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His/Her Story: A Renaissance woman

Being a true Renaissance woman, Copia Sulam decided to open her home to talented members of the Venetian community, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

GETTING AROUND in the Ghetto Nuovo. In addition to the historic synagogues, there is also a Jewish r
Photo by: Arthur Wolak
In the ghetto of Venice toward the end of the 16th century, Sarra Copia was born to Simon and Ricca, a wealthy Jewish merchant and his wife. Sarra received a superb education, having learned (at least) Italian, Latin, Greek, Spanish and Hebrew. By the age of 15, she was writing poems in Spanish and Italian; she also performed on the harpsichord. In or around 1614, this talented young woman married Jacob Sulam, an important member of the Venetian Jewish business community.

Being a true Renaissance woman, Copia Sulam decided to open her home to talented members of the Venetian community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. (She predated the German-Jewish salon women by over a century.) This hostess had the reputation of being charismatic as well as an impressive conversationalist. She often read her own poetry at these gatherings and hired some of the participants as private tutors. While she maintained contact with Jewish contemporary literati such as Leon de Modena and Salamone Rossi (who composed a wedding ode for her sister), she also had a number of memorable encounters with non-Jewish supposed “Renaissance men.”

For example, Ansaldo Ceba, a Genoan monk, wrote an epic poem about Queen Esther that found favor in Copia Sulam’s eyes. As a matter of fact, it was her praise of this poem in a letter to the author that improved his self-image and status as a poet. Beginning in 1618, the two began an extensive correspondence, exchanging sonnets and small gifts, and engaging in literary as well as polemical exchanges. Ceba could not imagine how a woman of such impressive poetic talent and of such high intellect could resist converting to Christianity. He then decided to publish his letters by themselves, without including hers. Because he used endearing terms in the missives (which simply reflected the current style), there are those who are convinced that their relationship was amorous. This is, however, highly doubtful, and could only have been imaginary since they never even met.

Other contemporaries challenged her as well. In 1621, a participant in her salon named Baldassare Bonifaccio claimed that she denied the basic doctrine of immortality of the soul. Consequently Copia Sulam published a manifesto in Italian blatantly denying such claims. Bonifaccio retorted that a rabbi had to have authored this piece, since a woman would be incapable of writing on such a level. Most likely, she kept a low profile afterward, as the entire episode must have upset the Jewish community. (See Don Harrán, ed. and trans., Sarra Copia Sulam, Chicago, 2009, for details including her 14 extant poems and those of her contemporaries in Italian and English.)

In 1622, her life became further complicated by another salon participant, Paluzzi, a teacher whom she had hired. He schemed with her maidservants; together they carried out small thefts in her home and blamed them on ghosts. This syphilitic conniver convinced her to commission a portrait from Berardelli, a painter who was actually his co-conspirator. The two then concocted an imaginary French admirer in order to steal from their patroness. In 1624 she discovered the plot and fired them. These scoundrels then proceeded to accuse her of plagiarizing and of stealing Paluzzi’s writings in order to claim them as her own!

Fortunately there were individuals who came to her defense. She was considered a leading 17th-century poet and one of the greatest women writers in Italy. Four biographies about her appeared in the 19th century. Unfortunately Copia Sulam never published her own sonnets, and only a few survived along with her manifesto. She was apparently not a healthy woman, and died in 1641, before reaching the age of 50; her epitaph was composed by de Modena. While her incredible talents were widely acknowledged, not all were able to respect and accept the fact that a Jewish woman could be a Renaissance woman as well.


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