The Jewish community of Mantua during the Renaissance represents a unique chapter in the history of theatre. The Jews of Mantua were very active in the performing arts during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The early modern Jewish Italian theatre may seem very unfamiliar to the modern theatre practitioners; however, contemporary actors can learn the role of the Jewish community of Mantua, and how they shaped what we now know as modern theatre.
During the Renaissance, the Gonzaga family ruled Mantua. Like the rulers of many small Italian states of the time, the Gonzagas invited a limited number of Jews to live and work in Mantua, eventually giving rise to a full-fledged Jewish community. When conditions for Jews generally deteriorated in Italy during the counter-Reformation period, the Gonzaga family was reluctant to implement the anti-Jewish policies of the Catholic Church. Their relative liberality was not a result of particular sympathy for the Jews, but rather a calculated political decision to assert independence from Rome.
As a result of the Gonzagas’ relatively liberal stance, many Jews fleeing persecution in other Italian states found refuge in Mantua at this time. The pact of toleration gave the Jews permission to live in Mantua for a set number of years, and restricted them to certain fields, such as banking and cloth manufacturing. In exchange for their protection, the princes levied special taxes on the Jews of their territory.
In Mantua, the Gonzaga dukes devised a particular tax, unique in all of Italy, in the form of obligatory theatrical performances to be fully mounted and paid for by the Jewish community. Since these performances were large and festive, they required quite a bit of money for sets, costumes, special effects, musicians, dancers and actors, requiring the Jews to dedicate substantial time, resources, and creative energy to produce these spectacles. In essence, the Jews of Mantua were forced to perform in exchange for their own safety. The Gonzagas, in turn, got impressive spectacles that displayed the wealth and sophistication of their state, at no charge to them.
Although the Jewish community as a whole was intimately involved in all aspects of stage performance, this very particular milieux gave rise to some unique individuals. Perhaps the best embodiment of this distinctive cultural moment was the Jewish-Mantuan playwright, director, actor, poet, translator, and theorist, Leone de’ Sommi (c. 1525 – c. 1590).
He was a member of the well-known Portaleone family, which had many famous doctors and scientists. However, Leone was the first member of his family to achieve fame through the arts. Throughout his long career, he wrote fifteen plays and numerous poems, in both Italian and Hebrew. During his extraordinary life and career, De’ Sommi wrote the majority of his plays and poetry in the service of the rulers of Mantua, the Gonzaga dukes. He directed many plays and spectacles that were performed at state functions, for the Accademia degli Invaghiti (of which he was a member, which is uncommon for a Jew), at Gonzaga family events, and carnival celebrations. His place in the history Western theatre is due to the fact that De’ Sommi wrote down all the knowledge and techniques he developed in the art of stage direction, in a book which represents the first-ever guide on how to direct a play.
On the one hand, De’ Sommi was forced into the theatre as a direct result of the discriminatory policies of the Gonzaga dukes. On the other hand, he developed innovative theories and practices for putting on shows, and set them down in writing in a seminal act of Western theatre tradition and history.
Looking at this history compared to what the performing arts are like for us today, it could not be more different. Today, people in the performing arts don’t perform to pay their taxes to the government, so they can be protected. Instead, they go through years of training to get to a place where they can go to an audition and showcase their talent. While going out and auditioning, actors are usually working low-wage jobs to pay rent (until they get their big break). It is a kind of luxury to be able to become an actor, which is vastly different from the Jews in Mantua who were forced to become performers.
In studying theatre history, we are all used to reading and learning about its origins in ancient Greece and the theories of Aristotle, the mountebanks of Medieval Europe and the comedies of Molière and Goldoni. And yet it is important to also learn about the lesser known pieces of theatre history, like that of the Jews of Renaissance Mantua, which have nonetheless shaped the performing arts as we know them today.
These key elements of theatre history can only help the modern actor. At the very least, knowing these stories can provide more empathy for the modern actor who can now carry this history into the audition room.
Above, the House of Gonzaga as portrayed around 1470 in a fresco by Andrea Mantegna located at San Giorgio Castle in Mantua.
* This piece is part of a series of articles written by students of Muhlenberg College (Pennsylvania, USA) enrolled in a course on the history and culture of Jewish Italy, taught by Dr. Daniel Leisawitz, Assistant Professor of Italian and Director of the Muhlenberg College Italian Studies Program.