The life of Jacopone da Todi was eventful and not a little controversial, but he ended up a “fool for Christ”, and a leading figure in the 13th-century Franciscan school of Italian religious poets.
Jacopo was his baptismal name. He was one of the Benedetti, a prominent family of Todi, in Umbria, the homeland of St. Francis of Assisi. Having studied law at Bologna, he commenced to practice in his native city. Around 1267 he married one Vanna di Guidone, a young woman whose soul matched her mind in beauty. Up to this time, Attorney Jacopo had himself shown no signs of either great virtue or great piety. Vanna was to become the catalyst in his spiritual development.
The Benedetti couple had been married scarcely a year when death divided them. During a celebration, a balcony collapsed on which Vanna was standing with other guests. She, and she alone, was killed in the fall. Jacopo, finding, it is said, that his dear deceased wife was at her death wearing a hairshirt, presumably as a penance for his own sins, was beside himself with grief. He ceased his law practice, donned the habit of a Franciscan tertiary, and for ten years lived a penitential life, doing his best to invite the ridicule and mockery of his fellow townsmen. The children of Todi dubbed him “Jacopone” (“Stupid Jacopo”), and the name stuck.
After the decade had passed, Jacopone asked to be admitted as a simple lay brother to the Franciscan convent of San Fortunato at Todi. Although the Todi Franciscans hesitated because of his eccentricities, they finally did receive him. As a religious, his sense of balance gradually returned, and he began to develop his skill as a writer of laudi, popular psalmlike poems and songs of a devout and mystical character, composed in the Umbrian dialect. At least 200 of these came from the pen of this “second David”. Set to music, they were among the best-loved hymns of the Umbrian region.
The period of Fra Jacopone’s life as a friar was one of great stress within the Franciscan Order, and Benedetti was inevitably drawn into the controversy that arose. His fellow friars of San Fortunato were in favor of toning down their order’s stress on poverty. Jacopone, on the other hand, supported the cause of the “Spirituals” among the Franciscans, who wanted to return to St. Francis’ own strict standards of religious poverty. In 1294 he joined other Spirituals in petitioning Pope St. Celestine V for permission to live apart from the rest of the order so that they could practice the more rigid rule. But Celestine resigned the papacy before action was taken and was succeeded by Pope Boniface VIII, who opposed the more rigorous views. During the struggle that followed, Jacopone publicized the Spirituals’ cause by writing verses highly critical of their opponents, the Pope included. When two brother-cardinals, the Colonnas, sided with the Spirituals and with the king of France against Pope Boniface, and Fra Jacopone gave his support to the Colonnas, politics and even war entered upon the scene. After the papal troops defeated the Colonnas, the Pope excommunicated and jailed Jacopone. He spent his prison time writing further songs, some exquisite, others harshly polemical. Jacopone was absolved and released only five years later, when Pope Boniface had died. Three years after that the hymn writer died at a convent of Franciscan nuns. It was Christmas Day.
Fra Jacopone is popularly called “Blessed” and is listed in the Franciscan calendar of blesseds and saints, although he has never been formally beatified. His laudi, written in Italian, are naturally not widely known outside his own homeland. He has been considered the author, however, of two well-known Latin hymns, the Stabat Mater Dolorosa (of Mary at Jesus’ death), and the matching Stabat Mater Speciosa (of Mary at Jesus’ birth).
The “Speciosa” goes: “At the crib her joy displaying / Knelt the lovely Mother praying /Close to Jesus from the start.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara