The full and original title of this 14th-century Franciscan literary classic is I Fioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of St. Francis). It is an anonymous translation of the Actus Beati Francisci et Sociorum Ejus, written c. 1325 by Fra Ugolino Boniscambi of Montegiorgio in the Marches of Ancona and Fermo; for the last 100 years it has been the most popular book on St. francis of assisi. Recent archival research by G. Pagnani has proved that the author did not belong to the Brunforte family of Sarnano. Though his years of birth and death are not known, he is mentioned in local documents of 1319 and 1342. In 1331 he testified in Naples against Andrea da Gagliano, a follower of the rebellious Minister General michael of cesena. Fra Ugolino sought to re-form the Franciscan Order from within by writing and dictating about 20 previously unrecorded anecdotes about Francis and his first companions "as revealed by their successors which were omitted in his biographies but which are also very useful and edifying." His principal source was a Brother James of Massa who had known several of the saint's companions. To a score of vivid, even humorous stories about the Poverello, Fra Ugolino added a series of chapters narrating the mystical experiences of several saintly friars of his own times and province, notably, Bl. John of La Verna and Bl. Conrad of Offida.
The basic purpose of the whole work, which has an organic inner unity, was to stimulate a return to the unique contemplative-and-active spirituality of the founder, as exemplified in the lives of his early companions and later disciples in the Marches. Some of the latter had sympathized with the reform movement of the Franciscan spirituals but, unlike them, refused to leave the order to practice their ideal. The remarkable popularity of the Actus during the 14th century thus sowed the seeds of the Observant reform. Hence it must be considered a proto-Observant rather than a Spiritual manifesto. Its historicity has been questioned because passages dealing with the controversial elias of cortona are inaccurate and partisan, and it describes a meeting between Brother Giles and St. Louis of France that is apocryphal. (see giles of assisi, bl.; louis ix, king of france, st.) However, the substance of half a dozen of its original anecdotes involving St. Francis has been confirmed by independent sources. The supreme value of Fra Ugolino's contribution lies in the fundamental authenticity of his spiritual profile of the Poverello.
Several anonymous Italian translations of the Actus were made c. 1375. Pagnani has identified a version in the dialect of the Marches. But it was one of the two extant Tuscan translations that became a classic of medieval Italian literature, owing to the limpid beauty and enchanting simplicity of its style. The impressive narrative talent of the unknown friar translator made him a worthy contemporary of Petrarch and Boccaccio. Selecting a bouquet of 53 of the most appealing chapters in the Actus, he aptly titled it I Fioretti di San Francesco. To them he added an original masterpiece of his own, The Five Considerations on the Holy Stigmata, which he compiled from the Actus, the legendae by thomas of celano and St. bonaventure, and the oral traditions of the friars at Mount La Verna.
Several other indirectly related addenda have been included in 15th-century manuscripts and various modern editions of The Little Flowers of St. Francis, such as short lives of Brothers Juniper and Giles, excerpts from the latter's Golden Sayings, and a miscellany of additional chapters from the Actus or other Franciscan compilations.
First printed at Vicenza in 1476, the Fioretti became a favorite target of some Protestant reformers, e.g., Pier Paolo Vergerio. F. Buonarroti's edition of 1718 rescued it from oblivion, and that of A. Cesari in 1822 launched it on a course of ever-spreading popularity that elevated it to the status of "the breviary of the Italian people" and a classic of world literature. Paul sabatier's preliminary edition of the Actus in 1902 and the publication of the important Little-Phillipps manuscript in 1914 stimulated further research, which has culminated in recent studies and annotated editions that have significantly clarified the historical background of this deservedly famous yet relatively unstudied early Franciscan literary gem.
Bibliography: Actus beati Francisci et sociorum ejus, ed. p. sabatier (Paris 1902). Important recent eds. with useful introd., nn., and bibliog. Gli scritti di San Francesco e "I Fioretti," ed. a. vicinelli (Milan 1955); I fioretti di San Francesco, ed. b. bughetti and r. pratesi (Florence 1960), with most additional parts; I fioretti di San Francesco, ed. r. pratesi and g. v. sabatelli (Florence 1960), with only The Considerations; I fioretti di San Francesco, ed. g. pagnani (Rome 1959); The Little Flowers of St. Francis, ed. and tr. r. brown (Garden City, NY 1958), with added parts and extensive bibliog. s. clasen, "Zur Problematik der Fioretti," Wissenschaft und Weisheit 25 (1962) 214–218. l. cellucci, Le leggende francescane del secolo XIII nel loro aspetto artistico (2d ed. Modena 1957). g. pagnani, "Il codice di Fabriano dei Fioretti di San Francesco," Studia Picena 25 (1957) 1–23; "Contributi alla questione dei Fioretti di San Francesco," Archivum Franciscanum historicum (Quaracchi-Florence 1909–) 49 (1956) 3–16. o. englebert, St. Francis of Assisi: A Biography, tr. e. m. cooper, 2d ed. by i. brady and r. brown (Chicago 1966).