Immanuel of Rome

By Adler, Joseph | Midstream, February-March 2002 | Go to article overview

Immanuel of Rome


Adler, Joseph, Midstream


The term "Italian Renaissance" is popularly associated not only with the revival in Europe of humanistic learning, a fervent admiration for the world of classical antiquity, and a remarkable efflorescence of the arts, but also with luxurious living and a hedonistic outlook.

The age of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374) could not but exert a profound influence on the Jewish communities of Italy. Indeed, the Renaissance among Italian Jewry found its fullest expression and voice in the work of a poet called Immanuel (ben Solomon) of Rome (ca. 1261-after 1328). Known in Italian as Manoello Giudeo (Immanuel the Jew), he was almost an exact contemporary of Dante, having been born four years before Dante, in Rome (or in Ceprano, in the Papal States). Immanuel was a member of an important and wealthy family -- the Zifroni. He studied Bible and Talmud, as well as mathematics, astronomy, philosophy, medicine (whether he was also a physician has not been substantiated). In addition to Hebrew and Italian, Immanuel also knew Arabic and Latin, and perhaps some Greek.

Immanuel's poetic gifts appeared at an early age. He devoted himself to the study of rhyme and versification and to reading the works of the foremost Jewish and Christian poets. As his reputation as a Hebrew stylist grew, he was called upon by various Jewish communities to write their correspondence for them (e.g., in Rome and Ancona). He also seems from time to time to have composed orations for festive occasions and acted as a preacher and a cantor when called upon by synagogue officials.

Late in life, Immanuel had the misfortune to lose his entire fortune and was obliged to leave his home. Bowed by poverty and the double burden of age, he wandered from place to place throughout Italy, earning his living as a tutor for the children of wealthy Jewish bankers. Historians have found traces of the poet in Perugia, Ancona, Camerino, Verona, and numerous other locales.

Immanuel's love of learning and books never slackened. An incident that occurred in Perugia, early in his career, is illustrative of this trait. Immanuel and some of his companions were overjoyed when they secured a list of 180 rifles from an itinerant bookseller named Aaron of Toledo. The bookseller, before departing from Perugia, left instructions that no one should tamper with the boxes of books he was forced to temporarily leave behind. Ignoring these warnings, Immanuel and his friends opened the boxes, removed, and then copied ten of the most precious books.

Immanuel's literary output was considerable. He wrote commentaries on almost every book of the Bible, interpreting the material philosophically, allegorically, symbolically, and mystically, in an endeavor therein to find his own religious beliefs. His wide range of reading enabled him to make the commentaries interesting to the exegete as well as to the layman. He also wrote a treatise on Biblical hermeneutics. With the exception of an introductory poem, Immanuel's first work is lost: it dealt with the symbolism of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

However, it is as a poet that Immanuel of Rome is best remembers, not as a Hebrew poet only, but as an Italian poet as well. A child of his time, in sympathy with the social and intellectual life of Renaissance Italy, he acquired a pleasing and flippant tone, then prevalent, and the art of treating questionable subjects wittily and elegantly. Immanuel composed his poems both in Hebrew and Italian. However, only a few of his Italian sonnets have survived (one of them slightly lewd). Quite novel is a ballad in which the poet describes the feverish daily life at the court of Cangrande della Scala of Verona, whose patronage he apparently enjoyed at one time. Immanuel's Italian sonnets tend to portray the political and religious temper of the age. Although Immanuel of Rome was certainly not as great a poet as his contemporary, Dante, the singer of the Divine Comedy, he was gifted, witty, versatile, and eloquent. …

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