Benny Bufano, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Bob Kaufman

He was a young Italian immigrant who regularly crossed paths with both the lowly and the mighty on the streets of San Francisco in the middle of last century. Born Beniamino Bufano in San Fele, Italy, he first came to San Francisco in 1914, to work on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Intended to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, the extravaganza also served to showcase how successful the City of Saint Francis had been in rebuilding after the 1906 earthquake. Benny, as he was known in America, was soon recognized for his artistic talents and regularly received commissions for projects great and small.

In the 1920s Bufano traveled the world, courtesy of art patrons and benefactors, and for a while he settled in France. It was there he conceived his idea of a love letter to San Francisco: a magnificent granite statue of the city’s namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi. Bufano called his 18-foot-high statue Saint Francis de la Varenne, after the region in France where the granite was quarried. 

He worked for two years on the statue. It was carved in Paris between 1926 and 1928, and even though English art critic Roger Fry deemed it “the most significant piece of sculpture in 500 years,” sufficient funds could not be raised when it came time to ship the statue to San Francisco. 

Bufano's statue at the Shrine of St. Francis, 1957
Bufano’s statue at the Shrine of St. Francis, 1957
(Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle)

In the 1930s, Bufano imagined an even grander version of his statue. He envisioned a 180-foot-tall statue of Saint Francis standing atop Twin Peaks, similar to the statue Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, which had been constructed between 1922 and 1931. The city fathers shot it down. Saint Francis de la Varenne sat in a crate, in a warehouse in Paris, where it survived the German occupation during World War II. Eventually the 12.5-ton piece was shipped to California in 1955. Soon North Beach was abuzz with excitement.

The big day finally came, and the stylized image of a barefoot Saint Francis with arms extended was placed in front of the Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. Witnessing the hooded stone figure that day was none other than Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who memorialized the moment in a poem that was eventually included in A Coney Island of the Mind, published by New Directions in 1958.

For a while the statue was met with bemusement and mixed reviews. Some people loved the modern style, while some did not, and soon enough there were rumblings inside the church itself. Officials found the statue was hampering their wedding business, with newlyweds having difficulty navigating around the centrally placed statue as they exited the church amidst rice-throwing family and friends. 

Eventually the statue was removed at the behest of both parishioners and priests of the church. It settled in Oakland for a few years, but some San Franciscans realized the statue of Saint Francis really did belong in the city whose patron saint it depicted. So in 1961, Saint Francis de la Varenne was returned to the City by the Bay, to a new home next to Longshoremen’s Hall, at the southeast corner of Taylor and Beach Streets near Fisherman’s Wharf, where it resides today.

But the story doesn’t end there. Just as Lawrence Ferlinghetti immortalized the installation of the statue on Vallejo Street, fellow poet Bob Kaufman also wrote a poem about the priests’ removal of the statue—“Afterwards, They Shall Dance,” published in Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (New Directions, 1965).

Afterwards, They Shall Dance
“Afterwards, They Shall Dance” by Bob Kaufman

Bufano, Ferlinghetti, and Kaufman, forever bound together on the streets of North Beach by “the most significant piece of sculpture in 500 years.”