Skip to content

Literary Works of Medieval Italian Jewish Poet Immanuel of Rome at the Dorot Jewish Division

By Lyudmila Sholokhova, Curator, Dorot Jewish Division

The immense diversity of the Dorot Jewish Division’s collections enables it to encompass nearly every aspect of Jewish history, literature and art spanning across  centuries and geographical regions. One particular strength of the collection lies in its representation of Italian Jewish culture. Treasures of the earliest Hebrew imprints from Rome, Naples, Venice, Mantua, Soncino, Riva di Trento, Rimini, and Fano, going back to the mid-15th century, along with exquisite manuscripts and ketubboth (Jewish marriage certificates) from Italy, have helped establish the reputation of the Dorot Jewish Division as one of the most distinguished Jewish libraries worldwide.

The beauty of Jewish Italian medieval poetry found its pinnacle in the sonnets of Immanuel of Rome (1261, Rome–c 1335, Fermo), and the Dorot Jewish Division at the New York Public Library is fortunate to house the earliest editions of his works in its collection.

Immanuel of Rome, whose full name was Immanuel ben Solomon ben Jekuthiel of Rome and who was  also known by his Italian nickname “Manoello Giude” (Immanuel the Jew) was born into a prominent Zifroni family in Rome. He held some leading positions in the Jewish community of this city before 1321. However, following the papal banishment decree issued against the Jewish community in Rome and through the end of his life, Immanuel of Rome was compelled to relocate frequently and resided in various places in Italy, such as Ancona, Camerino, Fabriano, Fermo, Gubbio, Perugia, and Verona.

Immanuel was a popular and celebrated author best known for his Mahbarot Imanuel, a literary work written in the genre of maqāma—a term derived from the Arabic word for “assembly.” It is characterized by fusion of rhymed prose and metered poems united by a cohesive narrative. As a genre, maqāma first formed in Arabic literature in the 10th century and became popular in Hebrew literature in medieval Spain in the early 13th century. Immanuel of Rome utilized a Hebrew equivalent of the term “mahbarot” (in plural) in the title of his cycle, which is arranged into 28 chapters. Interwoven with the rhymed prose are 38 metric Hebrew poems, crafted in the sonnet form, thus representing the first attempt to use this classic poetic form in a language other than Italian.

The New York Public Library’s Dorot Jewish Collection holds a very comprehensive corpus of early imprints of Immanuel of Rome’s writings, featuring some exceedingly rare incunabula, such as Sefer ha-Maḥbarot le-mar ʻImanuʼel from the Italian city Brescia published in 1491 by Gershom Soncino. The fact that this book emerged so early in the history of Hebrew printing undoubtedly attests to its widespread popularity. Notably, chapter nine of the work in this incunabula edition includes enchanting miniature engravings of zodiac signs thus illuminating on the author’s poetical fascination with calendars and astrology, a popular topic in the Jewish literature of that time.

The Library also holds a rare and beautiful second edition of Mahbarot Imanuel, which was published in Constantinople in 1535, which is additional proof of a continuous demand for Immanuel’s  poetry.

The content of Mahbarot predominantly exudes a secular and joyful essence celebrating love, friendship, and the pleasures of life. Its unique character is deeply rooted in a rich Jewish religious literary tradition, represented by celebrated medieval Spanish Jewish poets such as Judah Halevi (c. 1075–1141), Solomon ibn Gabirol (c. 1021–c. 1070), and others. At the same time, Immanuel’s poems show his admiration by his genius contemporary—Italian poet Dante Allighieri (1265-1321), an author of the eminent Divide Comedy. The final poetical section of the book, Maḥberet ha-Tofet ve-ha-Eden (The Hell and the Paradize), bares  a particularly evident Dante’s influence. In it, a pilgrim named Immanuel, prototype of the author, follows a character named Daniel through the imaginary hell and heaven, encountering biblical figures and their contemporaries along the way. This section, together with Mahberet Purim ([A poem} for Purim), were published in a separate edition in Berlin in 1778.

While  Mahberot was by far Immanuel’s most celebrated creation, he was also well known as a biblical commentator. Recognition of his wisdom is evident in yet another exquisite incunabula edition of Immanuel’s Commentaries on Mishle (Proverbs) published as early as in 1487 in Naples, Italy, and held at the Dorot Jewish Division.

Read the full article here:

Back To Top