Crowdfunding and medieval history are coming together in Rome as a group of Franciscan monks take to the internet to drum up funds to restore a dusty cell said to have been used by St. Francis of Assisi himself.
Located in the trendy Trastevere district, the church of San Francesco a Ripa looks much like any other of 900 churches in the Eternal City and is better known for a statue by Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
But the monks in charge of the church say the real treasure tucked away on the first floor of the church is a cell that hosted St. Francis (1182-1226) — the famous saint of the poor who inspires Pope Francis.
"We need $125,000 to restore the cell of St Francis," Brother Stefano Tamburo, who is in charge of the church-monastery, told AFP during a visit.
The Kickstarter project runs out on April 11 and has already raised more than a fifth of the sum to clean up the room measuring 17 square meters (183 square feet).
"Few people know of its existence," Tamburo said.
The monk explained that St Francis stayed in the room at least four times between 1209 and 1223 when he visited Rome to try to meet with pope Innocent III to obtain recognition of his new monastic order.
"The saint slept sitting on the ground, directly in contact with a large stone that is still visible today and which he used as a sort of cushion," he said, pointing to a stone that is now covered by a grill.
He said there are no written records from that time, but that an "uninterrupted oral tradition from St Francis's period attests he stayed in the monastery, followed by later references to it in written texts."
The windowless cell was transformed in the 17th century into a small chapel dedicated to St Francis and is not accessible to the public but was visited by late pope John Paul II to pray — as seen in a photo on the wall.
The space is badly dilapidated — its walls blackened by candles and oil lamps, its wall paintings fading away and its ceiling in need of extensive restoration.
Following Franciscan tradition, the monastery has appealed for charity to finance the project, refusing to ask the Vatican or the Italian state for funds.
"With the economic crisis, the priority is for spending on social issues. For restoring the cell, we prefer to ask people who can afford it," said the monk.
The project has already received some 400 individual donations —most of them coming from the United States.
Donors will receive symbolic gifts for their contributions, including T-shirts with the Franciscan slogan "Pax et Bonum" ("Peace and Goodness"), wooden pendants and for the most generous a holiday to Rome for the inauguration of the restored cell.
An added bonus could be the presence of Pope Francis.
"Since Pope Francis was elected, people are more interested in the cell," Tamburo said. "We hope he will come and visit it. I think it will be on his agenda."