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Jacopone da Todi


Franciscan mystic and poet; b. Todi, Umbria, c. 1230; d. c. 1306. The available data on Jacopone's life are unreliable. He did pursue legal studies, probably at the University of Bologna, and exercised the profession of notary and legal procurator in Todi, the town of his birth. The hagiographic tradition surrounding him speaks of the tragic death of his wife, Vanna di Bernardino di Guidone, as the result of her fall from a balcony in a mansion where she was attending a party. Jacopone, who wasn't at the party, discovered his wife wearing a penitential hair shirt under her robes. This traumatic event provoked a psychological and spiritual crisis in Jacopone.

For some ten years (12681278), he lived the life of a wandering penitent or "bizzocone," as he refers to himself in one of his lauds. In 1278, he was admitted to the Order of the Friars Minor. He remained a lay brother and quickly became a zealous member of the Spiritual party. Regarded by many as its poet, he expounded the radical views of the franciscan spirituals and excoriated what he saw as the laxity of the Community faction for their mitigation of the early Franciscan ideal of total poverty.

In 1294, at the beginning of the pontificate of celestine v, he addressed one of his lauds to the former hermit warning him of the perils of his office. A few months after his election Celestine resigned and Jacopone, among others, highly suspected that his successor, boni face viii, had a hand in his demise. Boniface represented everything that Jacopone, who had known him in his youth, abhorred. Because of his intrigues and corruption, he conceived him, in one of his lauds, as "a new Lucifer on the papal throne." Along with the Colonna Cardinals and others opponents of Boniface, Jacopone, in May 1297, signed the Longhezzo Manifesto declaring Boniface's election illegitimate. Boniface retaliated by declaring the rebels excommunicated and defeating them in a battle over the town of Palestrina in 1298. Jacopone was tried and jailed in the cellar of a friary, possibly in Todi. During his five years imprisonment, Jacopone softened his view on Boniface and, in one of his lauds, begged him to at least to be absolved from his excommunication if not released from his imprisonment.

Jacopone had to wait for the election of benedict xi in 1303 before being granted freedom and readmitted to communion in the church. Aged and tired, he lived out his last years in the convent of S. Lorenzo of Colazzone, near a Poor Clare monastery, between Perugia and Todi, where he died on Christmas night in 1306. Popularly venerated as "Blessed" and "Saint," he is inscribed in the Franciscan martyrology. His cult, however, has never been officially confirmed by the Church.

Jacopone was the most famous and prolific known writer of the medieval literary genre known as the lauda. These lauda were written in the Umbrian dialect and often in ballad form. They were meant to stir up popular penitential devotion. Contemporary criticism maintains that ninety or so of Jacopone's lauds are authentic. Interweaving poetry, politics, and mysticism, they astonish in their range and complexity of tone and message. For Jacopone, life "is an unremitting battle" and in his laudarium he wages a fierce assault on the "counterfeit" self, the compromises and hypocrisy that he perceives in himself, in the nascent Franciscan brotherhood, and in the church leaders of his time. Jacopone is considered the most powerful religious poet in Italy before Dante's time. He is among the first to express God's presence in poetic form and a vernacular one at that. Jacopone's mysticism belongs in the fool of God tradition, but his lauds reveal an extensive theological culture, especially of the writings of St. Bonaventure. It is in singing the supremacy of sacred over profane love that his poetry is the most enchanting. "Totally annihilated," the soul, under Jacopone's pen, soars to the highest stages of divine union, "one without division." In the boldness with which he expresses his mystical experience, he ranks among the greatest medieval mystics, alongside angela of foligno, his contemporary and a twin soul, the Beguines, hadewijch, Marguerite Porete, and mechthild of magdeburg.

Aside from his lauds, Jacopone is also credited with a mystical tract entitled Tractatus utilissimus and various Dicta, or sayings. Even if it resembles in some respects Jacopone's widely acclaimed "Donna del Paradiso," his authorship of the Stabat Mater, one of the most famous Christian hymns, still has not been fully established.

Bibliography: f. mancini, ed., Laude (Bari 1974). e. memestÒ, Atti del Convegno Storico Iacoponico (Florence 1981). s. and e. hughes, Jacoponi da Todi, The Lauds (New York 1982). e. underhill, Jacopone da Todi: Poet and Mystic, 12281306 (London 1919). g. t. peck, The Fool of GodJacopone da Todi (Tuscaloosa, AL 1980). b. mcginn, The Flowering of Mysticism: Men and Women in the New Mysticism (12001350), vol. III of the Presence of God: A History of Western Mysticism (New York, 1998), 125131. v. l. katainen, "Jacopone da Todi, Poet and Mystic: A Review of the History of Criticism," Mystics Quarterly 22 (1996): 4657.

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