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Giovanni Mattiotti, 1450 c.ca

skip the introduction
page 2
excerpts from the Essays
page 3
the captions of the set of frescoes

The so-called Essays are a manuscript written in the mid 1400s, whose 179 pages were written by Father Mattiotti, the parish of Santa Maria in Trastevere's church, who was also the father confessor of one of the most popular saints in Rome: Francesca Romana. After her death, in 1440, the priest arranged all the data he had meticulously collected during the previous years, which concerned the saint's life and her frequent mystical visions. His work tells us about Francesca Romana and, indirectly, about Rome's history and society in the 15th century.

This page contains a brief biography of the saint, and a review of the Essays, whose excerpts can be found in page 2. Almost as an appendix, page 3 features a series of short captions, which belong to a double set of paintings of the second half of the 15th century, that depict the saint's life.

Francesca or Franceschella di Paolo Bussa de' Leoni (or Buzzi, or de Buscis, or de Buxis, according to other spellings), was born in 1384 from a wealthy family, in Parione district.
In those years the city was stepping out of its darkest historical period: having been devastated by wars, by the continuous struggle for power among the large clans, by the clash between popes and antipopes, and having been decimated by famine and by epidemics, Rome was but the ghost of the great city it once used to be.
Despite her wish to bcome a nun, at the very young age of 12 Francesca was forced to marry Lorenzo de' Ponziani, a commander of the papal troops in Rome, and she moved to his rich house in Trastevere district. The Ponziani were a wealthy family in the public eye, although they were not noble, having become rich through business.
Francesca had three children from Lorenzo, but two of them died very young. Also her husband was badly wounded in the siege of Rome by king Ladislaus of Naples (1408), and remained invalid, in the need of being attended by his wife for the rest of his days. Therefore, the young lady spent a rather troubled life, despite her high social position.

Being particularly concerned about the pityful condition of a large majority of Rome's population, Francesca devoted herself also to helping the many poor and sick people, who came to her seeking for assistance. So her house in Trastevere district was almost turned into a hospice where, with the aid of her beloved sister-in-law Vannozza, she provided a large number of needy people with free food, shelter and medical care. Very soon she became popular among those she helped with the nickname Ceccolella. Her husband was nor displeased with her activities (being himself attended by her wife), but her father-in-law frowned upon her, accusing her of squandering the family's money and even locking up the provisions of goods.

Besides her sister-in-law, also other charitable women gathered around her and helped her in this mission. Together with her companions, in 1425 Francesca founded the first nucleus of a religious order, called Benedictine Oblates of Monte Oliveto, who depended from the church of Santa Maria Nova, in the area of the Roman Forum. Eight years later, pope Eugene IV officially acknowledged the new order, assigning it the monastery of Tor de' Specchi, located opposite the Capitolium Hill, named after an earlier medieval tower, included in complex and referred to as turris spiculorum by some maps.

the monastery of Tor de' Specchi, where the saint spent her last years
After her husband's death (1436) she left her house, to become the prioress of the same institution. In 1440 her son fell ill, infected by the plague: Francesca returned home to take care of him, and eventually saved him, but in doing so she too caught the infection, and died shortly later.
She was buried in the church of Santa Maria Nova. During her life she is said to have performed several miracles, mostly marvellous healings. For this reason she was declared blessed soon after her death. Because of the troubled political climate in those days, her burial place was carefully concealed, up to the point that it remained unknown for almost three hundred years; it was retrieved in 1638, thirty years after she had officially proclaimed a saint. Ever since, the church of Santa Maria Nova was renamed Santa Francesca Romana. Since 1869 her remains are in a glass case, on display for worshippers, in the crypt.

In 1925 she was also declared saint patron of all vehicle drivers: every year on March 9 (the day of her death), a crowd of cars gathers by the church to receive a special blessing.

The ancient monastery where Francesca spent her last years still exists, and houses nuns belonging to the same Order she founded; it is one of the few buildings spared from the extensive demolishment of the district that took place in the early 1900s. Here the original manuscript by Father Mattiotti is kept. Furthermore, two of its chambers are decorated with remarkable 15th century fresco paintings that depict scenes of the saint's life, and each one also has an interesting caption that describes the subject (see page 3 for details).
The monastery is open to visitors only few days a year: on the saint's own day (March 9), and on the two following Sundays.

the church of Santa Francesca Romana,
formerly Santa Maria Nova

Francesca brings back to life a drowned man
In her time, Francesca represented a perfect model of virtue. Today her life would be probably judged under a different light. Her repulsion for the slightest relation with individuals of the opposite sex (including her own father), the continuous self-infliction of physical penance by wearing cilices and iron devices that tore her flesh, the refusal to let herself be treated for her frequent illness in any other way but spiritually, and the same visions she had, almost every day, would be read as the signs of important psychological scars that her precocious marriage, the death of her children, the strict religious environment, the gloomy society of the 15th century Rome, whose poorest members she was so close to, had undoubtly left on the personality of the poor Francesca since her youth.

Father Mattiotti's manuscript consists of five individual essays, respectively entitled TRACTATI DELLA VITA ET DELLI VISIONI ("Essays About the Life and Visions of Saint Francesca Romana"), TRACTATO DELLE BACTAGLIE ("Essay About the Battles"), TRACTATO DELLO INFERNO ("Essay About Hell"), TRACTATO DEL PURGATORIO ("Essay About Purgatory"), and TRACTATO DELLO FELICE OBITO ("Essay About Her Happy Death"). They are progressively shorter in length, the first one consisting of 123 pages, the last one of only two.

Despite being a written text, the language used by the author in compiling his work is very genuine, thus close enough to the spoken language of his time. This is confirmed by the captions that describe the aforesaid frescoes, painted only a few decades later, which sound very consistent with Father Mattiotti's text.
The purpose of these essays, as mentioned in the opening lines, was to divulge Francesca's biography and her visions. The account of many episodes of her life, in individual paragraphs, each of which is dated, is strongly tinged with mysticism, but the description of the details and the same vocabulary used are those of everyday's life. The whole work is in fact still set in a fully medieval context, in which reality and supernatural not only coexist, but merge into each other. A typical example of such naive blend is the passage in which Francesca, during one of her visions, is holding in her arms the baby Jesus (pages 62-63 of the manuscript), and tries to show him to Father Mattiotti:

(...)   Et stennendo le braccia colle quale teveva lo Signore con segno de mustrallo al suo prete diceva Ecco lo amore vedilo, vedi tanto bene, ammiralo bene, con simili parole. Ma non avendo portati li occhiali lo suo poverecto patre spirituale, non vide altro che li segni delle braccia della beata.   (...) (...)   And stretching out her arms, which she was holding the Lord with, as willing to show him to her priest, she said: "Here is love, look at it, see how much goodness, admire it well", and similar words. But not having carried his glasses with him, her poor spiritual father saw nothing else but the gesture of the beate's arms.   (...)

St.Paul and the guardian angel protect Francesca
from the evil, appeared in the shape of a dragon
Also the 'battles' fought by Francesca against the evil are constantly haunted by creatures such as horned demons, or dreadful snakes, or fire-spitting dragons, similar to those found in traditional Final Judgment scenes. Despite an angel who always guarded upon her, the saint had to endure all sorts of mistreatings. More than visions, her experiences are described as actual close encounters with such entities, and also the torments she suffered by the hand of her torturers, according to Father Mattiotti's account, were extremely physical, at the point that her relatives in the house could hear the sound of the terrible blows inflicted upon her by the supernatural creatures.

But also the angel who was in charge of her safety, when the saint committed the slightest fault, used methods as harsh as her torturers (page 9):

(...)   Et prima che essa beata avessi la dicta angelica visione, molte fiate perla cura della casa et conversatione, avessi per flagilita comesso allcuno fallimento, in segno era subito percossa o vero bactuta nella mascella, o vero in altri parti della soa persona in cio che luoco fossi stata, sola o vero in compangia, de die et de nocte, non vedendo da chi fossi bactuta, et comprendendo lo defecto in saminatione della soa conscientia, et avendonne la perfecta contritione, con sancto proposito se disponeva alla vera confessione. La quale punitione recipeva dallo glorioso angilo, advenga che essa anche nollo vedessi. Et tale punitione per divina volonta li fo data una fiata presente mi. Unde stanno io con essa beata ad udirela in confessione in casa dello suo marito, et essa stanno inginochiata, prestissimamente se affiecte quasi collo capo in terra molto affannata de pena corporale, della quale cosa stanno io molto sbagoctito, adomandando essa beata que fossi, essa mi disse, como era bactuta nelle spalle fortemente, non sapendo dicere da chi. (...)   And before having had the angelic vision, when in several occasions the beate committed any fault out of foible, in looking after the house, or during a conversation, as a consequence she was immediately beaten, i.e. hit in the face, or in other parts of her body, wherever she was, either alone or with others, either during the day or at night-time, without seeing whom she was beaten by; and as she understood her fault, by searching in her own conscience, and feeling a perfect contrition, she prepared herself with pious intention for a real confession. She received such punishment by the glorious angel, although she did not even see him. And such punishment, by God's holy will, was once inflicted onto her in my own presence. As I was together with the beate, listening to her words in confession, in her husband's house, and she was kneeling, all of a sudden she bent down, almost touching the ground with her head, greatly suffering for a physical pain, and since I was very amazed of this, having asked the beate what was happening, she said that she was being strongly beaten on her back, yet without being able to tell by whom.   (...)

Her vision of Hell is described according to the typical medieval iconography; it could not have been differently, since the saint herself claims that this vision, and all the other things she said, conformed to and matched those in which the holy Catholic Church believes in (...). Therefore, Hell is very "traditional": an abyss, where the culprits are subject to a great number of physical tortures, where even fire is dark, with different levels and sections, overlooked by a gigantic figure of Satan. Here the wretched souls are eternally tormented by demons, according to the seriousness and to the type of sin committed during their mortal life.
Besides Father Mattiotti's literary source, one of the frescos in Francesca's convent provides a self-explaining interpretation of such vision (picture on the right). The presence of archangel Raphael, who escorts the saint in a full tour of the place, is indeed reminiscent of Dante's Divine Comedy (whose author, in a similar experience, is lead by Virgil), a source of inspiration which Father Mattiotti may have been aware of.

The language used in the manuscript features many terms that still reveal a strong Latin influence, but also many elements typical of southern dialects are clearly present, more than in the two works previously taken into consideration. For instance, the change of some consonant clusters into double consonants, particularly ...nd..., ...sc..., ...ld... respectively into ...nn..., ...ss..., ...ll..., is very frequent.

early Italian (15th cent.)




Roman dialect








big, large

warm, hot

to leave

answering, replying


Francesca (top left)
and her vision of Hell

A few particular expressions, such as acciachare ("to squash"), freccicare ("to tingle"), le mano ("the hands"), and others, are already clearly detectable as ancestors of the roman dialect, as well as some phonetic changes, such as cascione (Italian cagione, "cause, reason"), roscio (Italian rosso, "red"), cammera (Italian camera, "room"), etc.
Some original features of this language, though, began to die out after the turn of the 16th century. From 1513 to 1669, several among the popes elected came from Tuscany (namely Leo X, Clement VII, Julius III, Leo XI, Urban VIII, Innocent X and Clement IX), and the community of Tuscan people that developed in Rome during this time, which included members of all social ranks, such as craftsmen, masons, artists, merchants, bankers, members of the clergy, noblemen, etc., was so large that the local language was gradually affected. Within a couple of centuries the roman dialect lost some early linguistic elements which, instead, are still found today in dialects spoken further south, particularly in Naples:

early Italian (15th cent.)




Neapolitan dialect










bent, crooked


take some

Had these changes not been abandoned in Rome's spoken language, today the city's dialect would be more similar to the one spoken in Naples.
Furthermore, several words used to be spelt in different ways; also in Father Mattiotti's text, among other variants, we find:

de po / depo

sentuta / sentata

comenso / cominso

Singnore / Signore

dracone / draccone / dracgone
after, afterwards


he/she began



This clearly shows how the early language was easily subject to changes, due to the lack of standard grammar rules.

The Tractati work is also interesting from a historical point of view. The years in which Francesca lived were particularly troubled, due to the endless three-way struggle for political power between the king of Naples Ladislaus I of Anjou-Durazzo, pope Innocent VII and the people of Rome; the latter were not willing to submit to the monarch, nor to leave the pope maintain his temporal power. So, during the first decade of the 1400s Rome was freqently in turmoil, and a few passages of the saint's biography mention these events, although rather vaguely.

Both Father Mattiotti and Francesca personally witnessed this clash; the saint's husband was also severely wounded in battle, and never fully recovered, having to be attended by Francesca for the rest of his life. So the description of these historical facts, albeit seen through the eyes of a man of faith, and always subordinate to the context of the saint's life, may still represent a precious reference for historians.

The Essays also reveal how during the 15th century, religion was still the pivot which the entire roman society was based upon. Many of its aspects today would appear really fanatical. In the Essay about Hell, in which Francesca sees the endless torments inflicted by demons to the damned souls, besides traditional categories of sinners, such as the greedy, the proud, the blasphemous, the lascivious, etc., several others are included, some of which rather odd, such as dancers (for their obscene behaviour), maidens and widows (for having behaved immodestly), butchers (for having sold low-quality meat at high prices), even doctors (among other sins, "for having used books", which evidently belonged to the black list of proscribed texts), and so on.
Those who did not strictly conform to the Church's principles were looked at with suspicion, and were often made object of contempt; in one of her visions, Francesca witnesses Christ's passion, and describes it as follows:

(...)   Et stanno in extasi depo la comunione, disse como li vangelisti non faco mentione che lo Signore fossi bactuto alla colompna, perche tale bactitura fo data in secreto. Anche in secreto li iniqui iudei fecero allo Signore molte iniurie et illusioni, delli quali non se fa mensione. In fra laltro fo che essendo lo Signore spogliato et puoi flagellato alla colompna, volendose puoi vestire, non trovava li panni perche li iudei li avevano nascosti, et cercandoli lo Signore, li cani iudei sequitannolo lo bactevano con granne destratio. Disse anche la beata, che quelli li quali bactiero lo Singnore alla colompna, fuero vinti cinque, tucti capati per li piu iniqui et crudeli che potessino avere, acio che bene tormentassino.   (...) (...)   And in ecstasy after taking Communion, she said that the Evangelists do not mention that the Lord was beaten at the column, because the beating was given to him in secret. The wicked Jews also secretly insulted and played tricks on the Lord, what is not mentioned. Among other things, having the Lord been undressed and scourged at the column, willing to dress himself up again, he could not find his clothes because the Jews had hidden them, and as the Lord searched for them, the loathsome Jews followed him and beat him, to his great suffering. The beate also said that those who scourged the Lord at the column were twenty-five, all chosen among the most wicked and cruel ones that could be found, so to torture him well.   (...)

The bitter feelings, or real hate, that a large majority of the population felt towards the Jews, was mainly instigated by the Church, for religious reasons. But for the large Jewish community such hostility entailed serious consequences also in everyday's life, in Rome as well as elsewhwre in Europe, and triggered a real persecution, which during the 15th and 16th centuries reached its harshest expressions, such as the institution of the ghetto, the loss of many civil rights, and so on.

page 2
excerpts from the Essays
page 3
the captions of the set of frescoes

Meo Patacca, by G.Berneri