trying to do.  My quarry is one Roman noblewoman, Lady Giacoma (aka Jacoba, Jacoba) dei Settesoli, an early friend and follower of Saint Francis.  So far I'm juggling two different death dates (several decades apart), four or five different combinations of names and dates for her sons, four dates for when she was widowed, another four dates for when she met Francis, and at least two different political orientations for her family - although, given the times, that last one is actually believable.

Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli (fresco in the Basilica of St. Francis, Assisi)

I gave you my research problems for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday last week, so now I bring you Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  (Sunday I went to a movie.  You can only do so much of this...)


Research problem:  My storyline requires Giacoma to visit Francis in Assisi.  This visit has to take place between 1212 and 1215.  I need to find a timeslot when Saints Francis and Clare will both be present in Assisi.

Saints Francis and Clare

What I find:  This is harder than you might think.  I've compiled a timeline for Francis, drawing on perhaps a dozen different biographies and going with my best guesses when they conflict; another for Clare, also doing some guessing; and one for Giacoma, again pulling together my best guesses based on everything I can find about her, which isn't much.  Then I merged the three timelines, using a different typeface for each of the three, so I can see at a glance what's going on with whom at any given time.

So far, so good.

This visit can't occur in 1212, because there's just too much else going on.  Francis makes a journey to Rome early in the year, before Palm Sunday in March, at which time Clare escapes from her house and joins Francis and his brothers, takes her oath of obedience, and Francis cuts her hair.  He places her first in a Benedictine convent, and shortly thereafter moves her to another house of women, near Assisi (which may have been a convent or possibly more of a beguinage); meanwhile her sister Catherine joins her, taking the name of Agnes, and their family makes repeated attempts to get one or both of the girls back.  Eventually the sisters (and by then other women who wish to join them) are moved to a humble house at San Damiano, a church that Francis himself has restored. 

Courtyard at San Damiano

During the spring and summer of that year, Francis is preaching in various places around Umbria, and in September he leaves for the far east (doesn't get there, not this time, anyway, but that's another story).

So with both of them moving around, that pretty much axes 1212.  How about 1213?  Well, Francis preached in the villages of the Apennines in the spring, and he went to Spain that summer, and probably wasn't back in Italy until late 1214 or even 1215.  Thus, Giacoma can't make her trip in 1214.  Clare, meanwhile, was either in a holding-tank sort of convent, or in San Damiano.

Do you think the sources will agree on how long it took her to move from one to the other?  Of course not.  She arrived in San Damiano "soon," "in a few weeks," "in several months," or "in 1216."  1216?!  I don't think so.  She took the title of abbess in 1216, but it seems likely she was in San Damiano well before that. For one thing, with their irate family aggressively trying to get Clare and her sister to come back to the family fold, the women they were staying with would probably have wanted their guests to find another place, so they could get their peace and quiet back.

So I get arbitrary.  Giacoma is going to arrive in Assisi in the early summer, during that brief moment when Francis must have been back from his preaching tour and not yet departed for Spain.  (There had to be such a time, didn't there?)  And by then, I arbitrarily say that Clare is in San Damiano.

Star rating: ***  I've done what I can with it; my position can't be proved, but it is plausible, and I don't think I've neglected anything.  Not satisfying, but it's the best I can do if my characters are going to be running around all over the place and refuse to stay put.


Research problem:   Actually, I misspoke last week (misblogged?) when I said I was going to research Christmas in Greccio (by which I meant Saint Francis's setting up the first nativity scene there in 1223).  I've already done some of that in an earlier blog post, which you can find here.  But it was a Greccio question I wanted to explore.

Santuario, Greccio

In the oratory connected with the convent in Greccio, there is a painting of Saint Francis.  It shows the saint dabbing at his eyes with a handkerchief, the result of the painful eye ailment that plagued him for much of his adult life and resulted in his eventual blindness (or near-blindness).  The tale is that the painting was commissioned, during Francis's lifetime, by Lady Giacoma, so naturally I was interested in it and hoped to learn more, including the name of the artist.

What I found:  Not much.  For one thing, it's a copy - some sources say 14th century, some say 15th.  It may well be a faithful copy of the original, but we have no way of knowing.  I can't find any hint of an artist's name anywhere, which I suppose is not really surprising, but I had hoped that something would turn up.  And I can't find any proof that Giacoma commissioned the work, though I don't see anything to say she didn't, either, and the sign with the painting says she did.

I do learn that this was Mother Teresa's favorite depiction of Saint Francis.  And I learn that the sign under the painting translates to something like this:  "Real portrait of Seraphic Patriarch San Francesco d'Assisi, commissioned by the pious Roman woman Giacoma de' Settesoli, when the patriarch was alive."  That's it.

Star rating:  *  Oh, well.  I still really like the painting.


Research question:  I want to discover the route that Giacoma would have taken when she went to Assisi, and that Francesco and his brothers would have taken when they went to Rome.  And I wanted to find out to what extent it overlapped with the ancient pilgrimage route called the Via Francigena.

Photo by Laurom

What I find:  The Via Francigena is the pilgrims' path to Rome.  It's usually associated with France (or the Frankish lands), as the name implies, though a version of it going all the way from Canterbury to Rome was laid out by Archbishop Siguric around the year 990.

Photo by Bjorn Christian Torrissen

In those days Assisi was off the route (or routes; I learned that the Via Francigena was more than one route, encompassing as many as three or four different points for crossing the Alps or the Apennines, depending on one's starting point).  Now, thanks to Saints Francis and Clare, Assisi is itself a pilgrimage destination, so it's not surprising that even today pilgrims are walking between the two cities.  And that made it relatively easy to plot out a plausible route for Francis going to Rome, and for Giacoma going to Assisi.  As a walking route, it involves 14-16 stages, averaging 10-12 miles per day, and much of the terrain is mountainous.  But the total distance, 150 miles, is dwarfed by Archbishop Siguric's route:  1,100 miles. 

Photo by Sailko
It was almost ridiculously easy to put together the information I needed, particularly since I've traveled in this part of Italy and (sort of) know where things are.  Companies that serve tourists and pilgrims, many of whom still make the journey on foot, offer detailed itineraries and maps, and that, plus the records of some of Francis's journeys -- where he stayed, where he stopped and preached, etc. -- make this a fairly simple task.  And I find my point of overlap between the Rome-Assisi route and the Via Francigena:  it's Rieti.

Pilgrims bound for Rome, carved on the Duomo in Fidenza (near Parma)

Star rating: *****  Finally, an easy one!

Now, maybe it's time to address all the things-in-brackets in my draft which still need to be filled in.  I usually use something modern and obvious, so I won't accidentally leave in something inappropriate.  Thus we get things like "She gazed out the tower window, looking down on [the Starbucks] below..."  and "The beggars, [Tiffany and Mortimer], were becoming more insistent."   Not to mention the cardinal who is currently being addressed as "Your Redness," because "Your Eminence" wasn't in use this early.  But that's another topic, for another time.

Images in this post are our own (Giacoma, San Damiano), in the public domain, or licensed as follows:  pilgrim silhouette on rock licensed to Laurom via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license; collage of signs licensed to Bjorn Christian Torrissen via the same license; signs posted on stone wall licensed to Sailko via the same license. 


Prue Batten said...

This is such forensic research, Tinney. The interesting thing is how often a writer must make an instinctive choice - I think that's courageous and given that history is now becoming so fluid as more and more discoveries are made, it's also plausible.

Tinney Heath said...

Prue - it's true that so often we have no alternative to making that leap, making the instinctive choice, in the absence of verifiable information. It's always scary, but sometimes the best you can do is to satisfy yourself that it is at least plausible. But hurray for the new discoveries - maybe some of those troublesome questions will yet have answers!