Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Bonomini of Florence

The beans tumble to the table with a soft chatter.

The twelve men silently count them according to their two colours.

"Eight black." It is traditional that the most senior articulates the result. "The case is agreed."

Another week's work almost finished, the Bonomini of Florence gather the sheets of paper with each of the supplications they have decided on. There are two piles. A black bean is placed on the larger set, the successful ones.

"Now," the elder says. "Do we need the candle?"

A colleague opens a folder. He takes out a pen, makes some calculations in the margins around the typed set of figures. He raises his head. "We do."

The elder goes to a cupboard. He takes out a silver candlestick, and a new candle, along with a box of matches. At one of the room's windows, where blobs and stains show this has been done before, he sets the candle carefully, scratches a match. A baby flame gutters in a slight breeze which has found its way through the old casement. It struggles momentarily, then finds a secure hold on the wick.

The elder returns to the table. He leaves the matches beside the two piles, looks at his watch, then at the others. "Until next week?" he asks softly.

They nod assent.

The six assistants in the office of the Bonomini will deal with the details. As they, and the predecessor members of the Congregazione dei Buonomini di San Martino, have done since 1441. Helping the poor, especially the middle class made poor originally by the taxation regime which Cosimo Medici used to cripple his enemies. And their equivalents today made poor by the latest financial collapse. Those who dare not, or are ashamed to, plead in public for help.

The Bonomini were established by a Dominican friar, Antonio Pierozzi, later St Anthony of Florence. 'Twelve Good Men' were chosen, two from each of Florence's administrative districts, to be the 'protectors of the shame-faced poor'. Their job, to collect from everyone who could afford to give, and to use the money to find and assist in secret those who needed it.

At the time they were publicly known, wearing distinctive red hats, although their work was carried out discreetly.

The Bonomini still meet every Friday. But their identities are not known to anyone except each other. When one dies, or becomes incapacitated, a replacement is quietly invited to join them.

Their help is still given in secret, to those who ask by putting their supplications in a small letterbox in an unassuming tiny chapel on the little Piazza San Martino. People who wish to help can also leave their offerings there, supplementing donations provided to the Twelve Good Men through bequests and other means.

When funds are low, they still do as their predecessors did over five and a half centuries. They put a candle in the window of their office. Word gets around and the people of Florence, even in difficult times, help out. It is a tribute to the respect in which the Bonomini are held that they don't have to light the candle very often.

In the little chapel a series of murals depicts the work of the Bonomini down the centuries. On the altar a wooden bust of of the little friar who began it all smiles gently forever.