SANTA FRANCESCA ROMANA
AND THE TOR DE' SPECCHI,
THE TOWER OF MIRRORS
Santa Francesca Romana, frescoed in the Chapel of Tor de' Specchi
Like Saints Umilta ` and Birgitta , Santa Francesca Romana, St Francesca of Rome (1384-1440), had been married, with children, and yet founded an Order.
Just the other day, at eight o'clock in the morning, I rang the doorbell of the Tor de' Specchi, across the road from the Ara Coeli, explaining I wanted to write on the Internet about Santa Francesca Romana, using the frescoes showing her life and miracles that are in the convent's chapel. I was told to come back at one o'clock to see the Mother.
First the Mother and I spoke together, then I was shown the convent, beginning with St Francesca's own cell, approached by a series of grim frescoes, of St Francesca tempted by fiends, enduring all the torments of the Desert Fathers. Then in her cell seeing the relic of her thin white veil. Being as deeply moved by it as by holding St Birgitta's birchwood drinking bowl with Cyrillic lettering around its rim, and her pilgrim staff, at Altomunster's Brigittine Priory. Next the chapel. These are frescoed not only with stories of St Francesca's life and miracles, but also her visions, of hell and of heaven, a woman's Divine Comedy. In a sense these frescoes mirroring the Oblates praying in the Chapel retain the freshness of their Mother Foundress' miraculous charism of charity down five and a half centuries of time, perhaps better than would any book.
To my joy I found myself walking into these frescoes, both on the walls and around me in reality, for Francesca's Oblates still dress at Tor de' Specchi in black habits and white veils, and their large, medieval/Renaissance convent is unchanged, spotless and utterly beautiful. The frescoes, like Lorenzetti's polyptych of St Umilta `, unfold the story of St Francesca's Life, Miracles and Visions, centred upon the love of God and neighbour.
On Christmas Day, 1432, Francesca in ecstasy was in vision at a Mass celebrated by St Peter in the presence of the Madonna, and was received by him as an Oblate. St Birgitta describes the Madonna's centrality amidst the Disciples at Pentecost, Francesca, in her visions, crowns her with the Holy Spirit's flames and here surrounds her with flaming Seraphim.
Amongst her many miracles of healing she gave speech to a deaf-mute girl, named Camilla Clarelli, by touching her tongue with her finger. Amongst her other miracles she healed men wounded in the constant skirmishes about Rome, healed children who were paralysed or raised from the dead children who had died in their sleep. This last miracle replicates that by St Umilta` .
During a serious famine in 1402, Francesca gave all her grain to the poor (see the last of it spill from her basket against her dark habit), then found it all miraculously restored and of the highest quality. A similar miracle happened with a barrel of wine that became empty, then full, when being distributed to the Roman poor. The convent of Tor de' Specchi still has the manger, made from a pagan sarcophagus, from which Francesca would give firewood to the poor. Similar miracles were reported of Santa Zita and Sant'Umilta `.
1 March 1433, Francesca in a vision is taken by the Mother of God under her cloth-of-gold mantle and her daughters in Christ are received as Oblates of Mary. Birgitta of Sweden has a similar vision.
Santa Francesca Romana Clothed by the Virgin.
Attributed to Antonio da Viterbo the Elder (Italian, ca.
Tempera on panel; 21 3/4 x 14 3/4 in. (55.3 x 37.5 cm). Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.100)
Several time in ecstasy Francesca received the Holy Child from the Virgin. Sant'Umilta ` similarly worshipped the Holy Child.
28 June 1438 returning from St Paul's Basilica and visiting her vineyard she was caught up in ecstasy and knelt in a stream. But when she got up the Oblates noticed her clothes were perfectly dry. A similar miracle is told of Sant' Umilta `.
During an ectasy the Divine Redeemer takes Francesca by the right hand. This fresco, with Mary seated beside Christ, recalls illuminations to St Birgitta 's visions of sacred conversations with Mary and Christ in Heaven, given in her Revelationes.
While in meditation an angel brings Francesca's dead son, Evanglista, to her. Evanglista had died in the plague of 1411. Thereafter the angel stayed with Francesca as her visible companion. This angel accompanies Francesca in the frescoes of her torments by devils. Sant'Umilta` has two angels who accompany her.
Many times when Francesca was recieving Communion a shining orb appeared above her.
One day there was not enough bread for the Community and their Refectory was in great disrepair and poverty. Francesca took up the scraps, blessed them, and there were plenty to feed the fifteen who had remained as well as the bread basket being full. Again, this miracle replicates those of Santa Zita of Lucca and Sant' Umilta ` of Florence, and above all of Christ, recalling the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes and the Last Supper.
She died in her surviving son's home, surrounded by her Oblates, having said Vespers, 9 March 1440. The townspeople of Rome so loved her the body was quickly taken to the Olivetan church of Santa Maria Nuova in the Forum and entombed with the greatest honour.
Santa Francesca Romana's Tor de' Specchi is very
strictly cloistered, only opened to the public on two days of
the year. 'We are not a museum', they sternly and rightly
said. But their work of charity continues, their cloister
filled not only with themselves but the elderly poor and poor
young students with whom they share their wealth. As Oblates
they ask for no privileges from the Church, they pay all
taxes, and hence are loved down the centuries, theirs the only
convent not subject to attack by angry mobs. They continue
Benedict's Rule of work, study, and above all, prayer. Their
faces today have the same contemplative beauty that is seen in
To Communicate with the Oblates of the Tor de' Specchi:
Monastero Oblate di S. Francesco RomanaFLORIN WEBSITE © JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY, AUREO ANELLO ASSOCIAZIONE, 1997-2017: MEDIEVAL: BRUNETTO LATINO, DANTE ALIGHIERI, SWEET NEW STYLE: BRUNETTO LATINO, DANTE ALIGHIERI, & GEOFFREY CHAUCER || VICTORIAN: WHITE SILENCE: FLORENCE'S 'ENGLISH' CEMETERY || ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING || WALTER SAVAGE LANDOR || FRANCES TROLLOPE || ABOLITION OF SLAVERY || FLORENCE IN SEPIA || CITY AND BOOK CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII || MEDIATHECA 'FIORETTA MAZZEI' || EDITRICE AUREO ANELLO CATALOGUE || UMILTA WEBSITE || RINGOFGOLD WEBSITE || LINGUE/LANGUAGES: ITALIANO, ENGLISH || VITA
Via del Teatro Marcello 32