Jacopone da Todi
This summary of Jacopone’s life is based on the testimony of his own poetry, about which Evelyn Underhill says: “Jacopone was one of the writers more oriented towards self-analysis. In the Laudi he introduces us to the interiority of his complex character, tells us about his political, social and intellectual experiences and the secrets of his intimate life…”
Jacopo di Benedetto was born in Todi, in the San Silvestro district, around 1230. The nickname ‘Jacopone’, by which he is now universally known, was used by himself in the prison laud, “What will you do, friar Jacovone?”. He gave himself this nickname with obvious self-deprecating irony, contrasting a declaration of grandeur with the humiliation he was undergoing.
He lived for 76 years, notable for his time. His life can be divided exactly into two parts: 38 years before and 38 years after his conversion.
THE YEARS BEFORE CONVERSION
Before his conversion, Jacopone’s life followed the typical pattern for a boy and then a lively, intelligent, enterprising, arrogant and vain young man of the wealthy bourgeoisie of the city. After gaining a legal degree, perhaps at the University of Bologna, aged between 28 and 32, he probably practiced as an attorney or notary of the Municipality of Todi, dealing with inheritance disputes and property transfers.
The house where Jacopone was born and lived with his family until his conversion was probably in the area between the church of San Carlo and the fountains of Scannabecco (photo by Armando Pezzarossa). Currently this area is occupied by the 16th-century Palazzo Pongelli.
THE YEARS OF CONVERSION
Around the age of 35 Jacopone began to detest his career in the Municipality: he witnessed scenes of family quarrels and property disputes that disgusted him. His craving for luxury caused tension between his family finances and harmony. He was not happy with himself, nor with his work, his family, or the society in which he lived. He went through a very profound crisis of identity and morals, perhaps bordering on a real stress disorder. At 38 he made the drastic decision to join the Franciscan Third Order. He renounced his share of the family inheritance and embraced the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the rules of the Order, beginning to wander around Todi as a poor man. Among the people of Todi there were, as usual, those who pretended not to know him, those who criticized him, those who had compassion for him and some who understood him and shared his spirit.
Palazzo del Popolo on the right andPalazzo del Capitano del Popolo on the left.
THE YEARS AS A FRANCISCAN TERTIARY AND ITINERANT MISSIONARY
Between the ages of about 38 and 48, dressed in the habit of the Franciscan tertiaries (called “bizocone”), Jacopone devoted himself to penance and intense prayer. He began to write poems in the form of laude, so that the illiterate poor of his time could learn and sing them easily. This was the invention of prayer as poetry and song in the vernacular: a profound revolution in the spirituality of ordinary people, who were used to listening to prayers in Latin but understanding nothing.
He began travelling around the countryside and towns of Central Italy as a missionary. He preached repentance and sang of the love of Christ. In his heart there alternated remorse for past mistakes, requests for help from God and the Virgin Mary, to whom he was deeply devoted and moments of jubilation, when he realized the amazing progress of his spiritual life.
Image of Jacopone with the Friar Minor’s tunic painted by Paolo Uccello for the Duomo di Prato n the second half of the 15th century
photo by Marcello Castrichini
THE YEARS AS A FRIAR IN THE CONVENT OF SAN FORTUNATO
At about 48 years of age, Jacopone was admitted as a friar in the Franciscan convent of San Fortunato.
While carrying out the humblest duties for the community of friars, he devoted most of his time to prayer, meditation, study of the Scriptures and poetry. In this, the most productive period of his life, Jacopone perfected his commitment as a poet and mystic, establishing himself as one of the greatest representatives of the culture and spirituality of his time. He remained in the convent of San Fortunato until the age of about 66.
THE DRAMATIC YEARS OF EXCOMMUNICATION AND IMPRISONMENT
Jacopone was one of the inspirational leaders of the Franciscan ‘Spirituals’, who wanted to respect absolutely St. Francis’ rule of poverty. This contrasted with the ‘Conventuals’ who, with the approval of the Church, allowed some derogation from that rule. When Pope Celestine V (a friend of the Spirituals) was replaced by Boniface VIII at the end of 1294, Jacopone contested the election of the new Pope, accusing him of unworthiness.
He also wrote sorrowful lauds, lamenting the state to which the Church was reduced. Jacopone took refuge with the Colonna cardinals, rivals of Boniface VIII, in their castle of Palestrina. When Boniface sent an army to destroy the castle, Jacopone was excommunicated and imprisoned, at the age of about 68, in the underground prison of the convent of San Fortunato. He remained there for five very hard years, chained by his wrists and ankles, in darkness, cold and damp, among mice and cockroaches and the stench of a latrine drain, living on bread and onions…
… … But these seven years of deprivation and suffering are also the zenith of Jacopone’s mystical journey. He responded to his condemnation with definitive self-renunciation, totally identifying himself with the crucified God. In this harsh trial Jacopone remained firm in the Faith and abandoned all resentment. He was in chains, but in the deepest reality of his spirit, he had never been so free!
Church of San Fortunato
In Jacopone’s time this beautiful church did not exist: it was built in the century following his death. In his time a much less grandiose church and convent existed here and underneath the convent was the prison where Jacopone was held in chains for five years.
THE FINAL YEARS IN THE CLARISSE CONVENT IN COLLAZZONE
When Boniface VIII died his successor, Benedict XI, granted Jacopone absolution from excommunication and freed him from captivity, aged about 73. Released from prison and living in the small convent of the Clarisse (Poor Clares) in Collazzone, he was able to express the joy of mystical ecstasy in verses whose beauty has never been equaled in religious poetry. He died peacefully on Christmas Eve 1306, assisted by his friend, Blessed Giovanni della Verna.