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Jacopone da Todi: mystic, ascetic and poet

January 10, 2012

The only people likely to know of Jacopone da Todi are those who study religious poetry, or perhaps the history of the early days of the Franciscan Order.  Of course, since you are reading this article, you will now become a member of this elite group.  Now there are many challenges to fully understanding this man, but what scholars do know about him comes from references to him in early documents, his poems, and general knowledge of both Italy and the state of the Franciscan order in the thirteenth century.  Another source, the legendary history that surrounds him, must be taken with a grain of salt, as it cannot be verified.  In the end, his poems might be the most revealing informant.

Paolo Uccello’s painting, “The Blessed Jacopone da Todi”

Jacopone da Todi was born around 1230 in Todi, in the province of Perugia in the Italian region of Umbria.  First, one needs to realize just how many exciting things were going on during his lifetime.  Not only was he born right after the death of St. Francis of Assisi, but St. Clare still had twenty years of life to go.  Francis and Clare set out to radically change the lifestyles of those who wished to enter the brotherhood or a sisterhood by calling for greater asceticism.  Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, a Crusader who crowned himself king of Jerusalem, was in the last years of his reign.   St. Louis, a.k.a. King Louis IX of France, and the only canonized monarch of France, was on the throne.  Also, he lived through the careers of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure, both famous philosophers and theologians.  And if that’s not amazing enough- he lived through the short papacy of Celestine V, who is noteworthy for having abdicated the papacy in a desire for a more humble and pure life.

Jacopone lived through a time in the Catholic church when asceticism – a denial of worldly pleasure in order to pursue spiritual goals – was becoming popular.  Until he was about forty years of age, Jacopone worked as a lawyer and lived an intellectual and worldly life.  He dressed well, acquired much wealth, and threw large parties.  He is said to have undergone a dramatic change in middle life, and some attribute it to the death of his wife.  She was killed when part of the floor of his house collapsed during a dance.  After her death, he discovered that she had been wearing a haircloth in order to mortify her flesh, a form of penance for his sins.  Apparently, this made such a deep impression upon him that he went to live as a wandering hermit until he entered the Franciscan order as a lay-brother in 1278.  By the time he joined the Fransiscans, two different factions had arisen.  One side wanted more leniency in the strict ascetic rules as well as less mysticism, while the other preached absolute poverty and penitence in the form of flagellation.  (If you’ve seen The DaVinci Code, recall the personal practices of Paul Bettany’s character, the albino monk.)  Jacopone was on the side of the stricter Franciscans who became known as the Spirituals.

This sympathy is revealed in Jacopone’s poetry:  an urbane and surprisingly modern man, who combines satire, penitence, philosophy, and mysticism.  Known as laudi, the poems are written in praise of the Lord and especially extol the value of poverty, but they also bear witness to the troubled political state of northern Italy at this time.  For example, the story told in the text of Lauda per la Nativita del Signore, while focusing on the glory of God and the angels, it also highlights the poverty of the child Jesus and his mother Mary.  Clearly, if God chose this life for his son, this life is the way for all people.

Jacopone is said to have died on December 25, 1306 in the small town of Collazzone.  For many years, it was not clear where he had been buried, but in 1596 his body was found and moved to the Franciscan church of St. Fortunato within the city walls of Todi.  His crypt is adorned with an inscription referring to him as the ‘blessed Jacopone.’  In fact, Jacopone was never beatified or canonized by the Catholic Church.  Although there have been efforts to have him formally beatified, the chief obstacle to confirmation is the satires that he wrote about Pope Boniface VIII, who incidentally had lived his early life in Todi… around the same time as Jacopone.  Clearly, perhaps early rivalry in the legal field helped to fuel their disagreement about the direction of the Catholic faith.  Regardless of the status, or lack of status, granted to him by the Vatican, Jacopone da Todi’s poetry has been set to music not only by Ottorino Respighi, as featured on our VOX 3 concert, but also Josquin des Prez, Giovanni Palestrina, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Gioacchino Rossini and Antonín Dvořák.

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