Raphael: ‘Pope Gregory IX’, Fresco Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican (1511): from left to right Andre de Langjumeau; King Louis IX of France; St Francis and his various aliases; and Pope Gregory IX (son of Carlo Fieschi)
Domenico Morosini loved the excitement Venice had to offer. He was a very successful trader in fine clothing and silk, and his empire extended from London in the north to Venice in the south, and beyond to Egypt, and to Constantinople in the east. The history books say he was a count, although they don’t say of where, but the events of 1148 eclipsed every success he had enjoyed before.
He helped resolve a dispute between the rival factions that had been tearing Venice apart, and in gratitude the city elected him Doge – the Duke of their Serene Republic – a post which he held until his death in 1156. But Domenico had a secret. So far as most of the people who knew him were concerned, he died in 1148, on his way back from a crusade. They knew nothing of his triumph in Venice.
Domenico’s son, too, was in the family business, and he too wanted to be where the action was, and when his father faked his death in 1148, he was not pleased. It meant he had to become Count, and return to rule the boring backwater his family had come from. But he found an intriguing way around the ordeal. He ‘retired to a monastery’, and that was the last his people saw of the devout Pietro. Except when he got married, as custom demanded, to produce an heir to the throne.
He had two sons. The first, Tommaso, inherited the throne from him. And no one remembers him, or his father Pietro, or even Domenico for that matter. Who they remember is Pietro’s second son, Giovanni, born in 1181 or 1182.
Pietro did not like the name Giovanni, and when he found that was what the boy had been christened, he promptly changed it. And since his wife was French, he decided instead to call the child ‘Francesco’, the ‘French one’, and so it was that Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone became known to the world as San Francesco, that is to say, ‘St. Francis’.
But he wasn’t always such a saint. He was a very wild youth. Life was one long party… indeed, he even fathered a child. The boy became a very renowned artist, Bonaventura Berlinghieri, who painted perhaps the most famous portrait ever of the saint, within which he proudly but secretly proclaimed that he was his son.
But although a tearaway, Francesco had a tender side, too, and could not look the other way if he met someone in need. And just as it was his dad’s money that paid for his partying, it was also his dad’s money he gave away, and to such an extent that Pietro lost his cool, and sent a bishop to remonstrate with him.
Furious at his father’s insults, Francesco told his father that he was renouncing both him and his wealth, and that from then on he would recognise only one Father – the One in Heaven. And to make the point doubly clear, and very public, he took off all his clothes (paid for by his father) and sent them back to him. Giotto kindly recorded the scene for us rather more than a hundred years later.
From then on, St Francis led a life of poverty, helping, as best he could, all those in need, until one day in 1226 when he suddenly discovered marks on his hands, feet and body: the Stigmata of the Crucified Christ, and then he died. Touched by his sacrifice and his dedication to God, a bit less than two years later, the Pope declared him to have been a Saint.
Or so goes the story that history likes to tell. Reality, though, was much more intriguing. If we look at Giotto’s painting of the saint giving his clothes back, we find that his father, the man in yellow, has his name clearly written along the profile of his body – and it is his real name, not the alias he used when he was in Venice.
Giotto tells us that Pietro, the father of St Francis, was really Count Umberto III of Savoy, and far from being a shy and retiring man, and spending most of his time in a monastery, he preferred adventure, intrigue, and making money. The tale of the monastery was just a cover story for his escape from the dullness of Savoy.
So if Pietro was Umberto III, who was his dad, Domenico? Who was St Francis’ grandfather? He was Count Amadeus III of Savoy, who ‘died’, the books say, in 1148, the year he became Doge of Venice. Domenico had had enough of Savoy, so he faked his death, and had Pietro take over from him as Count Umberto III.
The monastery story provided decades of cover for Umberto/Pietro, but eventually he had had enough of the pretence, and like his father he too faked his death (in Savoy), and made Tommaso Count in his place. How do we know? Giotto tells us. He says that Umberto really died not in 1189, but in 1206.
It had become a family tradition. And so when we read that St Francis died of the Stigmata in 1226, should we believe it? Or did he, too, fake it, and start a new, more exciting life? Indeed he did. The red marks were most likely hydrargyria – mercury poisoning – not an unusual way to die at that time. And the only way to get the assassins off his tail was for them to believe he had really died. And so while Christ’s Stigmata presaged his forthcoming resurrection, so it was too for St Francis.
But what would Pope Gregory IX make of all this? According to the portrait of him by Raphael, he was family. Apart from writing on his face that he was a Fieschi, he also adorned the Papal throne with acorns, and his robe with oak leaves and an oak tree – the emblems of the clan that included Francis, Gregory, and Julius della Rovere, the man paying Raphael to paint this picture of his ancestor.
Everyone knew that only family could be trusted, so Pope Gregory didn’t want the assassins to complete their work: he had other uses for the young Francesco. So he grieved his ‘death’, made him a Saint, approved his change of name back to Giovanni… and over the next 20 years appointed him to a series of posts in Saxony, Germany, Spain, Barbary and Cologne. Wherever a trustworthy Franciscan was needed, Giovanni went.
And then a new and terrible need emerged. Between 1237 and 1240 the Mongols invaded Eastern Europe. The orgy of violence and destruction annihilated almost every city in Russia and Eastern Europe. Their people were put to the sword, their homes laid waste. So, in April 1241, the combined forces of Europe stood up to them. They clashed with the Mongols in Poland… and were defeated. The enemy seemed unstoppable. And then Pope Gregory IX died.
Sinibaldo Fieschi, who hoped to succeed him, was blocked, and a rival, Celestine, was elected. But conveniently, he fell ill and died just two weeks later, the books tell us, of ‘age and wear’. Enough to say that Celestine was replaced by Sinibaldo, and he promptly sent the family’s best man to visit the leader of the Mongols. He was to find out the Great Khan’s intentions, the extent of his resources, and whether he could be converted to Christianity.
And so it was that Giovanni da Pian del Carpone, as St Francis now called himself, went to Mongolia. Alas, the Great Khan saw himself as the scourge of the Christians, and did not want to be one. So Giovanni returned, told his story, and was appointed Primate of Serbia and Legate to his friend, King Louis IX of France.
Pope Innocent IV (as Sinibaldo now called himself), then tried again, this time with one ‘André de Langjumeau’. In 1245 off he went to talk to Moslems and Nestorians in the Middle East, and to deliver a letter for the Great Khan. No more luck than before. So in 1249, King Louis had a go. He had received a letter, believed to have come from the Mongols, proposing an alliance against the Moslems in Syria. So Langjumeau left once more, this time with his brother William. But when he arrived, the Khan had just been poisoned, so the journey again came to nothing.
By 1252 Louis was desperate, and wanted St Francis to convert the Tartars to the north of the Black Sea. If Russia became Christian, then the Great Khan would have Christians to his rear when attacking the rest of Europe. It might work. And so Giovanni ‘died’ as Primate of Serbia, and was resurrected as William de Rubruck. He also failed to convert the Tartars, but returned safely, told tales every bit as wonderful as those of Marco Polo, and remained undead until 1265, nearly forty years after he was supposed to have left for Heaven.
And Langjumeau? It is an interesting name. ‘Lange’ in French refers to swaddling clothes, and ‘Jumeau’ means ‘twin’. So whose ‘swaddling twin’ was Langjumeau? His brother William’s, of course: William de Rubruck, born, like St Francis in 1181/2. André was St Francis’ twin brother.
The story is recounted in frescoes and stained glass windows right across Europe… but no one knows, except you and me.