Sarra Copia Sullam

Howard Tzvi Adelman

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 a musical rendition of a passage from L’Ester for one of his servants, a performance which Don Harran has offered a hypothetical reconstruction. Although Cebà was a monastic, and Sarra 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.