His life was one full of riches and poverty, divided between madness and poetry but filled with an unwavering faith and an intransigence unpopular among the clergy of his era. We are talking about Jacopone of Todi, born Benedetti, whose remains rest in the charming Umbrian city of Todi.
Between history and legend: the tale of a conversion.
Jacopo was born in Todi around 1230 (he named himself Jacopone, Crazy Jim, after converting to mortify himself as much as possible). He belonged to a noble family, who forced him to study law. His studies opened the door to a shining notary career in his hometown.
His life continued between fun and pleasure, like that of many young people belonging to wealthy families. In 1267, Jacopone married a noble woman, who, as legend would have it, was the inadvertent cause of the Blessed Jacopone’s change of lifestyle.
It is said that, about one year after the wedding, Jacopone’s wife attended an elegant party in an aristocratic mansion in Todi when the floor gave way, causing her death. When the body was identified, Jacopone noticed that the woman was wearing a sackcloth under her garments as a form of penance.
The incident upset him so much that, from that moment onwards, his life was never to be the same. Legends aside, it is more likely that the sudden death of his wife made him reflect on the transience of life and the transitory nature of happiness and wealth, thus sparking a kind of “existential crisis”.
Regardless of what actually happened, the fact remains that the rich notary abandoned work and friends and gave away all his possessions to the poor like a true follower of Saint Francis.
In 1278, after living in strict austerity, he begged to be admitted to the order of the minor Friars of Saint Francis of Assisi, where he became a friar. Soon came the first misunderstandings between the faction of the conventuals, backed by Pope Boniface VIII, who wanted to lessen the strict rules of Saint Francis, and the spirituals (Hacopone among them) who wanted to maintain the firm message of the order.
After several hardships which we will not list here today, Pope Boniface excommunicated Jacopone, condemning him to a life sentence within convent walls.
In the jubilee year of 1300, the friar, exhausted due to old age and deprivation, asked the Pope for forgiveness. The Pope, knowing of his frivolous past, denied him this favour. In 1303, the next Pope finally agreed to pardon Jacopone, who died in 1306, after being seriously ill. His remains can be found in the church of San Fortunato in Todi, his hometown.
Madman, fervent believer or poet?
There are many tales about the conversion of Jacopone of Todi. All stories and legends have in common the depiction of the Blessed as a frantic man, who brought the search for penance and mortification to the next level.
It is said that he appeared at an important event on all fours, wearing a saddle for donkeys. He also came to his brother’s wedding naked, covered in grease and feathers.
These episodes definitely made the life of Jacopone more “colourful”, but, on the other hand, he was extremely strict with his religious side. He barely survived between prayer and deprivation, alienated by the prelates of his time, who were more used to revelry than to attending mass.
Apart from this, it is worth mentioning that Jacopone of Todi was considered as one of the most important Italian poets of the Middle Ages. He was the author of many religious lauds, amongst the most famous in Italian literature. His work fully reflects a religious experience based on profound self-analysis, showing his double nature as a believer and a sinner.
You can perceive the contrast between body and mind and life and death in the poet’s works. His vision was one of a painful life and a deep understanding of human misery, a misery he was perfectly and personally aware of.