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  • Sarra Copia Sulam: Jewish Poet and Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice ed. by Don Harrán
  • Deanna Shemek (bio)
Sarra Copia Sulam: Jewish Poet and Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice Edited and Translated by Don Harrán Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. 598 pp.

In a time and place famous for fostering women writers, Sarra Copia Sulam (Venice, c. 1600-1641) was exceptional for a number of reasons. Copia's position in the midst of both the religious conflicts and the gender debates of her time heightens her historical interest for us today, but she was already a noteworthy figure among her contemporaries, as a forceful, inquisitive intellectual whose interlocutors were male and female, Christian and Jew. Until the publication of Don Harrán's masterful translation of the entire corpus of her known writings, along with a substantial selection of writings about her by her contemporaries, however, readers of English had almost no access to this formidable female voice from within Europe's first Jewish ghetto.

Copia's biographical data is sparse: Virtually nothing survives regarding the first seventeen years of her life, and very little is known about her after her twenty-fourth year. She was the eldest of (perhaps) three daughters born to Simon Copio, a merchant and insurer of ship cargoes, and his wife, Ricca (or Rifka). Sarra married the Mantuan banker Giacob Sulam around 1614, and they settled in Venice. They had one daughter, Rebecca, who lived only ten months; and there is news of a miscarriage in the spring of 1618. Both Giacob and Sarra survived the 1630 plague. We know that Giacob outlived his wife, but no further official information about her is recorded until her death in 1641.

At about the age of 18, Copia began hosting a literary and philosophical salon in her home in the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto), where Christians and Jews, crossing borders real and virtual between their respective communities, gathered to discuss ideas. This in itself was an extraordinary achievement of intellectual, religious and cultural interaction; the salon alone might have earned Copia a place in Venetian history for her commitment to interfaith dialogue. It was not, however, her salon, but Copia's dealings with three Christian men that sprang her to notoriety in the years between 1618 and 1624. In 1618, Copia penned a letter to Ansaldo Cebà, a fifty-three-year-old Genoese cleric, praising his epic poem Queen Esther and expressing [End Page 147] appreciation for his choice of a Jewish heroine. The flattered Cebà responded, thus beginning an exchange—featuring some strikingly erotic tones—that continued for four years. Eventually it turned bitter, as Cebà increasingly pressured Copia to convert to Christianity and she, increasingly frustrated with his insistence, refused. Before he died in 1622, Cebà arranged to publish his side of their correspondence, annotated with descriptions of Copia's letters. This volume was printed in Genoa in 1623, apparently without Copia's permission.

A second figure emerges in the person of Baldassare Bonifaccio, Archdeacon of Treviso, a frequenter of Copia's salon. In 1621, Bonifaccio published a treatise on the immortality of the soul, in which he ascribed to Copia a denial of that very idea. Given that this accusation both falsely represented her belief and posed significant danger to a Jew in Counter-Reformation Venice, Copia apparently felt compelled to reply. In the same year, she published a Manifesto refuting Bonifaccio's charges.

Numidio Paluzzi, Copia's onetime teacher, later systematically contrived with several associates to despoil her of her property. Adding insult to injury, his Rime (Rhymes), published posthumously in 1626, included an editorial charge that Copia's writings were not her own but were stolen from him. Copia remained silent, but Paluzzi's publication was followed in the same year by the circulation of Notices from Parnassus, a (possibly) multi-authored manuscript of mixed genre, in which various real and invented literary personages set the record straight on Copia's behalf, praising her intellect and character while exposing the sordid details of Paluzzi's crimes.

One thing this string of texts illustrates is the degree to which press and manuscript publications functioned as a forum...


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