Sara Copio Sullam: A Jewish Woman of Letters in 17th-Century Venice

Article excerpt

   Questa canzone [...] mi venne dal
   cuore, non per altro fine, che di
   palesar sinceramente quel ch'io
   credo che voi siate; e per
   manifestarvi liberamente quel che
   vorrei che voi foste.

   Ansaldo Ceba, February 23, 1619 (1)

Segregation of the Jews in Europe became explicit in 1516 when the Council of Ten in Venice erected the boundaries of the first ghetto in history. The word ghetto etymologically derives from the Venetian term gheto (2) and is metonymically associated with the production activities of the iron foundry that once existed in the Cannaregio district or sestiere where the Jews were already living in 1516 (Brandes 107). After 1516 they would be required to live there, locked in from midnight until morning. The Council's edict also perversely stipulated that the Jews themselves must hire and pay the Christian gatekeepers to guard the two access bridges to the Ghetto (Calimani 1). The decree legislates the Republic's continuing distrust of the Jews and at the same time reflects the policy of tolerance which Venice had advocated since the late 14th century to serve its own financial interests.

Such a self-interested, gate-keeping mentality, however, did not prevent cultural commerce between Venice's Jews and Christians. Despite the physical segregation of the Venetian Jews, a rich cultural life flourished in the ghetto and reflected intellectual interests developed during the Renaissance (Cohen 5). The printing house established in the mid 1500's by Daniel Bomberg, a Jew from Amsterdam, made Venice a center of Hebrew publishing and further nourished an intellectual community where universal male literacy was the rule. The following century became the Golden Age of the Venetian Jewish community (Brandes 111). The 1600's saw the Jewish population in Venice at its peak. (3)

In the 17th century the enigmatic rabbi Leon Modena published an autobiography that provides invaluable information about daily life in the ghetto. Modena was well known in Venice, Ferrara and Florence as an expert polemicist and Talmudic scholar, as the author of De' riti hebraici, as an alchemist whose son died of lead poisoning and as an inveterate gambler (Cohen). A less flashy figure was his contemporary Simone Luzzatto who published a discourse in Italian on the Jewish people in which he demonstrated their economic and social utility in the modern state (Standard Jewish Encyclopedia 1233). Sara Copio Sullam (+1641) was an extraordinary poet (4) and intellectual of the Venetian Ghetto who by age fifteen could read Latin, Greek, Spanish, Hebrew and Italian. She also had musical talents and a gift for improvising poetry (Roth 237-8). Emanuele Antonio Cicogna, a 19th-century scholar of Venetian history, compiled biographical information on Copio and cited three literary polemics that accurately reflect the culture of her time. (5)

One of the three controversies concerning Copio is reflected in a manuscript donated by Cicogna to the Correr Library in Venice: the codex of Giulia Soliga (6), a valuable example of the Baroque literary style of the ragguaglio, describes the imaginary prosecution on Mt. Parnassus of Numidio Paluzzi, Copio's tutor, who presumably took part in the intellectual and sexual defamation of his student-patron by co-authoring a satiric pamphlet entitled Le Satire Sarreidi. (7) The codex ultimately vindicates Copio and condemns Paluzzi through an entertaining and lively cast of characters: Pietro Aretino as the district attorney, Cino da Pistoia as the defense attorney, Vittoria Colonna, Veronica Gambara, Sappho as the jurors, Isabella Andreini as the interrogator, Castiglione, Boccalini, Poliziano, Garcilaso de la Vega, and Boccaccio as onlookers who interrupt the trial uproariously, proffer differing opinions, challenge each other to duels, and make peace by exchanging sonnets. This fictionalized trial of the spirit of Paluzzi (who died in 1625) embellishes the chain of actual events (1618-26) that brought him before Apollo's court: Paluzzi, in cahoots with a painter named Berardelli, a washerwoman named Paola and her family, and a servant of Copio's referred to as La Mora led Copio to believe that La Mora possessed magical powers such as levitation and the ability to communicate with aerial spirits. …