Someone once said that to become a Florentine one has to have the ability to look deep into the city’s essence, pass through the layers of bricks, marble and pietra serena, until at the end of the long and patient search one finds its true soul. In a city so filled with beauty and thousands of tourists that clog its narrow streets, it is not always easy to find its humanity or catch a glimpse of its magnificence.
The oldest friend and one of the biggest jewels I have found in Florence is Padre Rosito. I met him shortly after my arrival, at the beginning of my graduate studies. The life of Padre Rosito is so intertwined with the life of Florence as for almost half a century he has been an integral part of the church of Santa Croce.
One hot afternoon in 2006, Christos Tsompanidis, a member of the staff of the Opera di Santa Croce, led me to Padre’s office, located directly underneath the sacristy of the church. It is one large, semi-underground room, filled with books, publications, medals and small statuettes covered with dust. The highlight of the collection is a painted terracotta head of Christ who had sometime long ago lost his cross. Padre Rosito, a small, white haired man was sitting right underneath it. This room has been his life for the past forty-five years.
On that particular afternoon, his memories of the flood of 1966 came rushing in and that was all he wanted to talk about. It would take me countless afternoons spent by his side to put pieces of his life together, but one thing was for sure, his life was anything but ordinary. On most days his only company is two cats, well-fed and unconditionally loved, living in true heaven.
Soon enough, I discovered one thing we had in common – our love of horoscopes. A true Sagittarius, Padre reads them every day and if the predictions are good, he carefully cuts the page out to save it and read whenever necessary.
On my third visit, as I opened the small back door to his courtyard, I saw his fat cats basking in the afternoon sun and felt a little glimmer of joy knowing that he was there, immersed in his books and waiting. So as I greeted him I said, “Padre, I am so glad to see you, as I already consider you a friend.” He looked at me and simply said, “San Francesco accetta tutti”, St. Francis accepts everyone. Was that a compliment?! I will never know, but that is how our friendship began.
Padre Rosito was a young Franciscan friar who believed from the bottom of his heart that he was meant to be sent as a missionary to Africa, but after meeting with his superior it was decided that “his Africa would be Tuscany.” Before he arrived to Florence he was sent to Assisi, probably a required stop in the life of any follower of St. Francis. It is there that he began teaching Latin to a small group of students and all was going well except one tiny problem. The youngest boy in the group could not follow the lectures and he started falling behind. The seven year-old was so distressed because of this, that every time he did not understand a concept, he would run in tears to Padre. The young friar did not know what to do, so he would simply take the child and hold him in his lap, trying to offer some comfort and stop his tears. I could just imagine it – a small classroom, with freshly scrubbed wooden floors and a young friar seated at a plain desk with a crying child in front of him. All ended well, because today that boy is a famous physician, and even though all these years have passed by he has never forgotten the kindness of his tutor, as he calls regularly to check in.
Padre wasn’t just a great teacher; he discovered in Assisi that he was also a healer. One day one of his brothers became really sick, he couldn’t eat and had a high fever for days. Soon the convent doctor expressed his deep fear that the boy would not survive. That night Padre got an idea; he sneaked a bottle of Vin Santo out of the convent’s cenacolo and came to sit by the bed of his friend. He told him interesting stories while offering him small sips of Vin Santo late into the night. Exhausted, he fell asleep. The following morning with the first rays of sun, he woke up and glimpsed the empty bottle of Vin Santo next to his bed and then looked up to see that the bed next to his was empty. His friend was gone. Full of fear he rushed out of the room, thinking, What have I done, I have killed him! But to his surprise, he saw his friend alive, looking up and smiling at him, in fresh clothes. Apparently he was sweating so much, the nurse not only had to change him and his linen, but his mattress as well! He was completely cured.
The powers of Vin Santo were tested again a half-century later, when Padre’s good friend, a prior of San Miniato, was hospitalized in Florence. Padre was called in to say the final goodbye. When he arrived at the hospital, he found his friend lying almost lifeless in bed. But when he came nearer, he heard a faint whisper “I do not want to die”. Padre quickly asked the nurse if she could bring him some Vin Santo and thus began his ritual. The friend was brought back to life and lived another 11 years, thanking his good friend every time they met for prolonging his life.
As he saved lives and touched those around him with something that can’t quite be described in words, the big tragedy hit. On November 4th, 1966 the big flood hit the home of the young friar, the church and convent of St. Croce and the entire city of Florence. When they managed to push open the doors of the church the first thing Padre saw were priceless statues and altarpieces floating face down in the black mud of the Arno. He worked for thirty-six hours straight. As he told me the story, his light-brown eyes were filled with tears. He relived it all over again. He was one of the men that carried out Cimabue’s Crucifix, a masterpiece that urgently needed to be restored, to salvage what was possible.
After the restoration, Padre was informed that the Crucifix, for safety reasons, could not be returned to Santa Croce. He said, “It had to be placed on the fifth floor of the Uffizi.” The Uffizi doesn’t have a fifth floor, but the fact that Cimabue’s was to end up in the museum was so foreign to him that he might have as well imagined it locked up in a room somewhere high up. So one night Padre had a dream, a vision actually. He envisioned the big Crucifix hanging, held by a big chain, connected to a small wheel on the roof in such a way that one single person would be able to turn it and pull the crucifix completely to the top of the high room, close to the ceiling. That way, if the flood was ever to happen again the artwork could be saved from any damage. He proposed it to Soprintendenza and his invention was approved, Cimabue was to return home.
Ever kind and patient, there is something timeless about Padre Rosito. Now in his eighties, after years of serving others, his memory is starting to fail. One friar described him as a fish out of water anywhere else but in his catacomb office. And his hearing is not that good either, which might be a blessing for a man whose job demands that he hears the confessions and the deepest secrets hidden in the souls of people that called on him to share their burdens, often in the last hours of their earthly existence.
A famous physician and lifelong friend of Padre was sick and asked for his last confession. Upon arrival to his home, Padre realized that his friend was so weak he could no longer speak and barely whisper. Frantically, he was whispering to his lifelong confessor, but even with greatest effort Padre could not hear a word! He was sitting in the chair next to him feeling powerless doing the only thing he could – holding his hand. But help came from an unexpected source: the six year-old granddaughter of the doctor was passing by and realized what the problem was. The curly haired girl, leaned in close to her grandpa in order to hear what he had to say. Then she would turn around and shout exactly what he said in the ear of Padre Rosito. It worked! With some divine assistance he was able to hear the last confession of his friend and say a proper goodbye.
For his lifetime achievement Padre Rosito received the highest honor in the city of Florence, a golden Florin (a copy of a famous Renaissance currency, fiorino d’oro) on the 12th of December 2008. Several speakers and a small audience gathered in the Salone dei Duecento in Palazzo Vecchio to honor the man “that did not have a biography, but a destiny”, as the organizer of this event, Ruth Cárdenas Vettori eloquently put it. Each speaker addressed Padre as a man that comes from a land far, far away. I was getting a bit worried because I had no idea the Padre wasn’t Italian! How could I have missed such an important fact about the man I thought I knew so well!? After about an hour, the last speaker mentioned that Padre was born in Basilicata, a small region in southern Italy. To the Florentine mind he might have as well have been born in Australia: he wasn’t Florentine. Nonetheless, they all agreed that a “living man with such a heart is a dream.”
The speakers were exceptional, recounting the extraordinary life of an extraordinary man, but when he himself came on the stage, his speech was short: “I thank God and I thank you. Unfortunately, my hearing aid is not working today, so I have just been observing a feast of beautiful colors. I just hope you said nice things about me.”
If you find yourself looking at your watch at 7:30 pm on any given day, imagine Padre Rosito closing his office for the day; slowly closing his books, gently patting his cats, turning off the lights and as he shuts the door behind him, saying “Uno, due, tre, io ed il Re”. One, two, three, me and the King.
Padre Rosito turns 85 on December 1st, 2013!