For centuries, Venice has fascinated visitors with its canals, its exotic architecture and its unique urban environment. The Jewish community in Venice—large, important, but subjected to the world's first ghetto—continues to exert its own pull on visitors and scholars. This issue of Nashim seeks to explore the particular experiences of Jewish women in Venice, from the community's early flowering in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to perhaps Venice's most famous Jewish resident in the twentieth century, Peggy Guggenheim.
Venice was a liminal city, situated between the eastern and western Mediterranean. The place of Jews in Venice in the early modern period was liminal as well, both for the position of the ghetto in the northwest portion of the city and for their semi-segregation in the ghetto itself. The place of women in this diverse, vibrant Jewish community was particularly noteworthy. Jewish women were part of a community—really multiple co-resident communities—that included Jews from across Europe and the Mediterranean, and the multicultural, transient nature of the population brought diversity and flux to their roles. Some women were long-time residents, while others were forced to acclimate to a normative Jewish community after taking leading roles in religious observance in crypto-Jewish communities in Portugal and northern Europe. Still other women were significant for the key roles they played in business and the arts. In this latter role they resembled the Christian community around them. Like Christian women throughout Italy in the Renaissance—of whose activities at least some of them were likely aware, despite the restrictions of the ghetto—Jewish women were deeply involved in humanist circles and in social and economic activities. Unlike their Christian counterparts, female residents of the ghetto who were interested in enhanced religious roles did not have the option of residing in convents. Nevertheless, their lived experience (or that of their mothers and grandmothers) as key figures in the maintenance of Jewish life in the Iberian peninsula and beyond left at least some of these women with a unique appreciation of their place in the larger Jewish community of early modern Europe.
The global scope and understanding sketched out above is on display in Howard Adelman's examination of the complex lives of two of the most famous Jewish women to live in Venice, Beatrice de Luna (alias Doña Gracia Nasi) and her sister Brianda. Historical treatment of Beatrice has been almost uniformly positive, while her sister has been treated less kindly. But Adelman demonstrates that in the complex web of [End Page 7] economic concerns, marital and family relations, movement between Christian and Jewish lives, and mutual support and recrimination, each sister was more like the other than has commonly been recognized.
Unlike the de Luna sisters, Sarra Copia Sullam was not raised Christian, did not travel extensively, and did not manage substantial economic holdings. Yet as Don Harrán demonstrates, this lifelong resident of the ghetto was one of the most accomplished Venetians of her day. Her poetry, her philosophical writings, and her salon all earned her the admiration, and sometimes the jealousy, of the people around her. Harrán focuses here on Sarra Copia Sullam's abiding interest in the immortality of the soul and demonstrates the importance of this topic to her, not only through her own writings, but also through a wedding ode composed by Salamone Rossi for her sister's nuptials.
As Leonard Rothman's paper on Jewish midwives in Venice makes clear, childbirth was considered a critical illness, one that held great danger for the mother. Sadly, no evidence remains of Jewish midwifery in Renaissance Venice, but, by piecing together contemporary information on Christian midwives in Venice and on Jewish midwives elsewhere, Rothman has been able to create a persuasive picture of the likely experiences of Jewish midwives and the women they assisted in the Venetian Republic. He also highlights some of the changes that midwifery underwent at the end of the Renaissance period, as doctors exerted more control over childbirth and established formal training procedures.
Like Jews elsewhere on the peninsula in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Venetian...