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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Keogh

An Unexpected Tale of St. Francis

Today's guest post is from author Tinney Sue Heath, who writes historical fiction set in Italy in the middle ages. Her second novel, Lady of the Seven Suns, was released today. I had the great pleasure of being in Tinney's critique group while she was crafting this wonderful novel. Being Catholic, I've always had an affinity for St. Francis, so I was eager to read Tinney's story. In her well-researched book, she revealed to me a St. Francis (Francesco) that I never knew existed. In this blog post, she shares a bit about her research trip to Italy to learn about St. Francis and the noblewoman he called "brother." (All images in this article are property of Tinney Sue Heath unless noted otherwise.)

Rome, 1210. Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli is a capable, confident woman, happy in a loving marriage and possessed of great wealth and all the power it conveys. But when tragedy strikes and her world shatters, only the barefoot holy man from Assisi can pull her back from the abyss.

Her wealth and privilege now a burden, Giacoma yearns to follow Francesco in his Christ-like life of sacred poverty. But her sons, her household, and the local beggars all rely on her--and soon, so does Francesco himself, as she finds ways to support his nascent brotherhood, vulnerable to a Church hierarchy quick to equate nonconformity with heresy.

Based on a true story, Lady of the Seven Suns tells of a woman who must thread her way between duty and faith. Her intelligence, compassion, and sense of humor support her as she strives to be worthy of the name Francesco affectionately bestows on her: "Brother Giacoma."

Author Tinney Sue Heath

I love travel. I love to explore new places, eat foods I’d never cook at home, try to communicate in a language other than English, relax and unwind in a beautiful and unfamiliar place, and—sometimes--to get away from a harsh Wisconsin winter. If I can do all those things plus accomplish some on-site research for my writing, all the better! For my novel, Lady of the Seven Suns, that meant visiting Assisi (2013), Rome, and Cortona (2017).

My main character, Giacoma, was a Roman noblewoman of the early 13th century who formed a deep friendship with the holy man Francesco (Francis of Assisi). Not a lot of information about her has survived, so the trip required some detective work in advance, and also some searching and exploring once we got to Italy.

Most historians believe that Francesco and Giacoma met each other during one of his early trips to Rome, where he and his first few brothers had come to speak with the pope and to preach. But he had made an earlier trip to Rome before his conversion experience, when he was still a wealthy young man trying to figure out his life, and for purposes of this story I have had Giacoma meet him briefly on that occasion, as well as finding him again, very much changed, a few years later.

In Assisi we rented an apartment within sight of the cathedral, San Rufino, a church that figures prominently in my book. Giacoma admires its richly-carved facade, noting that the three little men “holding up the world” remind her of Francesco.

There is also a scene in the book involving this sculpted lion devouring a captive man, just outside the main door to the church.

But it was in another church, the great Basilica di San Francesco, where I found evidence of Giacoma herself. A 17th century fresco depicting her is still visible on the wall of the church next to her original burial place, but her remains have been reinterred into this tomb in the crypt, directly across from Francesco’s own burial place. She is the only lay person buried in the Basilica.

I hated to leave Assisi, especially once our luggage finally caught up with us after taking an unscheduled side trip to Munich. But the wifi in our apartment had died, and it was time to move on.

We headed to nearby Cortona, to the Franciscan church built there by Brother Elias, to view the beautiful embroidered cushion Giacoma made for Francesco, the cushion that supported his head as his body was carried to its original resting place in Assisi. I can barely thread a needle, so I was in awe of her skill, as well as deeply moved to see Giacoma’s own handiwork at a distance of some 900 years.

To find out more about the early part of Giacoma’s life we had to go to Rome. Giacoma’s surname, “Settesoli,” means “Seven Suns,” and it comes from the Septizonium, an ancient ruined temple owned—and fortified—by her husband’s family. Unfortunately it was dismantled in the 1600s, and the pieces wound up in various buildings and monuments all over Rome.

Tinney gazing wistfully at where the Septizonium used to be.

But even though the Septizonium wasn’t there, a fragment of Giacoma’s home still exists. It’s this little tower—it used to be taller—located, somewhat improbably, right inside the Circus Maximus, which in Giacoma’s time was given over to orchards, gardens, and a mill, as well as her home.

I could happily have stayed in Italy longer, but I had traced my character through three cities, and it was time to come home and write her story. It took a long time and much more research, but at last it’s done. She’s a fascinating woman; I hope I’ve done her justice.

Giacoma's birth family, the Normanni, is still remembered in Rome.

Learn more about Tinney's writing by visiting her website. Sign up for her newsletter and get a free download of Cantilena for Seven Voices: Dante's Women Speak.

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