Catholic Encyclopedia – Jacopone da Todi

Blessed Jacopone da TodiArticle

(Properly called Jacopo Benedicti or Benedetti)

Franciscan poet, born at Todi in the first half of the thirteenth century; died at Collazzone about 1306. Very little is known with certainty about the life of this extraordinary man. Although the oldest lives go back only to the fifteenth century, yet a few earlier records exist. The oldest and most authentic document we have is Jacopone’s signature to the manifesto of Cardinals Jacopo and Pietro Colonna against Boniface VIII, dated Lunghezza (between Rome and Tivoli), 10 May 1297. Angelo Clareno in his “Chronica septem Tribulationum”, written about 1323, mentions Jacobus Tudertus among those spiritual friars who, in 1294, sent a deputation to Celestine V, to ask permission to live separate from the other friars and observe the Franciscan Rule in its perfection — a request which was granted. The next reference to the poet is found in Alvarus Pelagius’s “De Planctu Ecclesiae”, written principally in 1330; he quotes two of Jacopone’s sayings, and calls him a perfect Friar Minor. This passage occurs also in “Chronica XXIV generalium”, which was compiled in great part before 1369 and completed in 1374. About 1335 the “Catalogus sanctorum Fratrum Minorum” uses even more emphatic words of praise. Some further details about Jacopone are given by Bartholomew of Pisa in 1385. It may be taken for granted that all these writers knew nothing of the detailed lives of Jacopone which appear in the fifteenth century. The “Chronica XXIV generalium” and Bartholomew of Pisa would certainly have inserted one or other, as they were wont to do in other cases. Those lives can all be reduced to one, inserted in the chronicle commonly called “Franceschina”, attributed to Jacopo Oddi, O.F.M. (d. 1488; see bibliography). The historical value of this and similar lives has been recently denied by Giulio Bertoni (“La Leggenda Jacoponica” in “Fanfulla della Domenica”, Rome, 10 June, 1906), on the ground that this legend has too many points of resemblance with the “Legends of St. Francis”. But these resemblances between the lives of the saints have already become a commonplace, and in this case are not to be taken seriously. On the other hand, Bertoni is right in rejecting the description of the circumstances in which each poem of Jacopone was written. The part of his life is rather to be considered as a commentary on the poems of Jacopone. As to the real sources of his life, the author himself, in the Tobler version (see bibliography), points out that he has collected the reminiscences and traditions concerning Jacopone still extant among the older friars in the Umbrian converts of his epoch.

With the help of the aforesaid sources and of some allusions in Jacopone’s poems, we can gather the following facts of his life. Born at Todi (1228?), of the noble family of Benedetti, Jacopone took up the study of law — probably at Bologna, as might be inferred from the fact that this was the most famous school of law at the time, and from the manner in which he speaks of Bologna in the poem “Senno me pare e cortesia”. On returning home, he exercised — the legends say with some avarice — the profession of an advocate (procuratore). In course of time (1267?) he married a noblewoman, who in one version of the legend is called Vanna, daughter of Bernardino, Count of Collemedio (Coldimezzo near Todi) (La Verna, IV, 1906, 386). It was the great piety and the tragical death of his young spouse that brought about an entire change in Jacopone. A great feast was being celebrated at Todi — probably in 1268. Among the onlookers was Jacopone’s wife in rich array. Suddenly the raised platform from which she was witnessing the spectacle gave way, crushing her fatally. When the poet reached her side Vanna was already dying; on opening her dress, he found a hair cloth beneath the splendid robes. The terrible blow caused by his wife’s death, together with the evidence of her secret penance for his sins, made such an impression on Jacopone that for many years he seemed to be no longer himself. Abandoning his profession, and wearing the habit of a Franciscan Tertiary (bizochone), he led a roaming life for a full decade (see the poem “Que farai fra Jacopone” in Modio, 73). During this period he was the terror of his friends and relations, and became a sort of Christian Diogenes. It was then probably that the former proud doctor of law, Jacopo dei Benedetti, mocked and scoffed at by the boys in the streets of Todi, received the nickname of Jacopone. Once, saddled and bridled like an ass, he crawled on all fours in the public square of Todi; on another occasion, to the great confusion of his family, he appeared at a wedding in his brother’s house, tarred and feathered from top to toe. When asked by a citizen to carry home a pair of capons for him, Jacopone brought them to the man’s family tomb, saying that this was his true house. Jacopone’s folly was however the folly of the Cross, as he says:

Senno me pare e cortesia
Empazir per lo bel Messia.
(A wise and courteous choice he’d make
Who’d be a fool for the dear Lord’s sake.)

About 1278 he sought admission into the Order of Friars Minor at his native town, a request which after some difficulty was granted. Out of humility he chose to be a lay brother. In the great convent of S. Fortunato, at Todi, the so-called party of the “Community” of the Franciscan Order certainly prevailed. This party was strongly opposed to that of the more zealous friars, called the “Spirituals”. The sympathies of Jacopone were with the latter. Boniface VIII, who had under unusual circumstances succeeded Celestine V, the friend of Spirituals, having recalled all privileges granted by his predecessor and thus subjected anew the zealous friars to their regular superiors, and having engaged in a struggle with the two Cardinals Colonna, Jacopone took sides with these two protectors of the Spirituals against the pope. Perhaps there were also personal reasons for enmity between Boniface and the poet, dating from the time when the former, then a young man (1260), obtained an ecclesiastical benefice at Todi, where his uncle Peter was bishop from 1252 to 1276. Palestrina, the stronghold of the Colonnas, having been taken in 1298 by the papal troops, Jacopone was imprisoned in the fortress above the town, known today as Castel San Pietro. Some of Jacopone’s most touching, and also most aggressive, poems were composed in this dungeon. Not even in the great Jubilee of 1300 did Jacopone obtain pardon, the Colonnas and their partisans having been excluded from the Jubilee by a special Bull. Boniface VIII was captured at Anagni on 7 September 1303, and upon his death, which occured shortly afterwards (11 October), Jacopone was set at liberty. Now an old man, broken down, tried and purified by hardships, he withdrew first to Pantanelli, a hermitage on the Tiber, three hours distant from Orvieto, then to Collazzone, a small town situated on a hill between Perugia and Todi. There is no record of a Franciscan monastery at that place, but there was a Poor Clare Convent, S. Lorenzo, served as was usual by Franciscan Friars. It was here that Jacopone died on 25 December 1306, just at the moment when the priest was intoning the Gloria in Excelsis Deo at the midnight Mass; his last moments were consoled by the presence of his faithful friend, Blessed John of La Verna, from whom he had especially desired to receive the Last Sacraments, and who really arrived just before the poet’s death.

His body was brought to Todi and buried in the church of the Poor Clares of Montecristo (Tobler’s version of the legend) or Montesanto (Bartholomew of Pisa, Marianus Florentinus), outside the walls of Todi. In 1433 it was discovered in Montecristo and removed to the Franciscan church of S. Fortunato inside the town, where his tomb is still to be seen, embellished by Bishop Cesi in 1596 and adorned by a beautiful inscription: “Ossa. Beati Jacoponi. De Benedictis. Tudertini. Fratris Ordinis Minorum. Qui stultus propter Christum. Nova mundum arte delusit. Et caelum rapuit. Obdormivit in Domino. Die XXV Martii. An. Dom. MCCXCVI. Ang. Caes. Episc. Tudert. Hic collocavit ann. MDXCVI.” “Here lie the bones of Blessed Jacopone dei Benedetti da Todi, Friar Minor, who, having gone mad with love of Christ, by a new artifice deceived the world and took Heaven by violence … (translation of Knox Little.) The date, 25 March 1296, is however obviously erroneous. Jacopone is often called blessed, and has been considered a “blessed” or a “saint”, in the technical sense of the words, by different authors. As a matter of fact, Jacopone has not been beatified or canonized by the Church, although various efforts have been made in this direction — for example, by the municipal council of Todi in 1628, and by the chapter of the cathedral of Todi in 1676. Lastly, in the years 1868 and 1869 the postulator of the causes of saints of the Friars Minor collected call the documents proving the cultus ab immemorabili paid to Jacopone, in order to obtain its official confirmation [see “Tudertina Confirmationis Cultus ab immemorabili tempore praestiti Jacobo a Tuderto Ord. Min. S. Francisci, Beato Jacopone vulgo nuncupato (Rome, 1869), in archives of the postulator general O.F.M.]. The chief obstacle to the confirmation of the cultus lies in the part Jacopone took against Boniface VIII and the satires he wrote against this much calumniated pope.

The iconography of Jacopone is not very rich. In the cathedral of Prato is a beautiful fifteenth-century fresco, often reproduced. The fourteenth-century Codex Strozzi 174 at the Laurentian Library, Florence, contains a miniature of the poet; another miniature (certainly conventional) is found in the “Franceschina” of the Portiuncula. The church of S. Fortunato of Todi is adorned by two pictures of Jacopone — one over his tomb (1596), another in a side chapel together with the portraits of four other saints (seventeenth century). Jacopone was believed to have died not so much from bodily ailment as from the excess of Divine love, which at last broke his heart (Modio, preface). The chief interest attaching to Jacopone is derived from his literary works. Of his poems, written almost all in his native Umbrian dialect, seven early editions exist but no modern critical one.

The first is printed at Florence, 1490. It is almost a critical edition and contains 102 Italian pieces. The other editions are:

Brescia, 1495, containing (in addition to compositions of other poets) 122 poems, of which seven are in Latin;

Venice, 1514 — 139 songs;

Venice, 1556 — repetition of the preceding;

Rome, 1558 — by Modio, with life of Jacopone in the preface, best edition after that of 1490, which it follows in the number of poems (102);

Naples, 1615 — reprint of the Roman edition with slight alterations;

Venice, 1617 — by Francesco Tresatti, O.F.M. — the best known by least critical edition, containing 211 copiously annotated songs, many of which certainly do not belong to Jacopone.

Alessandro de Mortara published a few hitherto unedited poems of Jacopone (Lucca, 1819). Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, Ozanam revived general interest in Jacopone by his “Poètes franciscains”. Since then many have written on the subject and expressed their appreciation of these medieval songs. Jacopone was certainly a true poet, so much so that some of his productions, as “In foco l’amor mi mise” and “Amor di caritate”, have been attributed to St. Francis himself. Both are at the head of Umbrian poets. Jacopone’s rhymes, simple, at times even rough in expression, but profound and tender in sentiment, were less adapted to the cultured classes than the “Divina Commedia” of Dante, but were sung with enthusiasm by the people. How much Jacopone’s poetry was appreciated down to the seventeenth century is shown by the numberless manuscripts which contain them, often in the particular dialect of the region where they were written, and by the fact that almost every old Italian spiritual song has been ascribed to him. These laudi were especially in use among the so-called Laudesi and the Flagellants, who sang them in the towns, along the roads, in their confraternities, and in sacred dramatical representations. Even the “Stabat Mater Dolorosa”, the authorship of which is still attributed to Jacopone with greater probability than to any other competitor (Gihr), was sung in the same way.

Jacopone’s prose works are much less generally known than his poems. They consist mainly of small spiritual treatises, somewhat resembling the well-known golden saying of Blessed Giles, but they are more connected. The Latin text of these may be found in part in Bartholomew of Pisa and in many manuscripts. An Italian version, translated from Bartholomew of Pisa, is found in the “Franceschina” and some other versions of the life of Jacopone. Another fifteenth century Italian version, ascribed to Feo Belcari, together with the treatises of Ugo Panciera at Venice; ed. Parenti at Modena in 1832; and finally in “Prose di Feo Belcari edite ed inedite”, III (Rome, 1843), by Gigli; cf. E. Böhmer in “Romanische Studien”, I (Halle, 1871), 123-32. Finke suspects that a treatise in the manuscript J 491, no. 799, in the National Archives of Paris, and directed to the King of France by “Illiteratus Jacob”, belongs to Jacopone.

MLA Citation

  • Livarius Oliger. “Jacopone da Todi”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. CatholicSaints.Info. 8 March 2015. Web. 20 August 2017. <>