Sunday, February 15, 2015

Saint Philip Neri

Saint Philip Neri, attr. unknown,
prob. after Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guernico)
In the final quarter of the seventeenth century, a certain holy man in Rome practiced charity in its humblest form. A native of Florence, a man named Filippo Neri (1515-1595) made visits every day to plague victims in the hospitals. He prayed for patients in their last hours and brought food for those abandoned by their families. He walked among the poor and destitute, eating just from the alms he received. He lived what he preached and set an example of Christianity stripped of pride and envy. In unconventional style, he led walking tours of the churches in Rome. Although the practice of venerating the living as saints received strong discouragement by the Church, Filippo Neri nevertheless realized effective sainthood during his lifetime. His followers credited him with numerous miracles.

Conventional history places the exact location of Filippo Neri's birth in Florence on the south side of the Arno. However, local folklore suggests an alternate location: in one of two rooms of the same Borgo Pinti house later owned and occupied by Antonio Neri's family. The common family name of Neri naturally leads to the question of whether or not the saint and the glassmaker were of common ancestry. Antonio's father, Neri Neri, maintained that his own father, Jacopo, was a cousin to the holy man.

A full-length image of Filippo Neri himself appears in a corner of the Neri chapel, On Borgo Pinti in Florence. Giovanni Cinelli, writing in 1677, tells us of Neri di Jacopo (Neri Neri):

It was his intention to dedicate [the chapel] to his relative Filippo Neri; it is possible that Jacopo di Neri, father of M[esser] Neri Neri was the cousin of Filippo Neri then still living, today Saint Philip. But [the dedication] was not to be, because in pressing to oversee its completion and delays in the canonization of the Saint, the dedication was changed to Nereo and Achilles, which was finished by Alessandro per the will.
Because the canonization was delayed, it would have been inappropriate to dedicate the chapel to Filippo, so two of his favorite saints were substituted.

The assertion that Neri the medical doctor and Neri the holy man were true blood relations has yet to be verified. However, there are positive signs: the saint's well-established genealogy meshes with records of Antonio Neri's family housed at the state archives in Florence. In fact, both sets of records—of the alchemist and of the saint—share a single file in the archives. These documents indicate a common ancestry at the level of third cousins. The elder Jacopo Neri and Filippo Neri (later Saint Philip) appear to have shared a great-great-grandfather. It is a remote connection, but one that was a source of  pride for Antonio’s father.

There is also a notable similarity of family crests; the shield of Saint Philip Neri's family feature three stars on a blue field, that of Antonio Neri's family features  a  banner with three stars against a blue rampant lion. The Saint's genealogy is well established, but the matter is complicated in that Antonio's branch of the family left Florence around the start of the sixteenth century. Here we lose track of them for one generation. Regardless of the difficulties, there is mounting evidence that Antonio's fourth-great-grandfather, Michele di Neri, was the brother of Saint Philip's second-great grandfather Ser Giovanni di Neri. A further association with Filippo Neri lies with Antonio Neri's maternal grandfather, Francesco Parenti, who served as attorney for the saint’s sister Caterina in the execution of the holy man's will.

Filippo Neri was unusual for his time. He was a champion of the common man, and he was humble to a fault; not a leader by force, by wealth, nor by charisma, but by gravitas. Antonio Neri's father seems to have been a man from the same mold, as exemplified by the absence of self-import declarations or artifice. He admired Filippo Neri, and we can guess that he shared the holy man's philosophy. Filippo never wanted  and protested strenuously against any aggrandizement. We see this trait follow through with Antonio. In his manuscripts and in the book on glassmaking, there is no evidence of boasting, or name-dropping, nor claim of superiority. What we see is a humble quest to understand nature, and to be of service to mankind.

* This post first appeared here on 3 February 2014

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