The notion of a European “renaissance” in the 14th through 17th centuries has grown more problematic in recent decades, challenged by historians of many stripes. They include those who emphasize cultural continuities, as well as those who draw attention to stagnation in science and mathematics during that period of supposed reawakening.
Still, nowhere is it more startling to encounter the age’s tropes of rebirth and emergence from darkness than in a Jewish text written at the height of the Catholic Reformation: Rabbi Leone da Modena’s praise for the composer Salamone Rossi and his “Hashirim Asher Lishlomo,” published in Venice in 1622. “After the splendor of the people had been dimmed by the passage of days and years [in the Diaspora],” Rabbi Leone wrote, “he restored their crown to its ancient state as in the days of the Levites on their platforms. He set the words of the Psalms to music that was published, joyous songs before the Ark on Sabbaths, feasts and festivals.”
Rossi’s music will shine forth on November 4 at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan when Salon/Sanctuary Concerts presents “From Ghetto to Palazzo: Vocal Works of Salamone Rossi Hebreo.” The concert by Cantor Daniel Singer and the Western Wind Ensemble will feature sacred works in Hebrew and secular madrigals and theater compositions in Italian. Francesco Spagnolo, curator of collections at the University of California at Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, will give a pre-concert lecture on Rossi and his world.
According to Don Harrán, Sarra Copia Sulam was the first Italian Jewish woman to “excel” as a public literary figure, writing in various forms and leaving a “personal imprint on them.” She was a kind of Susan Sontag of the Venetian Ghetto. Sulam was also prominent because of her beauty and wealth (her husband was a banker/moneylender whose brother, also a banker, was likely a patron of Salamone Rossi).
Harrán, Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has published a series of landmark studies, including “Salamone Rossi: Jewish Musician in Late Renaissance Mantua” (Oxford University Press, 2003), about the Italian Jewish composers of the late Renaissance and early Baroque. Harrán’s latest publication, from the University of Chicago Press, “Sarra Copia Sulam: Jewish Poet and Intellectual in Seventeenth-Century Venice” is equally rewarding and enlightening.