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Courting the Muse: Hebrew Wedding Poems from 18th-Century Italy

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

קול תהלה [Voice of Laudation]. Livorno, 1789. An invocation of the Muse by an un-named poet. From a collection of wedding poems celebrating the nuptials of Aron ben Yom Tov Sanguinetti of Modena and Chiara Baraffael of Florence. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

The spectacular news of the Venus flyby conducted by the Parker Solar Probe made headlines around the world last autumn, dazzling us all with its close-ups of the sun and reams of new data on nearby planets. Little wonder, then, if the mission has totally eclipsed another, even earlier journey to Venus nearly three centuries ago. To be fair, the fact of this earlier mission has only recently been discovered, having just come to light in a collection of 18th century Hebrew wedding poems preserved in the Library of Congress. But this being National Poetry Month, it seems time to rectify the obvious oversight.

The story of that earlier trip to Venus takes us to Mantua, a city in northern Italy in the year 1755. A renowned center of Italian Renaissance and Baroque culture, Mantua was also the home of a small but important Jewish community. And in this year of 1755, a Jewish poet with the resounding name of Solomon Jedidiah ben Abraham Hai Senigallia was doing his level best to add to its glory.

The occasion was a Jewish wedding, and Solomon, as we shall call him for short, eager to write a poem in honor of the young couple, was busy courting the muse. Not just any Muse, mind you, but a Hebrew-speaking Muse. A Muse with a scholarly command of the Hebrew language and its sources. A Muse familiar, moreover, with both Hebrew and Italian poetry, and ready to turn a sonnet at the drop of a hat. Now, all this might seem like a rather tall order, but Muses like this had in fact been hanging around Italy for well over a century by the time our poet sat down to write, as the numerous Hebrew wedding poems still in existence will attest. Of course, the whole point of a wedding poem was to celebrate the nuptial couple and offer blessings and good wishes for the future. But this did not prevent our Hebrew poets from mixing other motifs into the pot of stock themes, and a great many harped on the theme of poetic inspiration. This they did in the manner of the Italian poets, summoning the Muses to help them compose their poems or seeking to climb “Mount Parnassus” in search of the wellsprings of song. Not always without humor, we might add, as we see in this opening stanza from a collection of wedding poems published in Livorno in 1789:

Awake, O Muse, in all your pride,
And with harp and drums make a joyful sound
Now’s not the time for loafing around!
Nor today the day for you to hide.
Fly to Mount Parnassus and sing your song
Hurry thither; sing clear and strong.

שירה חדשה [A New Song]. Mantua, 1744. One of half a dozen collections of Hebrew wedding poems in the Library of Congress. The lovely title page boasts a trumpeting angel; note the smiling faces cleverly hidden in the architectural frame. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

Collections of wedding poems like this are rare, and the Library of Congress is fortunate in having a good half dozen of them in its collections. Some are more elaborate than others. They range from pamphlets containing one long poem by a single poet to collections of poems by seven or eight individuals. But make no mistake: by the 18th century there was nothing rare about Hebrew wedding poems in Italy, and very little that was original.

All of which brings us back to Mantua and to our poet Solomon, anxious to create a poem for his friends’ wedding. Now, Solomon was clearly looking for something different; something to make his poem stand out from the crowd. So instead of setting off for Mount Parnassus at the start of his poem he opted for a trip to Venus. This he describes in the preamble to his poem, which he called Keter Shoshanim [A Crown of Roses]. Consisting of 21 rhymed couplets, the preamble unfolds the circumstances leading to the composition of his wedding poem:

The heralds of poetry urged me to sing
to the sound of the lute or a harp of ten strings.
Thus, all ablaze, to Venus’s garden I turn
for its gates are flung open and for her assistance I yearn.
Suddenly some force swept me up, raised me high,
and inside her rose garden all at once there was I.
Turning sweetly to me, and begging my pardon,
she asked me just why was I there in her garden?

So here we have it: a trip to Venus, and without all the fuss and expense of a rocket, too. Just a little furor poeticus and there he is, face to face with the goddess herself. Explaining that he wants to write a wedding poem that will be really special (since everyone else was writing one, too), our poet hits upon the idea of a “crown” of sonnets and begs the goddess for help.

Now, a “crown” of sonnets, or a corona as it is known in Italian poetry, is a sequence of 14 sonnets, each sonnet consisting of 14 lines in a fixed rhyme scheme, with the last line of each sonnet becoming the first line of the next sonnet. A 15th sonnet composed entirely of these first lines comes either at the end of the sequence or, like Solomon’s, at the beginning, in which case it is known as the sonetto coronale. A most demanding form, indeed, and Solomon was quite right to ask the goddess for help:

“I’m really no good at making a speech,
nor to the heights do my poor talents reach.
Thus I come to you here and for your assistance now plead:
only you can give me the crown of roses I need.”

כתר שושנים [A Crown of Roses] by Solomon ben Abraham Hai Senigallia. Mantua, 1755. On the right, the end of the preamble; on the left the “sonetto coronale” made up of all the first lines of the following 14 sonnets. Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division.

In many ways, a “crown” of sonnets is ideal for a wedding. Not only does it allow the poet to show off his talents but it is also linked to Jewish wedding traditions going back to the Bible, when the “daughters of Zion” were bidden to “go forth and behold King Solomon with the crown with which his mother crowned him on the day of his wedding, and on the day of the gladness of his heart” (Song of Songs 3:11).

Fortunately for our Solomon, the one back in Mantua, Venus was quite ready to help:

Upon the green sward the goddess sat down
And in a moment plucked all the stuff for a crown.
She took a branch for the frame, mighty and thick,
And there on that branch 14 roses did stick
Holding the branch out to me the goddess then said:
“Behold rhymes for your poem; a glorious crown for the head.

Thus the “glorious crown” that followed this preamble was completed according to the strictest rules of the genre. Now, Solomon’s Crown of Roses is not quite the first corona in the annals of Hebrew literature. The honors for that go to Israel Benjamin Bassan, a rabbi in the city of Reggio who composed a crown of sonnets celebrating the birth of a son and heir to Francesco III d’Este, Duke of Modena, Reggio and Mirandola.¹ That work was published in Venice in 1753, accompanied by facing Italian translations and delicately etched illustrations. But first or not, Solomon’s Keter Shoshanim remains a unique contribution to Hebrew letters, and like the Venus flyby from last October, its journey to Venus may be deemed a complete success.

Opening pages from La Corona Estense: Sonetti Ebraici. Israel Benjamin Bassan. Venice, 1753. Rare Book and Collections Division.

  1. See Devora Bregman, Sharsherot ha-Zahav:ha-Sonet ha-cIvri le-Dorotav [The Golden Chain: the Hebrew Sonnet through the Ages]. Tel-Aviv, 2000, p. 123.

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