Francis the Holy Jester

 “Oh, blissful birds, who are free and light, who live without weights, with no burdens to flatten you down, nor power to enslave you!”

(see reviews)   

Francis with birds, draw by Dario Fo                                     St. Francis preaching to the crowd, drawing by Dario Fo


Francis the Holy jester is a one man show, a play which relies solely on the considerable skill of a highly experienced performer and the imagination of  the audience. This is a show without props, without scenery and with the simplest of costume where the bond between the audience and the performer, and thus the material and subject is tangible, visceral. A whole range of characters from 13th Century Italy are brought to life before us: Popes and Cardinals, Dukes and Duchesses, soldiers on the battle field, traders in the marketplace and St Francis himself.

The play traces some events from the life of this most colourful and renowned of holy men, his desire to follow the word of God and to communicate this to the people for the good of mankind. It illustrates his commitment to his beliefs, his willingness to sacrifice his wellbeing and material comfort for the sake of his faith and his readiness to challenge hypocrisy wherever he sees it to expose the truth. This is a play that truly addresses some fundamental questions about how we express our faith and commitment to Christian principles. It has the timelessness of a great story masterfully told and is full of relevance for our lives today.    (Francis and the Pope, youtube)

Mario Pirovano, who has translated the Fo’s text into English, offers four episodes from St Francis life. One of these reflects and references an actual event when St Francis spoke to over 5,000 people in the main square in Bologna in August 1222. In this address, he used his whole being to express himself and communicate his message. The address was so powerful it caused warring factions to embrace lasting peace for the first time in many years. (Francis: The tirade, youtube)

The play is funny, uplifting and thought-provoking.

This is an entirely unique and living piece of theatre that interrogates and celebrates our humanity, has the power to reach all of us, theatre-lover or no, educated or non-educated, Christian or non-Christian. It will be of interest to historians, theologians, students and teachers of drama, those with a particular interest in the work of Dario Fo or with a general interest in Italian culture and literature, and to anyone who enjoys a good story lovingly crafted and expertly told with insight, vivacity and humour. (Francis and the wolf, youtube)

In 2009 Mario Pirovano has translated into English this text of Dario Fo, which was published by BeautifulBooks in London.

“…wonderful skill portraying the story with such conviction and staggering energy. Brilliantly executed.”  (see reviews)francis-holy-jester-pirovano-usa

                                                              New translation  “HOLY JESTER! THE SAINT FRANCIS FABLES”
Fo, Dario. Holy Jester! The Saint Francis Fables. Opus. Dec. 2017. 160p. tr. from Italian by Mario Pirovano. illus. by the author. ISBN 9781623160821. $38.95. F
“As Nobel Prize winner Fo explains in his introduction, in the Middle Ages, jesters were both loved (by the multitudes) and reviled (by those in power who suffered their barbs), and St. Francis of Assisi took the appellation Holy Jester as a matter of pride. After Francis’s death, the Vatican remade the rogue friar—famed for his gutsy, performative sermons—into a docile soul. Here, Fo uses a witty vernacular to resurrect the real Francis in fables that take him from his stone masonry days through his work for the church. In “Francis Meets the Wolf in Gubbio,” he’s determined to chat with a marauding wolf despite protests: “You’ve gone crazy again. First you embrace the lepers, then you strip off naked in the church and now you want to talk to wolves! Why don’t you just write the Wolf a letter instead?” What follows is a reflection on our responsibilities for our actions, with the wolf later helping Francis out of a scrape. VERDICT A bold, bright Francis for our time, with illustrations to match, and charmingly translated.”


“Francis the Holy Jester,” is the title of this show. It’s a narrative about the life of the saint of Assisi, which uses episodes from his life which are often unknown or overlooked. The stories are drawn from authentic texts and from ancient folk tales of the Umbrian countryside.

I had always thought the label ‘jester’, applied to Francis, was given him by someone of great imagination and subtle humour, and that it was a late nickname, dating perhaps from the 15th or 16th century, the poetic invention of historians and writers.

Rossellini, the master of neo-realism, entitled his wonderful film “Francis, God’s Jester”. The sequence that starts the film is itself an all-time masterpiece of the cinema. We see hundreds of friars, many of them very young, sitting talking in a great meadow. They are joking, playing and laughing … when it starts to rain. At first it is only a light shower, but bit by bit the shower becomes a downpour, with great gusts of wind driving the rain: a typical summer storm. The friars, especially the youngest, run about the meadow delighted: they wallow in the flood, rolling around among the hummocks; they lift up their habits to cover their heads, and fling their limbs about, just like a flock of birds … until they really resemble crazed crows who are just taking off from the earth; finally they disappear into the mist.

In the research I have done on St Francis I discovered, thanks to an absolutely fundamental text by Chiara Frugoni, that Francis had called himself a jester, declaring right from the start “I am God’s jester”. At the beginning of the 13th century to saddle yourself with the label of satirical clown was provocative and dangerous, perhaps even crazily suicidal. The jesters were much loved by the humble people, but hated and persecuted by the powerful, who condemned them to the pillory on every possible occasion. There were even edicts against “professional clowns”, the most famous of which was issued by Frederick the Second of Swabia in 1220. This law was entitled “Contra Joculatores Obloquentes”. ‘Obloquentes’ means slanderous, disgraceful, coarse, roguish … it’s all there in that word! Also in his edict Frederick incited the people to attack and beat any jesters found at markets or public feasts. And if the beating was excessive, so that one of them died … too bad! There was no problem, because jesters and their friends had no right to appeal to a court of justice, since they were considered unworthy to be classified as civilised human beings.

But Francis didn’t take the label of jester just to be provocative: he really was a jester! He knew all the tricks of the trade, all the techniques and skills. Witnesses to his harangues, which were the performances of a real jester, assure us that Francis possessed remarkable vocal powers, which allowed him to project his speech to an immense crowd, often more than 5000. And more than that, he expressed himself by moving his arms, his legs and his whole body: “he made his whole body speak” wrote a historian who attended one of his performances in front of pope Honorius III, the pope who gave him official permission to preach, and who, when he saw him almost dance in his presence, was simultaneously both entertained and moved. On other occasions he began dancing, transforming his sermon into a kind of musical entertainment, full of lively rhythms, with frequent references to stories of love and passion; all this so he could suddenly change tack and introduce the subject of the joyful love that we owe to our Creator.

St. Francis: praise to the water. Drawing by Dario FoSt. Francis: praise to the water. Drawing by Dario Fo

We know of numerous appearances that Francis made in hundreds of cities and townships throughout the Italian peninsular, from the Veneto to Liguria, in the whole of central Italy, and even in the far south. These harangues of his dealt with very diverse themes, but were almost always linked to the tragic conditions of the time which brought suffering, desperation and misery to the whole population of Italy.

But in what language did Francis express himself? Hundreds of dialects, all mutually incomprehensible, were spoken in Italy at that time (what Dante referred to as “the parlance of the people”). At the beginning of the 13th century there wasn’t the least suggestion of an Italian language. The only means of intercommunication was Latin, which only the upper classes knew. But Francis was a genuine jester and knew the composite, flexible language of the story tellers, which successfully drew on idioms from the whole peninsular, idioms full of onomatopoeic sounds, rich metaphors, and always backed up by gestures and by his extraordinary vocal gifts. It really was a ‘passe partout’ of communication!

We know that the disciples and friars who followed Francis in his pilgrimage took notes during all his appearances, indeed they often wrote a description of the whole performance. But of all these documents not one has come down to us! How so? Sadly, forty years after the Saint’s death, the new leader of the Franciscan Order, Bonaventura di Bagnoregio, ordered the destruction of all writings on the life of the saint, beginning with Tommaso di Celano’s Leggenda, which has been written at the command of pope Gregory IX, and together with that everything written or dictated by the saint. And in place of all these documents Bonaventura was appointed by the Chapter General in Narbonne to write the Leggenda Maggiore, which, as the new official biography, sterilised the original ideas of the Saint and presented them in a sickly sweet manner.

St Francis: the big town. Drawing by Dario Fo

But there is one extraordinary performance for which we have several valuable witnesses: it is the sermon Francis gave at Bologna in the summer of 1222. For some time Bologna had been at war with Imola and other cities of the Romagna; the conflict had involved dreadful massacres and wholesale slaughter; parts of the city were burned and townships literally destroyed. To make matters worse there was a civil war going on between the noble families of the city; factions had been formed that attacked each other with unprecedented ferocity. Invited by his followers in Emilia-Romagna, Francis arrived in Piazza Maggiore on the 15th August, and at sunset he got up on a kind of stage that had be thrown together for the occasion. The piazza was completely full: thousands of people from every corner of the province were there to hear him.

Francis began to speak and at once turned the situation on its head: everyone expected a severe reprimand for the terrible killings, instead here was the friar, like the great jester he was, giving them a gushing speech in praise of war, miming terrific battles, the encounters of cavalry and infantry, heads cut off and bodies torn apart. Above all the audience expected that he would express himself in a kind of faked-up local dialect with a few ramblings in Umbrian. Instead he immediately launched into a weird rigmarole in the Neapolitan dialect, which left his audience dumbfounded. You will understand for yourselves what he was doing with this unexpected trick.

There is no written document which records the text which I’m about to perform for you; I have daringly allowed myself to reconstruct it from the reports of witnesses and contemporary chronicles. I wasn’t there as your reporter, but you must trust me! And I’m sure that when the whole original text surfaces, as has happened with so many other writings of Francis’ times during the last century, you’ll be able to say: “I have heard it all already!” Dario Fo


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