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Art, History & Politics, Literature

The Transient Worlds of Immanuel of Rome

Italian Jewish Studies Seminar

May 3, 2023
6:30 pm

In collaboration with
Centro Primo Levi New York
Università di Roma La Sapienza

Italian Jewish Studies Seminar
The Transient Worlds of Immanuel of Rome

Isabelle Levy (Columbia University)
Davide Liberatoscioli (University of Postdam)
Dario Internullo (University of Roma Tre)
Fabrizio Lelli (University of Rome La Sapienza)
Karla Mallette (University of Michigan)


This evening of discussion seeks to reconsider Immanuel of Rome and his work in relation to three areas of inter- est: recent historiography on fourteenth-century Roman culture from the communal experience to the end of Avig- non; the role of language and the question of poetry and prose in the transitions from the Arab and Norman to the Romance period; influences on Roman Judaism from the South of the peninsula, including the circulation of Ara- bic, Hebrew, and Byzantine sources in the literary circles of the time. In this effort to open new doors we wish to keep in sight the multidirectional connection among the Sicilian, Andalusi, and Baghdadi cultural circles with spe- cific reference to poetic traditions.

Little is known about Immanuel’s life and work. Most information comes from his own poems and religious commen- taries. He wrote in the vernacular and Hebrew, including the first “sonnets” in the biblical language. He conversed with a world steeped in the Arabic-Hebraic tradition while simultaneously maintaining a clear connection to the con- temporary literary circles of poets who would become known as “stilnovisti”. He lived during a turbulent period of Roman history—his lifetime estimated to be between 1261-70 and 1335-50— marked by a prolonged absence of the Popes from the city and a profound shift of power in the relationship between the Papacy and the Empire.

Immanuel’s work was published extensively during and after his lifetime, both individually and as part of anthol- ogies. Its impact must have been sufficiently visible to elicit a ban in the post-Tridentine tractate Shulḥan ʿArukh. Since his modern “rediscovery” by Leopold Zunz and Samuel David Luzzatto, several prestigious admirers have explored his writings including Umberto Cassuto, Cecil Roth, and Giuseppe Sermoneta. In the years since, histori- ography on 14th-century Rome, vernacular poetry, and al-Andalus has undergone considerable innovations, in terms of treatment of and access to primary sources; experimental methodological approaches; and a broadening of perspectives.

This project aims at giving new context to topics that may or may not have been explored in the past: TRAVELS: Intellectuals of the time often traveled, by choice or not, and transformed travel into a literary and political trope. Travel defined the notions of home and exile in ways that may differ dramatically from what we intend today but anticipate the consolidation of modern frontiers. LOVE: Perhaps the most difficult concept to pin down in this highly cross-cultural environment that absorbed love tropes from many different and intertwining traditions, includ- ing the Arabic, Hebrew, Byzantine, Christian, and their Neoplatonic variations. POWER: In the slow and progres- sive dissolution of the Roman Empire over the course of several centuries, layers of power structures came into being. The Papacy and the Empire emerged as primary makers of what will eventually be regarded as the “west- ern world.” Their interaction was complex and transformative for both. TEXT: Experimentation in prose and poetry; translation; the tension and overlapping of vernaculars with “classical languages,” including Latin, Arabic, and He- brew; the construction of canon; and public literary practice. SATIRE: In its many forms, between the 10th and 15th centuries, satire is a permanent feature among Christian, Muslim, and Jewish writers. Although often singled out as an explanation for individual and psychological attitudes, its continuity across cultures and traditions may serve as a ground for a broader reflection on societies in which encounters and otherness were a challenging norm. COMMUNITY AND POLITICS. While documentation on the Jewish community of Rome during and before Immanuel’s life is limited, fragments of a complex puzzle can be gathered from different sources, including pub- lishing, translating and learning activities, Jewish participation in political life, and demographic distribution.

Through these and other topics, we wish to explore the worldviews and cultural atmospheres of the time, as well as changing notions of the self, stemming from a period of strong tensions between margins and centers. The study days are structured as conversations based on a small number of presentations.

Centro Primo Levi’s public programs and seminars are made possible in part by the Achille and Maria Viterbi Family Endowment.