George T. Peck “The Fool of God – Jacopone da Todi”. The University of Alabama Press, 1980.

my connecting phrases in italics, Peck’s text in normal font


George T. Peck’s preface to his book begins with these words: 

«The study of Jacopone da Todi is rewarding.Partly because the novelty of the act. Though an outstanding poet and “one of the two major  [literary] personalities of the end of the thirteenth century” – the other being , of course, Dante – it is astonishing how little attention has been devoted to him». 

This was the opinion of an American scholar 40 years ago.

George Peck cites scholars who definitely place Jacopone in the category of the “minor poets”. But the opinion that must have surprised George Peck the most (and it certainly surprises me a lot too), is that expressed by Eugenio Donadoni, author of the most popular book on Italian literature in America in the 1970s. Donadoni writes: “Although Jacopone is sporadically a poet, he is never an artist; he lacks the sense of fitness, propriety, and restraint… From this ‘madman of Jesus Christ’, as he was called, a work of art is not to be expected. Art is the product of the most exquisite spiritual balance”.

Peck, however, responds:  

«If one has not read Jacopone, such comments might well be off-putting. To one who has read him, they serve mainly to describe the aesthetic criteria of the reviewers, who seem to share a high regard for the elegant, the moderate, and the classical – in short, official Tuscan Italian.»

In other words, even scholars can be influenced by fashion. Peck continues:

«Perhaps the most imposing answers to Jacopone’s critics come from other poets: “The revered Giosuè Carducci proclaimed: ‘I have passionately studied Jacopone da Todi and announce to all his great superiority  to Manzoni [as a religious poet], and I salute him as the Christian Pindar’. Giovanni Papini, one of the most prominent writers on religious themes in modern Italy, called him ‘the greatest religious poet of the Italian middle ages and one of the greatest in the world … An instinctive artist, warm and sturdy, Jacopone is a great poet in spite of little critics’. Then there is Gabriele D’Annunzio: ‘I have a predilection for this book … No poet has a full-throated song like this Minorite brother. If he is crazy, he is crazy like a lark’»  

Two questions

The first question that these reflections pose for us is: How is it possible that a poet can be praised and loved by great poets, but treated with such bad grace by philologists and historians of literature?

And the second question: Is there, perhaps, a form of myopia or squint in Italy that makes what is sublime in Jacopone seem rough?Next Monday I will report George Peck’s interesting answer to this question.  Don’t miss it! 

Cordial greetings, Claudio

Italiano (Italian)