TEOLO, Italy » Scattered around the steel table of a monastery in the Veneto region of northern Italy are manuscripts, one with green, red and intensely blue medieval miniatures of dragons, another adorned with ornate leaves culminating in golden flowers.
A monk gently lays an off-white leather book on the table, and opens it at a long letter A drawn in red ink, the start of a paragraph in gothic letters.
"I never I thought I would have had these in my hands," said the Rev. Pierangelo Massetti, responsible for the restoration laboratory at the Praia Abbey, near Padua. "St. Francis wrote this poem. And this text may be the foundation of the Italian language, the first text ever known in vernacular."
New Yorkers will see it soon, as Massetti and his collaborators are finishing restoring 13 medieval manuscripts of the 19 artifacts from the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi, before their departure for the United States on Monday.
Leaving Italy for the first time in 700 years, the documents will be shown at the U.N. headquarters Nov. 17-28, and then be open to the public in Brooklyn Borough Hall until mid-January in an exhibition, "Friar Francis: Traces, Words and Images."
The signature of the saint of the poor and neglected, who inspired Pope Francis to choose his name, is nowhere to be seen. Historians agree that he most likely dictated his writings, but certainly his hand touched the papal bulls that in the 1220s registered the pope’s messages to the order.
However, these 19 artifacts are the most ancient documents of St. Francis’ life and theological tradition.
St. Francis, born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant in Assisi, chose to give up his prosperous, worldly life and live in poverty, preaching peace and respect for all forms of life.
"St. Francis was a man, a saint, of the people, who truly stood with those who are the least every day," Ken Hackett, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, said at a news conference in Rome last week. "We can see Pope Francis exemplified in his trace, as he puts in into practice every day his advocacy for the marginalized and the disadvantaged.
"This exhibition’s arrival in New York will give Americans the chance to know the history and the spirituality of St. Francis, and the chance to be inspired."
Among the artifacts, the highlight is Manuscript 338, a miscellaneous collection of medieval texts inscribed by at least nine amanuenses. It contains "Canticle of the Sun," a praise and thank you to the Lord for such creations as "Brother Fire" and "Sister Water."
"Francis’ hand is not in this poem, not even a line, but there is all of his spirit in it," said Franco Cardini, professor emeritus of medieval history in the Florence branch of the Scuola Normale Superiore. "It’s unique."
For this manuscript, the challenge was to restore the original cover, in 13th-century wood covered in goat leather, and then reconstruct the missing fragments, like the spine and the borders, Massetti said.
Over the past five months, Massetti, two other monks and three young restoration experts have cleaned all the manuscripts with a soft paint brush, page by page.
In some, the medieval ink had perforated the page; in others it had faded. Some were missing entire figures or miniatures, others the binding cover.
The restoration experts have repaired the fissures of the parchment with Japanese vegetable fiber or a bovine membrane. They have consolidated the ink and the colorful paintings through a starch gel.
Five of the manuscripts, ranging from the size of a choral book to the pocket format, were unbound, parchment by parchment, and were finally reassembled and stitched back together with a linen thread.
The longest restoration work was on Manuscript 328, Massetti said, a text by the Franciscan friar Ubertino da Casale, a 14th-century manuscript that interprets the Rule of St. Francis and the poverty of Christ.
Artifacts also include a precious fragment, a parchment with the early recounting of the life of St. Francis, commissioned around the time of his canonization in 1228. A more comprehensive recounting of St. Francis’ life and gestures will also be on display in a book written by Father Thomas of Celano in the 1240s.
The exhibition was already on display at the Lower House of Parliament this year and has been requested by museums and foundations all over the world, from Russia to Argentina.
The friars of the Sacred Convent of St. Francis in Assisi are, however, reluctant to let the founding texts of their order trot the globe and will rather house them in their library after January.
In Assisi, about 6 million visitors a year, 40 percent of them Americans, visit St. Francis’ basilica, where the saint is buried.
Over 1.5 million people take a glance at St. Francis’ grave by webcam every month, "the largest virtual pilgrimage in Assisi," said the Rev. Enzo Fortunato, director of the press office of the Sacred Convent of St. Francis.
As Massetti prepared to ship the manuscripts across the ocean, he confessed he had had a few agitated months. Restoring the manuscripts was both a professional responsibility and a matter of security for him.
"I know it’s under my responsibility here," Massetti said. "There is an estimated value, but should they go lost it would be an inestimable loss, impossible to pay back."
Gaia Pianigiani, New York Times