Last week marked the official 500-year anniversary of the Ghetto of Venice. On March 29, 1516, the Venetian Senate enacted a decree stating that any Jews wishing to live stably in Venice must all dwell together in one area, enclosed by two locked gates that would open in the morning and close in the evening.
Recently, there has been much discussion (some on these very pages) regarding exactly how to mark this quincentenary. Should it be celebrated or mourned? Trumpeted loudly or pronounced in somber tones?
I would like to let the Ghetto speak for itself in the person of one of its most remarkable residents. Sarra Copia Sulam (c. 1600 – 1641) was born in Venice, and came to hold a prominent place in the culture of the Ghetto by founding a sort of salon which hosted intellectuals and artists, Jews and gentiles, for academic discussions. She was herself a poet, and highly respected for her learning, artistry and charm.
As a woman and as a Jew, she often had to defend herself against various detractors. Among these was a Christian man Copia Sullam had hired as a teacher and editor, who colluded with some friends to rob and extort her. When she discovered his treachery she fired him. In an act of revenge her former teacher published a slanderous pamphlet against her and spread damaging rumors about her. This was not the first time that someone had sought to falsely accuse her of crimes as serious as blasphemy and witchcraft, and as she did those other times, Copia Sulam took up her pen to defend herself. Below is a sonnet she wrote explaining as a matter of dignity her decision to attack her enemy obliquely rather than straight on.
Life in the Ghetto of Venice – although it allowed for Jews to dwell in the city of Venice and take limited part in the life of the city – was never free of danger and threats of violence, exploitation and banishment. And so, here we see Copia Sulam, a highly educated and talented woman of the Ghetto, girded for battle in defense of her dignity.
“A vile e indegno oggetto di mirare”
To behold a despicable and unworthy object
Was I sometimes compelled, but the proud mind
Soon turned back, for it does not hope
To awaken illustrious fame from a despicable contest.
If one must enter the arena with arms
Conforming to those of the despicable enemy, ah! it is hopeless
To aspire to the heights, yet refuse to leave the crowd
For the sake of winning an ignoble trophy, dark and common.
This it is, Signore, that the Muse, if assailed by fury,
Can sometimes be heard to leave suddenly,
Protected by disguises within an impenetrable veil.
But here it must be admitted that one regrets, for the most part,
Even having released the arrow from the quiver
Or aimed an illustrious dart at an infamous target.
Translation by Don Harrán, in: Sarra Copia Sulam: Jewish Poet & Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2009) 463.
*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.