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Magro Soup at Santissima Trinita alla Selva 27/04/2011

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The Padre Guardiano’s  letter was cordial. All things would be ready; the famous ‘Minestra di Magro’ would await us, if we would honour the convent with a visit on the day we had named. So on a bright August morning we set off, a joyous party, for the Franciscan Convent of Sta. Trinita… As we dismounted, the Father-Guardian, an old man with a shrewd, kindly face, wearing the brown habit and knotted cord of St. Francis, came out to greet us, and welcome us in the name of the friars. The Professor, a large and delightful man of guileless disposition, embraced him like a brother, being of that simple nature which loves all men, and accords with monks and friars as well to use the Italian idiom as bread with cheese.

The Professor is one of those warmhearted, genial souls of whom everyone takes advantage, but who radiates happiness like a human sun. He is fifty, and looks sixty; a big man, with kind blue eyes behind round, black-rimmed spectacles, and an expression suggestive of a benevolent Newfoundlanddog. He is, strange to say, a bachelor; but there must have been some bungling on the part of Fate in this matter, as, if ever a man bore ‘father’ on his face, and required a wife and a baker’s dozen of children perpetually grouped about him, he is the man. As it is, he is obliged to content himself with playing the part of fairy god-father, and winning the heart of every child he comes across.

He and Mafalda are the best of friends, and the latter, who had made the journey in a basket on the back of a sedate donkey, clung to his hand as he stood talking genially to the Padre, still holding above his head the large green umbrella with which he had protected himself during the ride. Meanwhile Giovanni attended to the needs of his adored horses, and the rest of us, with ridingskirts looped up, busied ourselves in unpacking the provisions which a mule had carried, her baby having trotted confidingly by her side the whole distance, so that he might not be deprived of necessary refreshment while his mother was away.

The friars had laid a table for us in a small refectory devoted to the use of visitors, and provided linen, knives and forks, and crockery, upon each piece of which latter (a curious selection for frati!) a scantily dressed young woman escaped into a desert with a wild expression of countenance and a baby under each arm. They also contributed bread, fruit, and the renowned ‘Minestra di Magro’, while for the rest of the luncheon we were responsible ourselves. An interval for the heating of the soup being necessary, we filled up the time by a visit to the church; a plain building, containing little of interest save a relief by Andrea della Robbia of Christ upon the Cross, supported by God the Father, below whom flutters the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove: but the figures were spoiled by crude colour which had been rubbed on over the original blue and white, one of those disastrous “restorations'” which have been the ruin of so many beautiful things. In the sacristy they proudly showed us part of the bleached skull of some strange reptile, was it a giant snake or a dragon? below which an inscription pompously recorded that in the year 1499 Guido, of the Ducal House of Sforza, Count of Santa Fiora, while hunting in the woods of this convent, by him founded eight years earlier, met with a horrible monster, which same he slew after prayer made to the Most Holy Trinity: and in memory of which fact he left half the head to the Brothers of Sta. Trinita della Selva, sending the other half to Sta. Trinita del’ Monte at Rome.

Some believed, so the Brother who showed us this heirloom told us, that an evil spirit had taken this form to overcome the valiant Guido, but, deprecatingly, ‘Chi lo sa? E tanti anni fa!’ He was a genial little fellow, with a crumpled yellow skin, and dark eyes, out of which looked a pathetic eagerness to serve and please; but he was, like most of his brethren, distressingly dirty, for soap and sanctity have little affinity in the monastic mind, and the majority of monks with whom I have been brought in close contact must, alas! be classed with ‘the great unwashed’.…

By the time we had visited as much of the convent as was not forbidden to our unhallowed feet, the ‘Minestra di Magro’, a solid puree made with oil, bread and vegetables, was ready, and we sat down to the table in the refectory with appetites sharpened by the long ride through the fresh mountain-air. The Padre Guardiano, with a deprecating gesture, begged us to overlook any imperfections in the service or provision which their poor house could offer. Then, wishing us ‘buon appetito’, after the kindly Italian fashion, left us to the care of the ‘Curato’, a distressingly dirty person, with shaggy yellow hair and a pair of merry, rather cunning blue eyes. This latter, who was frankly charmed by a little variety in the monotony of his convent days, flitted in and out continually, and was delighted to discuss his present surroundings, the habits of his Order, and the other convents in which he had sojourned since he cast in his lot with the Sons of St. Francis. He complained bitterly of the dullness of La Selva, ‘A place impossible! Let the signori figure to themselves a life such’.

He had been sent there three years before after a malady grave, but very grave; still if it pleased the Buon Dio, he would before long be sent to Turin. For the Padre Guardiano, ‘that poor old one’, he admitted that a life so monotonous might be well, ‘but I, I wish not so soon to retire myself from the world!’ And after the expression of these and other similar sentiments, he accepted a glass of wine with alacrity, and gracefully drank to our illustrious health.

The meal went on cheerily. The soup was excellent; the provisions which the maternal mule had carried were done full justice to, but the convent apples, golden, and very pleasant to the eye, proved rotten at the core, and the convent coffee was a concoction to make an angel weep. Still, it was their poor best which they were offering, especially the coffee, which was borne in proudly by the Padre Guardiano himself, with an exultant face, the pot arranged on an enamelled tray, surrounded by a circle of saucerless cups, in each of which a spoon stood majestically erect. ‘It is of a quality special’, he announced complacently as he poured it out with a flourish. It certainly was! We looked at one another, each scheming in his deep mind how he might, by subtlety, avoid drinking the brown liquid which the good father dispensed with such beaming smiles. The Professor shamelessly stated that coffee disagreed with him, although he usually drinks it as gladly as the earth drinks rain after drought. I glanced at the others, then at the Padre, looking on half wistfully as if he feared that his best was not good enough, and then nobly drained it to the dregs, a rash action, as it was with difficulty that the kind old man was persuaded that I was not pining for a second cup. Luncheon over, we wandered away to the pine-wood, there to await the great event of the day, the eclipse of the sun.

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