Reprinted with permission from The JPS Guide To Jewish Women, (Jewish Publication Society).
Sara Copio was born in Venice in 1592 into a prosperous merchant family. She was the oldest of two or three daughters and received an extensive humanistic education that included training in Hebrew, Spanish, Latin, and Greek as well as her native Italian. She was also taught philosophy, music, and rabbinic literature. At a very early age, Sara began to write verse and became known in Italy as a poet and singer who accompanied herself on the lyre. She continued writing poetry even after her marriage, in 1613 or 1614, and her home became a meeting place for Jewish and Christian poets, artists, and scholars. Her husband, Jacob Sullam, was himself a patron of the arts in addition to being a moneylender. In 1615 the couple had one daughter, Rebecca, who died at the age often months. There is no evidence of any other children.
A Famous Correspondent
Sara Copio Sullam’s writings displayed her knowledge of the Hebrew language as well as the texts of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. There were references to Josephus, Aristotle, and Dante. Over the years, she became known for her poetic improvisations, a sort of literary duelling match between participants that, unfortunately, was never written down. She also wrote sonnets and numerous letters.
Sullam’s most famous correspondent was the aged Christian poet, Ansaldo Ceba. Thirty years older than she, Ceba was a retired diplomat who had an illustrious career as a writer and translator of the classics. Among his works was a play in verse entitled La Reina Ester (Queen Esther) that Sara read early in 1618 while recovering from a miscarriage. Moved to write to him to express her admiration, that first letter began a long distance relationship that lasted for four years.
Ceba and Sullam never met. She remained in the Venetian ghetto and he in Genoa where he had retired to a monastery, but their correspondence is full of intimate, sometimes even physical allusions and metaphors. Besides letters, they exchanged books, portraits, and gifts. Ceba’s avowed goal was to convert Sara to Christianity. In spite of her open admiration for him, she steadfastly refused to consider it and suggested in one letter that she might pray for his conversion.
This daring proposal, coupled with what appears to be misplaced trust and extreme naiveté, ultimately led to trouble. Desiring to perfect her many skills, Sullam took lessons from some of the poets, painters, and scholars who frequented her salon. In return, she offered them sponsorship and financial support. At first, her benefactors wrote flattering poetry to her, alluding to her blond beauty, her charm and pleasant disposition. Many, however, seem to have taken advantage of her kindness and gone on to betray her trust.
One example of such betrayal came from the Italian scholar and prominent cleric, Baldassare Bonifaccio, who had often been a guest at Sullarns home. In 1621, in his Discourse on the Immortality of the Soul (Discorso sull’immortalita dell’aniilia), Bonifaccio accused her of denying immortality, an accusation that amounted to heresy, and a serious crime in the Venice of her day. Sara Copio Sullam was quick to reply with a manifesto of her own, defending herself against this dangerous charge. She accused Bonifaccio of not knowing Hebrew, and he retaliated, alleging that she herself had not written the manifesto.
Left Without Support
Sara Sullam sent her friend Ceba a copy of her manifesto, hoping for his support on her behalf, but Ceba
old and ill. After many months he replied, but only to comment once again on her failure to convert. Ansaldo Ceba died in 1623, shortly after this last correspondence.
The accusation by Bonifaccio and the failure of Ceba and her other friends to rally to her defense constituted real danger to Sullam should the Inquisition decide to investigate the charges. In addition, they were serious personal disappointments. This difficult period in her life continued for some years. Many of her friends and teachers left her, and others played cruel jokes or tried to trick her out of her money. She was even accused of plagiarizing.
Sullam is Defended
Not until after 1625 did someone come to Sullam’s defense. In a manuscript called Codice di Ciulia Seliga, her anonymous defender described an imaginary trial against her accusers and denigrators and compared her to some of the most famous Italian women writers of the 15th and 16th centuries. After this work, which included some of her unpublished sonnets, nothing much was written about this most celebrated woman of her time. She died of a continual fever lasting three months. Although the date of her death is in doubt, her death certificate gives February 15, 1641.
A Prayer for Vindication
Some of Sara Copio Sullam’s bitterness and disappointment comes through in this sonnet, in which she appeals to God to protect her from “the lying tongue’s deceit.”
O Lord, You know my inmost hope and thought,
You know when e’er before Thy judgement throne
I shed salt tears, and uttered many a moan.
It was not for vanities I sought.
O turn on me Thy look with mercy fraught
And see how envious malice makes
The Pall upon
my heart by error thrown,
me with Thy radiant thought.
At truth let not the wicked scorner mock,
O Thou, that breathed in me a spark divine,
The lying tongue’s deceit with silence blight.
me from its venom, Thou My Rock,
And show the spiteful slanderer by this sign
That Thou dost shield
me with Thy endless might.