Fioretti di S. Francesco d’Assisi (LITTLE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI), the name given to a classic collection of popular legends about the life of St. Francis of Assisi and his early companions as they appeared to the Italian people at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Such a work, as Ozanam observes, can hardly be said to have one author; it is the product rather of gradual growth and must, as Sabatier remarks, remain in a certain sense and anonymous, because it is national. There has been some doubt as to whether the “Fioretti” were written in Italian in the first instance, as Sbaralea thought, or were translated from a Latin original, as Wadding maintained. The latter seems altogether more probable, and modern critics generally believe that a larger Latin collection of legends, which has come down to us under the name of the “Actus B. Francisci et Sociorum Ejus”, represents an approximation to the text now lost of the original “Floretum”, of which the “Fioretti” is a translation. A striking difference is noticeable between the earlier chapters of the “Fioretti”, which refer to St. Francis and his companions, and the later ones which deal with the friars in the province of the March of Ancona. The first half of the collection is, no doubt, merely a new form given to traditions that go back to the early days of the order; the other is believed to be substantially the work of a certain Fra Ugolino da Monte Giorgio of the noble family of Brunforte (see Ugolino Brunforte), who, at the time of his death in 1348, was provincial of the Friars Minor in the March. Living as he did a century after the death of St. Francis, Ugolino was dependent on hearsay for much of his information; part of it he is said to have learned from Fra Giacomo da Massa who had been well known and esteemed by the companions of the saint, and who had lived on terms of intimacy with Fra Leone, his confessor and secretary. What-ever may have been the sources from which Ugolino derived his materials, the fifty-three chapters which constitute the Latin work in question seem to have been written before 1328. The four appendixes on the Stigmata of St. Francis, the life of Fra Ginepro, and the life and sayings of Fra Egidio, which occupy nearly one half of the printed text of the “Fioretti”, as we now have it, form no part of the original collection and were probably added by later compilers. Unfortunately the name of the fourteenth-century Franciscan friar who translated into Italian fifty-three of the seventy-six chapters found in the “Actus B. Francisci” and in translating immortalized them as the “Fioretti”, remains unknown. The attribution of this work to Giovanni di San Lorenzo rests wholly upon conjecture. It has been surmised that the translator was a Florentine. However this may be, the vernacular version is written in the most limpid Tuscan and is reckoned among the masterpieces of Italian literature.
The “Fioretti” have been described as “the most exquisite expression of the religious life of the Middle Ages”. That perhaps which gives these legends such a peculiar charm, is what may be called their atmosphere; they breathe all the delicious fragrance of the early Franciscan spirit. Nowhere can there be found a more childlike faith, a livelier sense of the super-natural, or a simpler literalness in the following of Christ than in the pages of the “Fioretti”, which more than any other work transport us to the scenes amid which St. Francis and his first followers lived, and enable us to see them as they saw themselves.
These legends, moreover, bear precious witness to the vitality and enthusiasm with which the memory of the life and teaching of the Poverello was preserved, and they contain much more history, as distinct from mere poetry, than it was customary to recognize when Suyskens and Papini wrote. In Italy the “Fioretti” have always enjoyed an extraordinary popularity; indeed, this liber aureus is said to have been more widely read there than any other book, not excepting even the Bible or the Divine Comedy. Certain it is that the “Fioretti” have exercised an immense influence in forming the popular conception of St. Francis and his companions. The earliest known MS. of the “Fioretti”, now preserved at Berlin, is dated 1390; the work was first printed at Vicenza in 1476. Manzoni has collected many interesting details about the well-nigh innumerable codices and editions of the “Fioretti”. The best edition for the general reader is unquestionably that of Father Antonio Cesari (Verona, 1822) which is based on the epoch-making edition of Filippo Buonarroti (Florence, 1718). The Crusca quote from this edition which has been often reprinted. The “Fioretti” have been translated into nearly every European language and in our own day are being much read and studied in Northern countries. There are several well-known English versions.