Comment on Article

Italian Jewish Poetry

Written by: Israel Abrahams

Immanuel and Dante.—The Machberoth.—Judah Romano.—Kalonymos.—The Eben Bochan.—Moses Rieti.—Messer Leon.

The course of Jewish literature in Italy ran along the same lines as in Spain. The Italian group of authors was less brilliant, but the difference was one of degree, not of kind. The Italian aristocracy, like the Moorish caliphs and viziers, patronized learning, and encouraged the Jews in their literary ambitions.

Yet the fact that the inspiration in Spain came from Islam and in Italy from Christianity produced some consequences. In Spain the Jews followed Arab models of style. In Italy the influence of classical models was felt at the time of the Renaissance. Most noteworthy of all was the indebtedness of the Hebrew poets of Italy to Dante.

It is not improbable that Dante was a personal friend of the most noted of these Jewish poets, Immanuel, the son of Solomon of Rome. Like the other Jews of Rome, Immanuel stood in the most friendly relations with Christians, for nowhere was medieval intolerance less felt than in the very seat of the Pope, the head of the Church. Thus, on the one hand Immanuel was a leading member of the synagogue, and, on the other, he carried on a literary correspondence with learned Christians, with poets, and men of science. He was himself a physician, and his poems breathe a scientific spirit. As happened earlier in Spain, the circle of Immanuel regarded verse-making as part of the culture of a scholar. Witty verses, in the form of riddles and epigrams, were exchanged at the meetings of the circle. With these poets, among whom Kalonymos was included, the penning of verses was a fashion. On the other hand, music was not so much cultivated by the Italian Hebrews as by the Spanish. Hence, both Immanuel and Kalonymos lack the lightness and melody of the best writers of Hebrew verse in Spain. The Italians atoned for this loss by their subject-matter. They are joyous poets, full of the gladness of life. They are secular, not religious poets; the best of the Spanish-Hebrew poetry was devotional, and the best of the Italian so secular that it was condemned by pietists as too frivolous and too much "disfigured by ill-timed levity."

Immanuel was born in Rome in about 1270. He rarely mentions his father, but often names his mother Justa as a woman of pious and noble character. As a youth, he had a strong fancy for scientific study, and was nourished on the "Guide" of Maimonides, on the works of the Greeks and Arabs, and on the writings of the Christian school-men, which he read in Hebrew translations. Besides philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, Immanuel studied the Bible and the Talmud, and became an accomplished scholar. He was not born a poet, but he read deeply the poetical literature of Jews and Christians, and took lessons in rhyme-making. He was wealthy, and his house was a rendezvous of wits and scientists. His own position in the Jewish community was remarkable. It has already been said that he took an active part in the management of communal affairs, but he did more than this. He preached in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement, and delivered eulogistic orations over the remains of departed worthies. Towards the end of his life he suffered losses both in fortune and in friends, but he finally found a new home in Fermo, where he was cordially welcomed in 1328. The date of his death is uncertain, but he died in about 1330.

His works were versatile rather than profound. He wrote grammatical treatises and commentaries, which display learning more than originality. But his poetical writings are of great interest in the history of Jewish literature. He lived in the dawn-flush of the Renaissance in Italy. The Italian language was just evolving itself, under the genius of Dante, from a mere jumble of dialects into a literary language. Dante did for Italy what Chaucer was soon after to do for England. On the one side influenced by the Renaissance and the birth of the new Italian language, on the other by the Jewish revival of letters in Spain and Provence, the Italian Jews alone combined the Jewish spirit with the spirit of the classical Renaissance. Immanuel was the incarnation of this complex soul.

This may be seen from the form of Immanuel's Machberoth, or "Collection." The latter portion of it, named separately "Hell and Eden," was imitated from the Christian Dante; the poem as a whole was planned on Charizi's Tachkemoni, a Hebrew development of the Arabic Divan. The poet is not the hero of his own song, but like the Arabic poets of the divan, conceives a personage who fills the centre of the canvas—a personage really identical with the author, yet in a sense other than he. Much quaintness of effect is produced by this double part played by the poet, who, as it were, satirizes his own doings. In Immanuel'sMachberoth there is much variety of romantic incident. But it is in satire that he reaches his highest level. Love and wine are the frequent burdens of his song, as they are in the Provençal and Italian poetry of his day. Immanuel was something of a Voltaire in his jocose treatment of sacred things, and pietists like Joseph Karo inhibited the study of the Machberoth. Others, too, described his songs as sensuous and his satires as blasphemous. But the devout and earnest piety of some of Immanuel's prayers,—some of them to be found in the Machberoth themselves—proves that Immanuel's licentiousness and levity were due, not to lack of reverence, but to the attempt to reconcile the ideals of Italian society of the period of the Renaissance with the ideals of Judaism.

Immanuel owed his rhymed prose to Charizi, but again he shows his devotion to two masters by writing Hebrew sonnets. The sonnet was new then to Italian verse, and Immanuel's Hebrew specimens thus belong to the earliest sonnets written in any literature. It is, indeed, impossible to convey a just sense of the variety of subject and form in the Machberoth. "Serious and frivolous topics trip each other by the heels; all metrical forms, prayers, elegies, passages in unmetrical rhymes, all are mingled together." The last chapter is, however, of a different character, and it has often been printed as a separate work. It is the "Hell and Eden" to which allusion has already been made.

The link between Immanuel and his Provençal contemporary Kalonymos was supplied by Judah Romano, the Jewish school-man. All three were in the service of the king of Naples. Kalonymos was the equal of Romano as a philosopher and not much below Immanuel as a satirist. He was a more fertile poet than Immanuel, for, while Immanuel remained the sole representative of his manner, Kalonymos gave birth to a whole school of imitators. Kalonymos wrote many translations, of Galen, Averroes, Aristotle, al-Farabi, Ptolemy, and Archimedes. But it was his keen wit more than his learning that made him popular in Rome, and impelled the Jews of that city, headed by Immanuel, to persuade Kalonymos to settle permanently in Italy. Kalonymos' two satirical poems were called "The Touchstone" (Eben Bochan) and "The Purim Tractate." These satirize the customs and social habits of the Jews of his day in a bright and powerful style. In his Purim Tractate, Kalonymos parodies the style, logic, and phraseology of the Talmud, and his work was the forerunner of a host of similar parodies.

There were many Italian writers of Piyutim, i.e. Synagogue hymns, but these were mediocre in merit. The elegies written in lament for the burning of the Law and the martyrdoms endured in various parts of Italy were the only meritorious devotional poems composed in Hebrew in that country. Italy remained famous in Hebrew poetry for secular, not for religious compositions. In the fifteenth century Moses Rieti (born 1389, died later than 1452) imitated Dante once more in his "Lesser Sanctuary" (Mikdash Meät). Here again may be noticed a feature peculiar to Italian Hebrew poetry. Rieti uses regular stanzas, Italian forms of verse, in this matter following the example of Immanuel. Messer Leon, a physician of Mantua, wrote a treatise on Biblical rhetoric (1480). Again, the only important writer of dramas in Hebrew was, as we shall see, an Italian Jew, who copied Italian models. Though, therefore, the Hebrew poetry of Italy scarcely reaches the front rank, it is historically of first-rate importance. It represents the only effects of the Renaissance on Jewish literature. In other countries, the condition of the Jews was such that they were shut off from external influences. Their literature suffered as their lives did from imprisonment within the Ghettos, which were erected both by the Jews themselves and by the governments of Europe.