Franciscan Saints, January 2018 — Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, Part 2

I am finally getting around to talking again about Bl. Ludovica Albertoni, as we once again observe her feast day on January 31. It has taken me a year because reading through the 1672 biography of her by Giovanni Pauolo has proved difficult, partly because of his style, which made it hard to extract even a few good nuggets of information from a mountain of fulsome Baroque rhetoric. Since an appreciation of this saint’s whole life would be impossible in the space of a post like this, I will confine myself to describing Ludovica’s Franciscan vocation and the nature of her spirituality, since Pauolo describes in detail her profession and life as a member of the Third Order.

"The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms" by Baciccio

“The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni Distributing Alms” by Baciccio

As I mentioned in my last post about Ludovica, there is astonishing little material on her from the first hundred or so years after her death in 1533. She is not mentioned even by the Franciscan chronicler Luke Wadding, who wrote in the early 1600’s, when the fame of her sanctity was spreading, and she was honored by the government of Rome (one of the few things we do know).

Pauolo’s work is the first full-scale biography of Ludovica. It does have the advantage of being written by one of her descendants, the procurator of her cause for canonization, who was also an Observant Franciscan friar at the monastery attached to the church in Rome where she is buried, San Francesco a Ripa.[1] Because he was a Franciscan, and in particular an Observant, with the emphasis that this branch of the order placed on poverty, austerity and apostolic preaching to the laity, he seems well placed to articulate her spirituality.

To recapitulate a little, Ludovica was born in 1473 to Stefano Albertoni and Lucrezia Tebaldi, both from noble Roman families. In her youth, she greatly desired to embrace the religious life, but in obedience to her parents, married Giacomo della Cetera, also of noble rank; we don’t know the date, but probably around 1590. Pauolo describes Giacomo as “a most noble youth and a noble Roman.”[2] They had three daughters, Camilla, Silvia and Antonina. In 1506, Giacomo became sick and died after a lingering illness, tended by his wife. Ludovica, then 33 years old, was left to raise their three daughters alone. She did so with the greatest care for their religious education. The oldest, Camilla, died while still young. But Ludovica found husbands for the two other girls in noble Roman families.

Ludovica as a Tertiary

The young widow was sought in marriage by many Roman noblemen, but instead she became a Franciscan Tertiary; it was probably a step she had contemplated for a long time. Though she had been baptized in the church of Santa Maria della Corte in the Piazza Campitelli, her parents’ parish church, she moved to the Trastevere with her husband when she married, and they attended his parish of San Francesco a Ripa together. Most likely her spiritual director, who Pauolo mentions, was a Franciscan of the monastery. It was here that she made her profession as a Tertiary:

Accompanied therefore by many venerable matrons, she went to the Church of San Francesco; on her knees there, she made a brief but fervent prayer, recommending herself in her heart to the Lord, in the presence of many ladies and noblemen, she was vested by the superior of that Sacred Convent with the habit of a Tertiary. And she received it with such joy that she clearly revealed to everyone the internal jubilation of her heart.[3]

The ladies mentioned here often appear in Ludovica’s company, but Pauolo doesn’t make their relationship to her clear. Were they perhaps members of a fraternity or Tertiary community? We know that they were her constant companions and were also at her side when she died.

In fact, even during her marriage, Ludovica had gathered many other young noble matrons around her and together they read books of devotion, engaged in spiritual conversations and the others listened to Ludovica’s exhortations. This was the period in which printed books were becoming more and more common. Ludovica and her companions could have read works like The Imitation of Christ in their own language (it was printed in Italian as early as 1502), and Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis and the Fioretti (both printed in one volume in 1503). Pauolo tells us that Ludovica read the life of St. Francis a number of times.

Even before entering the Third Order, Ludovica practiced great austerities; after she entered she increased them, fasting on bread and water for much of the week; on the days she received the Eucharist she took no other food. She gave up all her fine clothes, and did not wear any clothing but her habit when she went out in cold weather. She wore a hair shirt under her clothes and slept on a hard pallet, spending long nights in prayer.

Pauolo remarks wisely that while many people wrongly practice penance and austerity as an end, they are really only a means toward perfection. Some start out by wanting to counter hypocrisy, and end up practicing austerity for show, to gain a reputation for sanctity. On the other hand, Ludovica’s goal, he says, was “enjoying the embraces of her sweetest spouse Jesus.”[4] Her way of practicing mortification was also in line with Franciscan spirituality. When she slept on a pallet, “she meditated devoutly on the manger of our Lord Jesus Christ as a baby, who being king of glory, wanted to be at that tender age laying on the straw in a manger for animals.”[5] This was certainly the same spirit that motivated St. Francis in founding the Christmas crib. Love for the poverty of Christ would certainly have increased her love for the poor, which I spoke about in my first post.

Ludovica also had a great love for the Cross. Pauolo gives the prayer that she used to say prostrate before the crucifix. (It is so different from his own pompous style that I feel sure he got it from an early source). It makes clear her great love for the cross, which she had even before becoming a tertiary:

“Yes, in the past, I was not my own, thanks more to my husband, than to me, therefore I could not consecrate myself completely to you, my Jesus: now therefore, since I am living all on my own, I leave off being mine, in order to belong completely to you. And because widowhood is hated, I embrace it from my heart to live as a widow in the world, and to make myself the spouse of your most holy Cross. What else is widowhood, but a very fertile field of the holy Church? Yes, cultivate it, my God; to you belong the planting, to you the increase, to you the fruit. And widowhood is good, since it is the wise teacher of the Catholic faith, teacher of the most exemplary chastity. I could not, in order to obey my parents, preserve my virginity; I yearn at least to be a norm of chastity; You, Divine Master of most chaste counsel, instill my heart true precepts of chastity. Our flesh undermines us widows; you most simple spirit, guard my heart from the allurements of the senses; clear my mind from the darkness of the thoughts of the world; defend my soul from the proud assaults of the enemy Satan. I adore your cross, having nailed myself with loving feelings to that wood; since it is the wood of life, it gives life to the one who dies for it. I unite myself to you, my Jesus, since you are Master of chastity, I will be able to live securely from the allurements of the tempter spirit.”[6]

Like St. Francis, Ludovica frequently meditated on the Passion of Christ and desired to imitated him; often “prostrate before the image of the Saint, she would pray insistently to him to implore from God for her for that fervor of spirit that had inflamed his soul; that oneness with Jesus through which he merited being similar to him in his most sacred wounds.”[7] At the hour of her death, at the age of sixty, on January 31, 1533, she held a crucifix, “devoutly kissing the feet and all the sacred wounds of the Crucified, weeping with compassion, she repeated often ‘into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’”[8]

Ludovica was buried, at her request in San Francesco a Ripa beside her husband, and it became a site for devotion, as well as miracles. The Franciscans there still cherish her memory along with that of St. Francis and Lady Jacopa.


[1] Pauolo, Giovanni. Vita della beata Ludovica Albertoni, Piermattei Paluzzi del Terzo Ordo (Rome: Giovanni Corvo, 1672). We don’t know much about Pauolo’s sources. He describes them as “some ancient memoirs, which in spite of the passing of time, have been preserved up to the present day,” and as a “legend” (the usual name for a saint’s life), which he quotes from in Latin; elsewhere he speaks of a “brief Latin compendium of her life.” The last two, or even all three, might be referring to the same work. None of them is mentioned in the other early literature on Ludovica. Some parts of his work, such as the “memoirs,” might be family tradition. He did evidently take some things from her canonization process, which took place in 1671 and was printed the same year. It was devoted mostly to establishing the antiquity of Ludovica’s cult, in accordance with the decree of Urban VIII in 1634. I don’t have a complete copy of the process, but a lengthy resume with quotations can be found in Shelley Karen Perlove, Bernini and the Idealization of Death: The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni and the Altieri Chapel (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press,1990), pp. 57-66. It does not shed any light on these source, which remain a mystery. Perlove’s book does add a great deal of helpful historical background.

[2] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 32.

[3] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 53.

[4] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, pp. 58-59.

[5] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 61.

[6] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, pp. 50-51.

[7] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 56.

[8] Pauolo, Vita della beata Ludovica, p. 229.


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