Devorà Ascarelli was born into one of the leading Jewish families in the early modern ghetto of Rome. Gradually most members of the family, including her father, brother, and children, converted to Catholicism, under duress or voluntarily. Ascarelli is known for her contributions to a 1601 book that offered translations of some of the major pieces of the Yom Kippur liturgy into Italian, which also included some of her own poems and a poem dedicated to her. On the title page the book is identified as being “vulgarizati,” or translated, by Ascarelli; however recent discoveries indicate that the pieces were translated into Italian by Hezekiah Rieti using the Hebrew alphabet but Ascarelli had a role in the production of the book. Most likely, this involved transposing the translations into Roman letters.
Although in the writing of history the term “first” must be used with caution, Devorà Ascarelli (c. 1555-1608) may have been the first Jewish woman to have had a book published in her own name, although her exact role remains unclear. Until recently, all that was known about her was available in her 62-page collection of Italian translations of supplementary Hebrew liturgy for the Day of Atonement and several sonnets. The book is called Me’on Ha-Sho’alim (Temple of the Seekers), after the first piece in it, “Me’on Ha-Sho’alim,” a section from Mikdash Me’at, (The Small Sanctuary, part 2, canto 2) by Moses Rieti of Perugia (1388–1459). It was published in Venice on October 22, 1601, with her name on the title page and a dedication to her by David della Rocca, perhaps a Roman rabbi. New studies of her life and her rare book, once identified by the misleading title L’abitacolo degli Oranti (The Abode of the Supplicants) and known mainly through secondary reports about it, render obsolete much of what has been written about Devorà Ascarelli. Although many questions remain, the new information now available shows many surprising revelations about her life and work.
Family and Forced Conversion
Devorà was born Devorà Corcos to Solomon (c. 1555-1608) and Giacoma Corcos. Of Castillian origins, Solomon was one of the leading Jews and wealthiest residents in Rome. Sometime during the 1570s, Devorà Corcos married Isac Goioso (c. 1550-1592), the son of Jacob, a Roman Jewish banker. Reports of how many children Devorà and Isac had together vary; one list includes Jacob (b. c. 1575), Ricca (b. c. 1578), Pernina, Stella, and Camilla (b. c. 1592).
Devorà’s life coincided with the upheavals in Jewish life in early modern Italy caused by the Church’s harsh approach during the Catholic Reformation. The reforms of the Council of Trent (1544-1563), like most Church reforms, disrupted Jewish life. In Rome, these measures included the establishment of the Roman Inquisition (1542) and the House of Catechumens to educate and shelter Jewish converts (1543); required missionary sermons; forced conversions; abductions of Jewish children; and the burning of the Talmud (1553). This movement culminated with the papal bull Cum nimis absurdum (1555) that revived anti-Jewish legislation, including establishing the Roman ghetto, curtailing professional practices, imposing distinguishing dress codes, limiting synagogues, segregating Jews from Christians, and barring land ownership. The Jews were expelled from most of the Papal States (1569, 1593) and were subjected to heavy taxes. Jewish conversions continued during the 1580s, when most of the members of Devorà’s family were converted, among them many young children taken from their parents, eventually including her own.
In 1581, Devorà’s brother, Lazaro Corcos (c. 1561-1611), along with his wife Angela and their son Elia, converted to Catholicism, and Lazaro took the name Gregorio Boncompagni in honor of pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni (r. 1572-1585). Devorà’s father, Solomon Corcos, converted a year later and took the pope’s full name, Ugo Boncompagni. These distinguished converts were welcomed by the papal court and granted many privileges. Ugo/Solomon’s brother Jacob Corcos and his wife Gemma, from the Venetian Luzzatto family, remained Jewish. However, after Jacob Corcos died in 1592, his brother Ugo, as guardian, removed four of his nephews, the oldest being fifteen, from the ghetto and entrusted them to the Congregation of the Oratory, established by (Saint) Philip Neri in 1575, under whose personal guardianship they were converted to Catholicism in the presence of Pope Clement VIII (r. 1592-1605). A relative, Pietro Boncompagni (Corcos), endowed a statue of St. Philip Neri for the Church of the Oratorians, which stands today in the Palazzo Boncompagni-Corcos in Rome.
Devorà’s cousin Salvatore, Jacob Corcos’ eldest son, did not convert, and he worked as a banker with Joseph, the son of Leone Ascarelli, who was also identified as a rabbi. After Devorà’s husband, Isac Goioso, died in 1592, Devorà became engaged to Joseph Ascarelli. Before Joseph and Devorà married, their families conducted negotiations over the financial aspects of the marriage. These arrangements were formalized with her father, Ugo Boncompangni, and he agreed for the next six years to rent them a house in the ghetto to which he owned permanent rights.
At the time of their engagement, Devorà was still pregnant with her youngest child (Camilla) with Isac, so she and Joseph waited the prescribed two years for pregnant or nursing widows and divorcées and then married in 1594. At that time, following a common practice, her fatherless orphans were placed under the care of their uncle Salomone Goioso. Together, Joseph and Devorà had three or four children, though the names, sexes, and ages are not consistently recorded: Bella (b. c. 1596), Giuda (b. c. 1598), Manuel (b. c. 1600), and Angelo (b. c. 1602).
Gradually, more of Devorà’s relatives were converted. Her aunt Gemma Luzzatto Corcos had been imprisoned in 1594 to force her to convert, but she did not convert until 1599, after two of her sisters and their children had done so. Eventually, Devorà’s daughter from her first marriage, Ricca, and her son-in-law Salvatore, converted and took the names Giulia Boncampagni and Michele Angelo Boncompagni. In 1604, Ricca/Giulia wrote a letter to the pope denouncing her mother and asking whether, since her mother and her four children were the only remaining unconverted members of the family, he would confine them to facilitate their baptism. A force of about 50 troops came and took Devorà and her children, described here as two girls, aged twelve and seven, and two boys, aged five and three. Bedridden, Joseph was unable to intervene. The children and Devorà were first taken to Ricca/Giulia’s house and then to a Dominican house, where Joseph was brought after he recovered, and they all resisted baptism. Finally, after 43 days, the children were removed from their parents. An archival document describes a heartbreaking scene in which Devorà, crying out in grief and hoping for her death, is escorted to a carriage with her four children.
When Joseph Ascarelli recovered, he made an appeal to the pope for the return of his wife and children, with the support of the Jewish communities of the Papal States. Nevertheless, against the pope’s instructions, three of his children were baptized and one taken to an undisclosed location. Devorà was soon released, and the parents appealed to Pope Clement VIII for the return of their children. The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition took up the matter. One brief affirming the validity of the Ascarelli children’s conversion is based on a report that the parents had expressed interest in converting and that Joseph had written poems in praise of Pope Clement VIII. The death of the pope in March 1605, followed by the installation of two new popes within several months, interrupted the process. The fate of their children requires further research.
For Jews who converted willingly or not and for their family members who suffered, the Day of Atonement had special penitential importance. It inspired the production of collections of Italian translations of some supplementary prayers for the day. Ascarelli’s volume was one of several such volumes published in Italy at the turn of the seventeenth century.
At the time of the conversion of many of Ascarelli’s relatives, around 1585, Eliezer Mazliah ben Abraham Cohen or Lazaro Hebreo of Viterbo published Me’on ha-Sho’alim (Il Tempio, The Temple) in a rhymed Italian translation with the Hebrew text. This edition was dedicated to the unnamed daughter of Solomon Corcos, raising the strong possibility that this edition was dedicated to Devorà Corcos. The translator addresses her as a women of great intellectual prowess, and he presumes a high level of Hebrew comprehension on her part, especially when he tells her in the Italian introduction not to be surprised if all the words in the translation do not correspond exactly with the original due to the needs of the meter and rhyme in Italian. Little is known about Ascarelli’s youth, but judging by the level of her literary engagement, it appears that, as a member of a wealthy Jewish family in the early modern period, she enjoyed the opportunity for private instruction in Hebrew and Italian at home, perhaps accompanied by siblings and cousins. In addition to heaping praises on her, Lazaro of Viterbo also praises her father, mother, and brother, and he states that they were formerly distinguished Jews. Nevertheless, her father, despite his conversion, is still acknowledged with respect. In the Italian dedication, Solomon no longer appears but his unnamed daughter remains, and there is still much praise for her family, raising the question if these dedications were attempts to offer comfort to the converts or to appeal to them for patronage despite their conversion.
In Ascarelli’s 1601 book, the rhymed Italian translation of “Me’on ha-Sho’alim” is the only rhymed liturgical piece and the only one accompanied by the Hebrew text, but it does not include the vowel signs common in most Hebrew prayerbooks. The rest of the book contains Italian prose translations without any Hebrew texts: “Barekhi Nafshi” or “Benedici il Signore o anima mia” (Bless the Lord, O my soul), a tokhehah (prayer of self-chastisement), inspired by Psalms 103-104, written by Rabbenu Bahya ibn Paquda of Saragossa in the second half of eleventh century; “Vidui Hagadol” or “La Grande Confessione” (The Great Confession) by Rabbenu Nissim, identified as the head of the Babylonian Academy; and an avodah prayer for Sephardic services concerning Temple sacrifices. Although the title page lists only these four liturgical works, the book also includes two sonnets attributed to Ascarelli (“Il Ritratto di Susanna” or The Picture of Susannah, based on the Apocrypha story of Susannah and the Elders, “Quanto e’ in me di Celeste,” or Whatever in me is of Heaven), and an anonymous short poem dedicated to her (“Ape, ingegnosa voli,” or Fly, O Clever Bee, which in Hebrew is Devora).
Often the source of confusion in studies of Ascarelli, another Italian translation of “Me’on ha-Sho’alim / Il Tempio” was published in Venice in 1609 by Samuel Castelnuovo of Rome. The text used Hebrew letters and vowels for both the Hebrew original and the Italian translation on facing pages. Contrary to most catalogue information, this was not a reprint of Lazaro of Viterbo’s or Ascarelli’s editions, but rather another translation with different rhyme and meter.
The Italian version of Bahya’s “Barekhi Nafshi” published by Ascarelli in 1601 was also one of several Italian translations of supplementary prayers for the Day of Atonement by Roman Jews at the turn of the seventeenth century. In 1579, Angelo Hebreo Alatrini of Castello published a work called Angelica Tromba (Angelic Trumpet), referring both to his own name and to passages in Dante and Ariosto. It contains an Italian version of “Barekhi Nafshi,” several other confessions, and some spiritual sonnets. It seems that there might be only one known copy of this edition, but since it is bound with the 1585 edition of Me’on ha-Sho’alim/Il Tempio translated by Lazaro of Viterbo, the two works have been confused. The Italian prose translation of “Barekhi Nafshi” that appeared in Ascarelli’s 1601 work is totally different from Alatrini’s rhymed version.
Recent studies of three manuscripts from 1612 containing the major translations in Ascarelli’s 1601 book (“Me’on ha-Sho’alim,” “Barekhi Nafshi,” and “Vidui ha-Gadol”) raise important questions about the nature of Ascarelli’s involvement with these translations. Each of the Italian translations in these three manuscripts is in Hebrew letters and is attributed to Rabbi Hezekia Rieti, a man about whom not much is known. However, in the Preface to two of the manuscripts, twice the contributions of both Rieti and Ascarelli are acknowledged without the role of either being specified. Ascarelli’s role might be explained on the title page of her book where it states “vulgarizati dalla Mag. Madonna Devora Ascarelli Hebrea.” Here vulgarizati might not mean translate, but rather transliterate, indicating that she transformed Rieti’s translations in Hebrew letters into Roman letters for the benefit of a wider audience, a skill involving knowledge of both Hebrew and Italian.
Devorà Corcos Goioso Ascarelli lived in Rome during a difficult time of forced conversion presided over by the pope and his closest advisers. Most of her prosperous and distinguished family converted, although ties were not entirely broken. The context of her literary work is as confusing as that of her family’s fortunes. Her book, part of a wave of Italian translations of supplementary prayers for the Day of Atonement, reflected the times in which she lived as well as the nature of her education. New materials offer many leads for further research.
Works by Devorà Ascarelli
Ascarelli, Devorà. Meon ha-Shoalimi. Venice: Daniel Zanetti, 1601.
Ascarelli, Pellegrino. Devorà Ascarelli Poetessa. Rome: Sindacato Italiano arti grafiche, 1925.
Ascarelli, Devorà. “Two Sonnets,” translated by Vladimir Rus, in Written Out of History: A Hidden Legacy of Jewish Women Revealed through Their Writing and Letters, edited by Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz. New York: Bloch, 1978, pp. 130–131.
Adelman, Howard Tzvi. Women and Jewish Marriage Negotiations in Early Modern Italy: For Money and Love (New York, 2018).
Adelman, Howard Tzvi. “The Literacy of Jewish Women in Early Modern Italy,” in Women’s Education in Early Modern Europe: A History, 1500–1800, edited by Barbara J. Whitehead, Barbara. New York, 1999, pp. 133–158.
Adelman, Howard Tzvi. “Jewish Women and Family Life, Inside and Outside the Ghetto.” In The Jews of Early Modern Venice, edited by Robert C. Davis and Benjamin Ravid. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. pp. 143–165.
Bianco, Alberto. “Cesare Baronio e la Conversione dei Corcos nei Documenti d’Archivio della Congregatione Oratoriano di Roma,” in Baronio e le sua Font: atti del Convegno internazioale di Studi. Sora: Centro di Studi Sorani, 2009, pp. 151-171.
Guetta, Alessandro, “Le traduzioni liturgiche italiane cinque-seicentesche come esempi di ‘poesia spirituale ebraica.’” Archivio Italian per la storia della Pieta 24 (2012): 11-33.
Nissan-Shalem, Orly. “The Manuscripts of Miqdash Meʽat by Moses da Rieti: Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts.” Beersheva: Ben Gurion University of the Negev, 2005. [Hebrew]
Poutrin, Isabelle. "1602. Les poèmes spirituels de Debora Corcos Ascarelli, première publication d’une femme juive.” In Histoire des juifs. Un voyage en 80 dates de l’Antiquité à nos jours, edited by Pierre Savy, Katell Berthelot, Audrey Kichelewsli. Paris: Humensis, Presses universitaires de France, 2020), pp. 277-282.
Pilocane, Chiara. “Traduzioni Italiane in Caratteri Ebraici nel xvii Secolo: Una raccolta inedita di testi liturgici.” In Fay ce que vouldras. Melanges en l’honneur d’Alessandro Vitale-Brovarone, edited by Michela Del Savio, Piero Andrea Matina, et al. Paris, Classiques Garnier, 2018, pp. 507-517.
Poutrin, Isabelle. “Nouvelles recherches sur la poétesse Devorà Ascarelli: Juifs, chrétiens et convertis dans la Rome de Clément VIII. Mélanges de l’École française de Rome-Italie et Méditerranée moderns et contemporaines. 130:1 (2018): 245-260
Uttaro, Eliane. “La Familia Corcos Boncompagni.” In Palazzo Boncompagni Corcos a Monte Giordano, edited by Eliane Uttaro and Laura Gigli. Rome: Gangemi, 2003, pp. 11-26