Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, October 16, 2015

Sarra Copia Sulam, Poet in Seventeenth-Century Venice

Sarra Copia Sulam (16 October 1622)

As with several other posts, the date for this piece on Sarra Copia Sulam needs a bit of explanation.

Sarra Copia Sulam was born in Venice, one of three daughters of Simon and Ricca Copia, about whom very little evidence survives, except that Simon was a wealthy Jewish merchant, he and his brother Moses considered among the wealthiest Jews living in Venice. The brothers were brokers of maritime insurance. There is surviving evidence of the Copia family in Venice from the mid-sixteenth century. 

This portrait now thought to be by Antonio Laborio (c. 1660s)
is perhaps a copy of an earlier portrait
of Sarra Copia Sulam
Sarra Copia's date of birth is not certain (and I won't even begin to address the varied spellings of her name)--the year suggested for her birth ranges from about 1589 to 1601, the date accepted by Don Harrán, the editor and translator of a massive (almost 600 pages) new anthology of Copia's work.

Sarra Copia married a banker named Jacob Sulam about the year 1614 (though opinions vary on that date too). She gave birth to a daughter named Rebecca in 1615, but the child died at the age of ten months, and Sarra is known to have suffered a miscarriage in May of 1618. Sarra Copia Sulam died on 15 February 1641.

But between the years 1618 and 1624, Sarra Copia Sulam also managed to write, and that writing--her correspondence, her poetry, a religious manifesto--survives. 

As Harrán observes, "Seven years cannot be considered a life. But that is all we have for Sarra Copia Sulam": 
There are no documents for Copia in the years preceding 1618 and in those following 1624 until her death in 1641. Thus if she were born in 1600-1601, thirty-five years of her life remain uncovered. Yet the documents for 1618-1624 testify not only to the breadth of her activities but also to her impact on her surroundings.
Rather than posting about Sulam on the date of her death, however, I chose a date that relates to her life, or at least to her literary life--and that belongs to the remarkable seven-year period of creativity before she returns to silence and obscurity.

In 1618, after reading the epic poem La reina Ester, written by Ansaldo Cebà, a Genoese monk, Sarra Sulam began a correspondence with him that lasted until 1622. Sulam's last letter to Cebà is dated 30 April; before sending any letter of response, Cebà died on 16 October 1622--and thus the date for today's posting.

In his last letter to Sulam, dated 19 March, Cebà had written, "The days of my life are becoming shorter," and that he wanted to be able to "prepare to die properly." He wished to "become detached from the love of earthly things": "You are one of them by keeping me attached to the earth more than I would like."

(Cebà collected their correspondence and prepared it for publication; the work was published posthumously in Genoa in 1623.)

Having begun her literary exchange with Cebà in 1618, Sulam also established a salon, hosting a number of male intellectuals and writers. Among the men who were involved in the accademia she established in her home were a roster Venetian notables who praised her, not only for her beauty and hospitality but for her contributions to their discussions. The gathered intellectuals discussed philosophy and religion, read and exchanged poetry, and debated issues, among them the immortality of the soul. 

This latter inspired one of the members of the salon, the poet and priest Baldassare Bonifacio, to publish a treatise, Discourse on the Immortality of the Soul (Dell'immortalità dell’anima discorso), in which he claimed that Sulam did not believe in the soul's immortality, a belief basic to both Christianity and Judaism.

Sulam's reply was The Manifesto of Sara Copia Sulam, a Jewish Woman, in which She Refutes and Disavows the Opinion Denying Immortality of the Soul, Falsely Attributed to Her by Signor Baldassare Bonifacio (Manifesto di Sarra Copia Sulam Hebrea. Nel quale è da lei riprovate, e detestata l’opinione negante l’Immortalità dell’Anima, falsemente attribuitale dal Sig. Baldassare Bonifacio)--three editions were published in 1621.

Bonifacio wrote a brief reply and published all three pieces, bound together with a letter from Sulam to him. In this volume he accused her of not writing her manifesto, attributing her arguments to a rabbi.

Sulam sent a copy of her Manifesto to Cebà--who waited seven months to respond, and then only wished that she would convert to Christianity (which was, to be fair, a theme of all his letters to Sulam).

But by this point, public opinion--and the views of her literary "friends"--began to change. Further accusations of Sulam's literary theft and plagiarism followed, though she also had her defenders. Composed about 1626, the Notices from Parnassus (Avvisis di Parnaso) offered a "defense" of Sarra Copia Sulam in the form of a trial on Mount Parnassus before Apollo. 

This "evidence" offered in the trial includes several unpublished sonnets by (or attributed to) Sulam, but the most appealing defenses of her are "written" by some of the most notable women writers of Italy, including Vittoria Colonna, and another "by" Sappho of Lesbos. (The anthology, sometimes attributed to an otherwise unknown woman named Giulia Solinga, who wrote the dedication, was not published in Italian until the twentieth century.)

As Howard Tzvi Adelman notes in an extended essay about Sarra Copia Sulam:
As a Jewish woman writer who had both captivated and bested Christian clerics in public, Copia Sullam was an ideal target for accusations that would undermine her accomplishments as a woman and a Jew; they tried to make Christian men appear responsible for her attainments. Her defenders, however, saw Copia Sullam in the tradition of women writers of the Renaissance and created for her a distinguished panel of female defenders. Her Jewishness was noted regularly in their defense of her, but it certainly was not an obstacle to her receiving a fair hearing before Apollo.
Interestingly, Sulam neither mentions her Venetian contemporary Lucrezia Marinella nor is mentioned by her.

Today, you will find Sarra Copia Sulam's work in Harrán's comprehensive (and affordable!) anthology, Sarra Copia Sulam: Jewish Poet and Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice. The edition includes her correspondence with Cebà, as well as reference to her in his letters to various other recipients; the complete "controversy" over the immortality of the soul; the complete Notices from Parnassus; and all of Sulam's surviving poetry. 

Adelman's comprehensive essay from the Encyclopedia at Jewish Women's Archive is available by clicking here.