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Sommo, Judah Leone ben Isaac

SOMMO, JUDAH LEONE BEN ISAAC (also known as Leone De Sommi Portaleone, Leone di Somi, Leone Ebreo de Somi, Leone de' Sommo Portaleone, Yehuda Sommo; 1527–1592), dramatist, theater director, and poet in Hebrew and Italian. An outstanding contributor to the development of the theater during the Renaissance, Sommo, born in Mantua, was a descendant of the aristocratic *Portaleone family. He was educated in the spirit of the Renaissance in general and in Jewish subjects by Rabbi David b. Abraham *Provençal who planned to found a Jewish academy of sciences at Mantua. Provençal, however, opposed Jewish participation in the theater. In his youth Sommo served as tutor and copier and invented a method for manufacturing ink, which is mentioned in Shiltei ha-Gibborim (Mantua, 1612), authored by his relative Abraham Portaleone. At the age of 23 he wrote a five-act prose play, Ẓaḥut Bediḥuta de-Kiddushin ("An Eloquent Marriage Farce"), which is the oldest Hebrew *drama extant. In 1557 he participated in a satirical literary competition on the subject of women, in their praise or censure. He submitted a long macaronic poem, Magen Nashin ("In Defense of Women"), with alternate stanzas in Hebrew and Italian, which he dedicated to Anna *Rieti.

Sommo seems to have been active from an early age in writing and staging plays for the Gonzaga court theater where European dignitaries were often in attendance. Each year the Jewish community of Mantua was obliged to present a play before the duke; Sommo was placed in charge of these performances. In 1565 he submitted to Cesare Gonzaga, patron of the literary school Accademia degl' Invaghiti ("Academy of the Lovesick"), Dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche ("Dialogues on the Art of the Stage," ed. F. Marotti, Milan, 1969). In recognition of this work Sommo was admitted a year later as the only Jewish scrittore ("writer") in the academy. He ultimately became renowned throughout Europe as a dramatist and director, as well as an expert in stage design, make-up, and lighting effects. Sommo pioneered in the use of lighting by placing torches around the hall or on the stage. The torches were brightened or dimmed at appropriate times to heighten the emotional atmosphere of the play. The famous playwright Manfredi insisted that Sommo was the only director capable of staging his Semiramis. He befriended many famous actors and actresses who came to Mantua.

Although Sommo reached the height of fame in European theater, he did not neglect his activities in the Jewish community. In 1574 he aided Azariah dei *Rossi in publishing his controversial book Me'or Einayim. Like other famous Jewish artists and performers granted similar privileges, Sommo was exempted in 1580 from wearing the yellow *badge required of the Jews. In 1585 he was allowed to buy property in Mantua upon which he built a synagogue. In the same year Sommo was involved in an unsuccessful attempt to have the duke of Mantua crowned king of Poland after the former king died leaving no male heir. In 1588 he submitted to the first duke of Vincenzo a prose comedy, Le tre sorelle ("The Three Sisters," ed. F. Marotti, Milan, 1970).

Sommo's literary output, which remained in manuscript until the 20th century, comprised 16 volumes. Those works composed in Italian included 13 plays (comedies in prose and rhyme, pastorales, intermezzos), the Dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni Sceniche, 45 Salmi Davidici ("Psalms of David"), poems, canzones, and satires. However, 11 of the Italian volumes, stored in the National Library of Turin, were destroyed by a fire in 1904. Only Le tre sorelle, the rhymed pastorale L'Hirifile, and a few Italian poems survived. Numbered among his Hebrew works are the first Hebrew play (four copies), two short dialogues (one of which, Shetei Siḥot Tinok Omenet ve-Horim, is the earliest piece of *children's literature in Hebrew), and several poems. J. *Schirmann discovered Ẓaḥut Bediḥuta de-Kiddushin in 1930 and it was subsequently printed for the first time in 1946, some 400 years after it was written. In 1937, Dialogues on the Art of the Stage first appeared in print in A. Nicoll's English translation and in 1969 it was first printed, together with Le tre sorelle, in Italian.

Sommo's greatest works are the Dialoghi and his Hebrew comedy of betrothal. The Dialoghi, among the most valuable discussions on Renaissance theater, are written in a lively and humorous style. Four in number, the Dialoghi are conducted by Veridico, a Jewish embroiderer of Mantua who directs performances at the ducal court, like Sommo himself, and two Italian devotees of the theater. Veridico tells his friends how he selects, rehearses, and readies a play for performance. Sommo's writings, although echoing the style of Aristotle and Horace who were very popular in Italy at that time, ventures the original opinion that it was the Jews who contributed drama to world literature. He maintains that the Book of Job, whose authorship Jewish tradition ascribes to Moses, was the first drama in history and influenced Plato to write in dialogue form, which, in turn, inspired the Greek dramatists. In the second dialogue Sommo asserts that dramatists divide their plays into five acts and limit the number of actors appearing on the stage at any time to five in order to correspond to the number of books in the Pentateuch. To prove the antiquity of Jewish drama he cites the Aramaic dramatic allegory "The Current of Life" ("Corso della Vita"), and traces the origin of the Italian word scena ("scene") to the Hebrew shekhunah ("street" or "neighborhood"). Much of interest is to be found in his detailed discussion of various aspects of theatrical production (acting, costuming, makeup, and lighting); his advice on the method of acting resembles Hamlet's monologue on the same theme.

Written mainly in biblical Hebrew, Zaḥut Bediḥuta de-Kiddushin is cast into the characteristic style of Renaissance comedy. The heroes are based on the stock figures of commedia dell'arte and the plot is taken from an aggadah of Midrash Tanḥuma: a father on his deathbed bequeaths all his property to his slave, leaving to his only son, who is abroad, the right to choose only one article from the estate as his own. The plan is based on the assumption that the son, upon his return, will choose the slave and thus, since a master automatically acquires all that belongs to his slave, he will obtain the whole estate. Until the son's return the inheritance will be safely guarded by the slave. However, the parents of the son's fiancée, believing that their intended son-in-law has been disinherited, cancel the engagement. The youth then plans to seduce his beloved in a vineyard and marry her by nissu'ei bi'ah ("marriage by intercourse"). In the finale, Rabbi Amittai ("speaker of truth," the counterpart of Veridico in the Dialoghi) solves the predicament and the youth regains both his fiancée and his inheritance. The comedy was designed not only to amuse the audience but also to criticize contemporary Jewish behavior in matters of betrothal and marriage and to demonstrate the literary potential of Hebrew. The play was apparently staged in Sommo's lifetime and later during the 17th century in Italy. It was produced for the first time in Israel in 1963 by a Hebrew University troupe and in 1968 by the Haifa Theater, which performed it two years later at the Venice Festival.


J. Schirmann (ed.), Ẓaḥut Bediḥuta de-Kiddushin (19652), 173–6 (bibliography); A. Nicoll, The Development of the Theatre (19665), 253 (bibl.); A. Holtz, in: Tarbiz, 36 (1967); I. Gour, in: Bamah, 31 (1967), 14–25; Judah Leone ben Isaac Sommo, Dialoghi in materia di rappresentazioni sceniche (1969); idem, Le tre sorelle (1970). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Namery, in: HUSL, 9:2 (1981), 147–74; Tre sorelle: comedia, ed. G. Romeo (1982); A Comedy of Betrothal = Tsahoth B'dihutha D'Kiddushin, transl. A.S. Golding (1988); The Three Sisters: Le tre sorelle, transl. D. Beecher and M. Ciavolella (1988); W.S. Botuck, Leone de' Sommi: Jewish Participation in Italian Renaissance Theatre (1991); Y. David, in: RMI, 61:1–2 (1995), 119–128; J. Guinsburg, in: Iberia Judaica (1996), 307–15; A. Belkin (ed.), Leone de' Sommi and the Performing Arts (1997); K. Werchowsky, in: REEH, 5 (2001), 171–81; A.L. Benharrosh, in: Cahiers du Judaïsme, 14 (2003), 25–43.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.