Work in Progress

My work in progress (working title: Lady of the Seven Suns) follows the life of Giacoma dei Settesoli, a Roman noblewoman who was one of Saint Francis’s earliest followers.

When San Francesco d’Assisi (Saint Francis) died in the year 1226, he spent his last days and hours surrounded by the men who had been his earliest followers — those who joined him early in his radical quest to live a gospel life, long before there was any official acceptance or general understanding of what he was trying to do.

Those men included Brother Bernardo, a friend from Francesco’s youth and the first to join him; Brother Leo, Francesco’s traveling companion and confessor; Brother Angelo, the son of a knight from Assisi; Brother Rufino, a shy and self-effacing nobleman who was a kinsman of Santa Chiara (Saint Clare); Brother Egidio (Brother Giles), who would also be present at the death of Santa Chiara 27 years later; Brother Masseo, who nursed the ailing Francesco with great devotion; and Brother Elias, the brilliant but controversial brother whose turbulent tenure as Minister General of the Franciscan Order exacerbated a painful rift between two factions of friars, and who ended his life estranged from the Order and just barely reconciled with the church.

All of these men and more, and one woman: Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli, who Francesco called “Brother Giacoma.”

A book reviewer of my acquaintance once proposed five simple questions to define a book’s main character. Here are my answers for Lady/Brother Giacoma.

17th century fresco of Giacoma in the Basilica of Saint Francis, Assisi

1. What is the name of your character? Is she fictional or a historical person?

Lady Giacoma dei Settesoli (also sometimes called Jacopa or Jacoba) was a historical person, though relatively little is known about her life. Most of what we know comes from biographical works about San Francesco, but she was a wealthy noblewoman, born into the Normanni family and married into the powerful Frangipani family, so it has also been possible to learn something about her position in Rome through historical sources that don’t pertain primarily to the saint. Much later, Giacoma was either beatified or sainted (there’s some ambiguity). Her feast day is celebrated on February 8.

2. When and where is the story set?

It begins in Rome in the year 1210, just before Francesco found his religious calling, and covers nearly three decades of Giacoma’s life. While some of the book takes place in and around Rome, other sections are set in Assisi.

3. What should we know about her?

Francesco once told a companion that there were only two women in the world whose faces he would recognize, as he otherwise kept his eyes averted from women. Those two women were Chiara (Saint Clare) and Giacoma. Descriptions of Giacoma in the early works about Francesco stress her energy, her strength of character, her devotion to Francesco, her tirelessness in performing good works. In the Italian sources the words “virile” and “forza” appear with almost alarming frequency, and they mean exactly what you’d expect them to mean. Francesco’s biographers say she “knew how to surmount every obstacle.” They speak of her generosity and her sense of justice, and they tell us that Francesco was “astonished by her outspoken manner, her sense of humor and her leadership qualities (traits then thought more suitable for a man).”

One summary that struck me was that Chiara is the “dolcezza” (sweetness) in Francesco’s life, and Giacoma the “forza” (strength). Giacoma is able to provide Francesco and his brothers with considerable material support, but to my mind, the one thing overriding all others is that in this period where platonic friendships between men and women were always suspect, these two great souls are devoted and lifelong friends. Francesco specifically requests her presence at his death. Giacoma has been described as the first Franciscan tertiary; one historian calls her the “friend, mamma, and sister to Francesco and to his brothers.” The combination of wealth and widowhood give her considerable power and independence, but the way she uses that power is all her own.

4. What is the main conflict? What messes up her life?

Two disasters change the direction of Giacoma’s life. First, the death of her beloved husband Graziano when she is a young woman devastates her, as well as leaving her with the sole responsibility for her two small sons, a huge fortune, and a long-running property lawsuit against the papacy. Graziano must have realized what an extraordinary woman he had married, because it would have been more usual to involve some of his male relatives in these matters, but he leaves everything up to Giacoma.

The second disaster, later in her life, is the rancorous rift that develops in the Franciscan order even before Francesco’s death. This conflict is extremely painful for her, as she has deep friendships with brothers on both sides of the divide.

But more than that, I see Giacoma’s story as that of a woman who wants to leave the world behind and enter a contemplative life, but who cannot do so because of her substantial responsibilities, and possibly also because of her vigorous and active nature. So she spends her life searching for a balance. She is utterly devoted to “Il Poverello,” the little poor man who considers himself wed to Lady Poverty and who burns to live a Christlike life free of all possessions. Yet at the same time she is one of the wealthiest and most influential women in Rome, part of a family that aspires to be the pope’s bankers.

If ever anyone had doubts about being part of the one percent, it would have been Giacoma.

5. What is the personal goal of the character?

She yearns to follow Francesco’s example, but a deep sense of duty makes her stay in the world, fiercely protective of her sons, the members of her household, and the beggars and supplicants she supports. She is no less protective of her chosen family — Francesco and his brothers. She will place herself between these people and disaster over and over again, no matter the cost.

Some say Giacoma is the figure in red.