New in the Library: “The Franciscan Poets in Italy of the Thirteenth Century” (Frédéric Ozanam)

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoFrédéric OzanamLeave a Comment

Author: Frédéric Ozanam · Year of first publication: 1914.
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From the introduction:

Frederick Ozanam was bom in the year 1813 and died in the year 1853. This, his chief literary work, which, to quote an eminent Catholic writer, “remains to this day one of the indispensable authorities for the history of literature, of Catholicism, and of Italy,” will now appeal to a larger public in England; for, though all those who have striven to bring to light the hidden truths of Franciscan literature — whether in Germany, France, or Italy —have given unquestioning testimony to the preeminence of Frederick Ozanam as an authority on the subject, no English translation of his inspiring and illuminating work has yet been attempted. No other book reproduces so sincerely and truly the spirit of the Franciscan movement, with all the glow of its religious ecstasy and all the charm of its innocent simplicity; no other book expounds so clearly the gradual evolution of that spirit, or testifies so convincingly to its influence on all aspects of human life and art. He shows it to us as a stream issuing from the bed-rock of religion, in the sacred art of the primitive Christian Church, and flowing on in a steadily widening channel through the earliest beginnings of that literature which was to have a universal appeal and gain a lasting hold on the mind of the poor and unlettered, no less than on that of the rich and cultured.

Frederic Ozanam (1813-­1853) was professor at the Sorbonne, personal friend of Montalembert, Lacordaire, and Ampère, and the chief founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He was considered one of the ablest and most promising scholars and authors of the France of the mid 1800’s.

An earnest Catholic, he sprung from a family in the South of France, of Jewish origin, which converted to Christianity in the sixth century. He was one of that noble group of young literary men, who, in the last years of the Restoration and under the Monarchy (circa 1830’s), dared, however ardently they loved liberty, to be faithful to the traditions of their Catholic ancestors.

In “The Franciscan Poets,­” Ozanam reveals his great enthusiasm and admiration for St. Francis and for Franciscan ideals. He ably illustrates how St. Francis breathed new life into the spirit of 13th century Italy, and by extension of his followers, the rest of Europe. Ozanam was one of the very first to call attention to this aspect of Italian literature and to revive popular interest in the poor man of Assisi.

After an introductory chapter tracing the development of popular religious poetry from the mural inscriptions with which the early Christians loved to decorate the interior of their churches, Ozanam points out how “the poetry of the early Franciscans was produced at that instructive and fascinating moment when art begins to seize popular inspiration.­” It was not long before the birth of St. Francis that the idiom of the common people first took on itself sufficient form to emerge as a spoken and written language. Songs, religious, romantic, and patriotic, were the common possession of the Italian people. The vital force of the Franciscan revival that, a century later, was to find a visualized expression through Giotto’s brush, already in the lifetime of St. Francis found a more available outlet in hymn and verse.

Ozanam’s most illuminating chapters are devoted to Jacopone Da Todi. Jacopone was the most disconcerting of all those who, following in the footsteps of St. Francis, defied the conventions of the society to which they belonged: successful lawyer, penitent, poet, friar, excommunicate, prisoner by order of the Pope for six long years, and in the end a saint, beatified, if not by the Roman authorities, at least by the unerring veneration of the common people. His radiant death effaced the memory of the religious dissensions in which so many years of his life were unhappily involved. “There remained of Jacopone only the memory of his penitence, the example of the love of God revealed in him in the highest possible degree, and, lastly, his popular songs which stretched like a rainbow over the mountains of Umbria.­” It was from him that Fra Angelico gained his most inspirations; from him that Dante learned the marvelous possibilities of the half-­formed Italian speech; it is to him that all Christendom is indebted for the undying pathos of the “Stabat Mater.­”

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