The most accomplished, and thus the least typical, Jewish woman writer of early-modern Italy was Sarra Copia Sullam (c. 1592–1641). The details of her life reveal the great opportunities and potential dangers in the life of at least one woman of wealth and talent. Sarra was one of three daughters born to a Simon (d. 1606) and Ricca Copia, a prominent Italian Jewish family in Venice. Her sisters were Rachel (Diana) and Esther (Ster). Sarra received an education that included instruction in at least the basics of Jewish and Italian culture. Most accounts exaggerate her education, stress her physical beauty and comment on her blond hair, about which there is little evidence. At some time between 1609 and 1612 she married Jacob Sullam, a prominent Jewish communal leader and businessman in Venice. Their first child died as an infant in 1615. Others also died and it does not seem that the couple had any surviving children.
In May 1618, after reading L’Ester, an Italian drama by the Genoese monk and author Ansaldo Cebà (1565–1623), Copia Sullam wrote him of her admiration and spiritual love for him, reporting that she carried his book with her and slept with it under her pillow. He replied that he wished to continue to correspond with her and that he hoped to turn her to Christianity. This correspondence continued, becoming more literary and polemical as well as titillating. Although they never implemented plans to meet, they exchanged pictures, sonnets—written by Sarra and others—and gifts. He sent several people to visit her on his behalf and in 1619 she performed for one of his servants a musical rendition of a passage from L’Ester, a performance of which Don Harran has offered a hypothetical reconstruction. Although Cebà was a monastic and she was married, he wrote to her that like the two p’s in her name, Coppio, which means “couple,” they could be a Christian couple together. Copia Sullam immediately removed one p from her name, spelling it henceforth as Copia or Copio. Indeed, the spelling of both her first name and her family names tend to vary in the sources.
Copia Sullam gathered around her a salon of men of letters who gave her lessons in exchange for her financial backing and intellectual camaraderie. Because so many of these same men were involved in the Accademia degli Incogniti, a Venetian literary salon, during the 1630s, she may have played a pivotal role in its formation during the 1620s. Indeed, the presence of Cebà’s name on its membership rolls, although he was from Genoa and had died in 1623, heightens her early connection with this distinguished group. In addition to Cebà, her circle included Numidio Paluzzi (1567–1625), a Roman writer and poet who taught her poetry and perhaps Latin; Alessandro Berardelli, a Roman painter, poet and close friend of Paluzzi; Baldassare Bonifacio (1586–1659), a poet, priest and legal scholar, who was also in correspondence with Paluzzi; Giovanni Basadonna; Giovanni Francesco Corniani (1581–1646), a writer, poet and public official, who served as a member of the Esecutori contro la bestemmia (prosecutors of blasphemy) and the Avogaria del commune (board of state attorneys); perhaps Giovanni Maria Vanti (d. 1641), a priest and writer; and Leon Modena (1571–1648), a rabbi, writer and Jewish scholar who had close connections with her family.
Copia Sullam was pleased with her collection of literate admirers and enjoyed all their attentions. In 1619 Modena wrote an Italian play also on the theme of Esther and dedicated it to Copia Sullam. But gradually many of these male admirers betrayed her and humiliated her in the way that men of letters often treat talented women.
In June 1621, after a conversation two years earlier and an exchange of letters between them, which he instigated with her responding to him in January of 1620, Bonifacio published a treatise, Immortalità dell’anima (On the Immortality of the Soul), in which he claimed that Copia Sullam did not believe in this doctrine, a view considered basic to Judaism and Christianity. After reading this charge while recovering from a serious illness, Copia Sullam sat down and in two days, in June or July of 1621, wrote Manifesto di Sarra Copia Sulam hebrea Nel quale è da lei riprovate, e detestata l’opinione negante l’Immortalità dell’Anima, falsemente attribuitale da SIG. BALDASSARE BONIFACIO (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). The work, which comprised a strong defense of her views and an attack on Bonifacio’s claims and methods, was published in three different editions that same year, including one published by the same publisher as Bonifacio’s. In her Manifesto, Copia Sullam displayed her pain and her humor as well as her classical erudition and Jewish knowledge, though the work is based primarily on secondary sources, including references to the Old and New Testaments, Josephus, Aristotle, and Dante. She also included four sonnets. Bonifacio wrote a brief rebuttal, published in early August 1621 and later bound with his Immortalità, her Manifesto, as well as a letter by her to him. Bonifacio includes the accusation that the architect of her Manifesto was a rabbi, whom he did not name. Thus Bonifacio not only betrayed her with accusations of heresy but also denigrated her originality. Copia Sullam sent a copy of the Manifesto to Cebà. He did not respond for seven months and then without sympathy for her, only regret that she had not yet converted.
Over the next few years Copia Sullam and Cebà exchanged only a few more letters and no more poetry before he died. In fact, he became more chilly and then broke off the correspondence with her because he did not think that she was sufficiently interested in his writing or his affection and that she was using him to enhance her own reputation, though he realized that her correspondence with him raised his esteem in some circles. Shortly after his death a published version of Cebà’s letters to Copia Sullam appeared in Genoa, edited by Marcantonio Doria. It included only paraphrases of her correspondence to him and four of her sonnets. Recently a letter dated January 8, 1622, which Copia Sullam wrote to Isabella della Tolfa, the wife of Doria, while Cebà was still alive, was discovered in an archive in Genoa. In it, Copia Sullam wrote to Isabella, having already written to Doria, to request that della Tolfa be sure that her husband not publish Cebà’s letter to her of November 1, 1619. Copia Sullam, who was clearly aware that he was publishing the letters of “mio signor Ansaldo,” was concerned only about this letter, sure of a favorable hearing from Isabella; she was confident that her previous letter to Doria had gone astray and was not being ignored by him. This letter, probably in her own hand, raises the likelihood that her side of the correspondence was omitted either because the men had no interest in her talents or because an exposé of the thoughts expressed in her letters might have posed some danger to her or to him.
Around this difficult time, Copia Sullam’s teacher Paluzzi began to betray her. First he left her, absconding with some of her money. After his plans came to naught, he returned to Copia Sullam, who welcomed him back. On his return, Paluzzi, soon joined by Berardelli and two women—Paola Furlana, a laundress with three daughters in whose house Paluzzi lived near the ghetto, and Mora, a black marrano maid of Copia Sullam’s from Granada—devised a plot to steal from Copia Sullam and to blame the theft on spirits. Together they invented the device of an imaginary French admirer who had heard about Copia Sullam and wanted to correspond with her. They concocted letters from him that elicited from Copia Sullam costly gifts which ended up in Paluzzi’s room instead of being transported to Paris as promised. They even got her to commission Berardelli to paint her picture for the Frenchman, a gift that cost her over one hundred ducats. This is one of the two portraits of her which may have been discovered by Carla Boccato. When Copia Sullam learned the truth, she had Berardelli charged before the Signori di Notte al Criminal on July 8, 1625; unfortunately the records of this case cannot be found. She dismissed Paluzzi as her teacher. Paluzzi and Berardelli then wrote a pamphlet, Le Satire Sarreidi, in which they claimed that taking advantage of his illness she had stolen Paluzzi’s writings, including the Manifesto, one of the sonnets in it, and two no longer extant “books of paradoxes praising women and condemning men,” and passed them off as her own. This accusation was accepted by others although it is contradicted by the fact that Bonifacio himself had accused Copia Sullam of receiving help from a rabbi in writing the Manifesto.
In the introduction to his 1626 posthumous collection of Paluzzi’s poetry, Rime del Signor Numidio Paluzzi all’illustre ed eccellentissimo signore Giovanni Soranzo, Berardelli repeated the accusations of Copia Sullam’s plagiarism. Fortunately, thanks to the recent discoveries by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim and by Lynn Lara Westwater of two copies of the Rime, once considered no longer extant, they are now available.
Oblique references to defenses of Copia Sullam against the charges made by Paluzzi and Berardelli from about 1628 have been available in a manuscript that was published by Carla Boccato in 1987. An extremely complex anonymous literary creation, it follows many of the details also available in Paluzzi’s Rime.
This text, called either Codice di Giulia Soliga, after the otherwise unknown woman who wrote the dedication, or Avvisis di Parnaso, is in the form of a conventional literary type: a trial on Mount Parnassus before Apollo. This imaginary trial draws upon several unpublished sonnets by Copia Sullam, or attributed to her; references to the facts of the case purportedly based on the records of the actual Venetian criminal trial; the accusations from the introduction to the Rime; and defenses of Copia Sullam placed in the mouths of some of the greatest women writers of Italy. The latter included Vittoria Colonna, Marchesa of Pescara and one of the first published women poets (1492–1547); Veronica Gambara of Correggio, another early woman poet (1485–1559); and the comic Isabella Andreini of Padua (1562–1604). They are assisted by two women writers from ancient Greece, Sappho of Lesbos and Corinna. Pietro Aretino (1492–1556) and Baldassar Castiglione (1478–1529), male authors with much to say about the role of women in Renaissance society, also appear on her behalf. Her defenders are enthusiastic and sometimes crude. One speaker notes that when Bonifacio’s work appeared she did receive suggestions from several people, including an annotated copy of it from Paluzzi, but did not make any use of these; this is testimony either to the support she had or to her need for help. 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.
Copia Sullam’s literary career was unique for a Jewish woman of her time. It was nevertheless fraught with danger, since she interacted with many men in sexually and religiously charged correspondence. Yet she was able to protect not only her own honor but that of her husband and her community. In fact, her literary accomplishments seem to have enhanced Jewish standing in early-modern Italy. She was regularly mentioned in the literary accounts of other writers of her day, some of whom visited her, and throughout the subsequent centuries when her work was republished in anthologies of Italian literature, earning her an honorable mention in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani (1916–2000).
SELECTED WORKS BY SARRA COPIA SULLAM
Reale Simioli, Carmela. “Tracce di letteratura ligure (1617–1650) nelle carte napoletane dell’Archivio Dorio d’Angri.” Accademie e biblioteche d’Italia 49 (1981): 321–339. (Archivio di Stato di Napoli, Archivio da Marcantonio Doria, fs. 688, fol. 12a), contains one letter by Sara Copia Sullam.
Sullam, Sara Copia. Sonetti editi e inediti raccolti e pubblicati insieme ad alquanti cenni biografici. Ed. Leonello Modona. Bologna: 1887, 21–27. Contains many of her sonnets.
Cebà, Ansaldo. Lettere d’Ansaldo Cebà scritte a Sara Copia. Ed. Marcantonio Doria. Genoa: 1623. Contains four of her sonnets.
Boccato, Carla. “Sara Copia Sullam: La poetessa del ghetto di Venezia: episodi sua vita in un manoscritto del secolo xvii.” Italia 6 (1987): 104–218. Contains five of her sonnets as well as the Codice di Giulia Soliga/Avvisis di Parnaso.
Idem. Manifesto di Sarra Copia Sulam hebrea Nel quale e` da lei riprovate, e detestata l’opinione negante l’Immortalità dell’Anima, falsemente attribuitale da SIG. BALDASSARE BONIFACIO. Venice: 1621, published in three editions. Contains four sonnets. Usually bound with Bonifacio’s Risposte, which contains a letter from her.
Gabriel Zinano. Rime diverse. Venezia: 1627. Contains one of her sonnets.
From 1973 to 1988, Carla Boccato of Venice published in Italian an important series of researches on Sarra Copia Sullam in La Rassegna mensile di Israel:
“Un episodil della vita di Sara Copia Sullam: Il Manifesto sull’Immortalita` dell’Anima.” 39 (1973): 633–646.
“Lettere di Ansaldo Cebà, genovese, a Sara Copia Sullam, poetessa del Ghetto di Venezia.” 40 (1974): 169–191.
“Un altro documento inedito su Sara Copia Sullam: il ‘Codice de Giulia Soliga.’” 40 (1974): 303–316.
“Nuove testimonianze su Sara Copia Sullam.” 46 (1980): 272–287.
“Il presunto ritratto di Sara Copia Sullam.” 52 (1986): 191–204.
“Una disputa secentesca sull’immortalità ell’anima, contributi di’archivio.” 54 (1988): 593–606.
Don Harran has written an important English article which reports and integrates previous studies on Sarra, “Doubly Tainted, Doubly Talented: The Jewish Poet Sara Copia (d. 1641) as a Heroic Singer.” in Musica franca: Essays in Honor of Frank A. D’Accone, ed. Irene Alm et alii Stuyvesant, NY, 1996: 367–422.
The most thoroughly researched and innovative treatment of Sarra’s life and her work is Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim, “Faith and Fame in the Life and Works of the Venetian Jewish Poet Sara Copia Sullam (1592?–1641)” (Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, Cambridge University, no date, 1999?).
The most recent historical study and detailed analysis of her work from a literary point of view is the third chapter and the appendix of Lynn Lara Westwater’s forthcoming dissertation “The Disquieting Voice: Women’s Writing and Anti-Feminism in Seventeenth-Century Venice” (Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago).
The most accessible surveys of her life in the Jewish context are in:
Adelman, Howard. “The Literacy of Jewish Women in Early Modern Italy,” in Women’s Education in Early Modern Europe: A History, 1500–1800.
Whitehead, Barbara J., ed. New York, 1999: 133–158, or “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, 143–165. Baltimore: 2001.
How to cite this page
Adelman, Howard Tzvi. "Sarra Copia Sullam." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 19, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sullam-sara-coppia>.