Levi, Rosa (fl. 1571)
Of Rosa Levi, only two works are known: a sonnet written at the behest of the blind poet and playwright Luigi Groto (sometimes spelled Grotto) for an anthology of verses compiled by him to celebrate the defeat of the Turks by the Holy League in the Battle of Lepanto, 1571 (in which year the anthology was published); and a distich in response to a six-line poem by Groto (first printed, in a collective edition of his Rime, in 1610). Levi's sonnet was sufficiently distinctive to earn it a place among the works of "the most illustrious female poets of all times" in Luisa Bergalli's so entitled anthology (1726) and a reference in the bibliography of Italian women's works compiled by Pietro Leopoldo Ferri (1842).
Some few biographical details on Levi as a young woman can be assembled from early secondary literature, an oration by Groto, and her poems along with Groto's, as follows:
(1) In the early secondary literature Levi is said to be a Jewess born in Venice (Bergalli, as above, 267); Giovanni Grotto , 24).
(2) From the extended oration that Groto delivered on the occasion of her baptism in 1565 we learn that, at the time, she was a young girl (or as variously described there, "giovanetta," "fanciulla," and "donzella"), who stood "at the dawn of her tender youth," and that one could not help but be struck by her "beauty" and the grace "of her movements, gestures, speech, steps, and actions." Groto details the various stages in her apostasy: after having decided (or possibly been pressured) to convert, she hid her intentions from her family, continuing to reside at home--in the Ghetto--and pray as a Jew, but identifying with Christianity ("midst the Jews you lived as a Christian: with your feet you went to synagogue, in your heart you went to church"); but unable to bear the deception any longer she "left wealth, family, home, father, mother, brothers, sisters" (probably in September 1564), slipping out (and past the Ghetto's gates) at midnight to make her way to the house of the "rector" (rettore), who, it may be presumed, headed a Casa dei Catecumeni. There prospective converts were lodged until properly instructed in Christian doctrine in preparation for their baptism. Levi's was celebrated, nine months later, in Adria (Groto's "hometown," some thirty miles from Venice), probably in the church of Santa Maria Assunta della Tomba (19 June 1565), on the Sabbath eve of Pasqua rosata (i.e., Pentecost), as proper to honor the Virgin Mary ("... the Sabbath, on which you will dedicate yourself ... to the heavens' supreme empress, to whom the Sabbath itself is dedicated"); her new name was, accordingly, Mary.
(3) In her sonnet written six years after her baptism ("Non più desire homai l'alma vi cinga"), Levi speaks as a Christian: "... God gave victory, / Against invincible, bellicose Thrace [Turkey], / To the true worshippers of His faith [Christianity]"; lines 9-11). She dedicated it to Groto, asking him in it to desist from praising her in his poetry and, instead, apply himself to subjects worthier than a "rose" ("For of your lofty style more is required / To sing of a palm than of a Rosa," 13-14, the "palm" in reference to victories, in particular Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem as commemorated on Palm Sunday). Groto so loved her, she admits, that with his "soul bound by desire," and his "heart pressed" by hers, he glorified, in verses, her "face," "tresses," "eyes," and the "beauty" of what they shared ("bellezza nostra"). Levi's words raise the question of the relations between Groto and the former Jewess: were they amorous in verse only or in real life too? A partial answer can be found in various other poems--seven in all--that Groto wrote about Levi. His vocabulary in them is erotic and Levi, the "rose," appears to have resisted his insinuations of seduction by using her "thorns" (thus Groto's sonnet "I am looking for a tender rose amidst harsh thorns": Rime, pt. 1 , 174). She took umbrage when, in a six-line poem (composed according to the new metric system invented by Claudio Tolomei), he asked for her "kisses" and spoke of "plucking [her] roses," which "language," should it "offend" her, he declared, she could silence by "biting [his] mouth." She answered, in a distich, that "You who smelled the roses that I strew on my ears / Should see to it that they stay in your heart" (Rime , pt. 2, fol. 71r); said otherwise: don't debase our relationship by moving it from a spiritual to a corporal level.
The years that followed Levi's baptism are shrouded in obscurity. Did she marry and raise a family? Did she enter a religious order? Why is it that she appears under her Jewish name (Rosa Levi) in Groto's post-baptismal verses and not as Mary (Groto had said in his oration: "You will leave your old name together with your old life ... you will leave the name Rosa and take the appellative Mary")? Might that indicate that she backslid into Judaism and, if so, would have had to answer for her regression before the Inquisition? One interesting biographical detail emerges from a sonnet that Groto wrote, at Levi's request, upon the death of her brother. In the annotated table of contents to the volume in which it appeared, the brother is said to have been "a most remarkable Jewish musician" (Rime, 1587, 189) and, in the sonnet itself (ibid., 131), to have excelled "in song and in playing [an instrument]," demonstrating his skills "at royal banquets" and "on lofty stages," viz., in courts and the theater. His identity has yet to be determined.
Submitted by Don Harrán, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2007.
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