WASHINGTON: On March 23, “L’ebreo” (The Jew) premiered at The Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. “L’ebreo” was written for the Medici court Carnival of 1614. Its author, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, was the great-nephew and heir of Michelangelo. “L’ebreo’s” original script was lost, and it never actually made it to the stage.
American art historian Ed Goldberg, a resident of Florence, discovered the manuscript for “L’ebreo” while researching Michelangelo the Younger’s home, now known as the Casa Buonarotti. It’s now one of Florence’s most intriguing museums.
Goldberg, who translated the play into English, describes the manuscript he found:
“Rough draft doesn’t even begin to describe it. A wriggling mass of scratch-outs and rewrites, marginal notes and scratched-out scribbles. More than a hundred sheets, two hundred sides, front and back, of an unruly work-in-progress. Obscured by the slow burn of acid ink and layer upon layer of decaying restoration.”
The performance of the restored and presumably edited “L’ebreo” by the Cosmos Club players, with Anthony Gallo as executive producer, was a great success. It is, in fact, a raucous comedy with an unusual leading Jewish character. Michelangelo the Younger was the most admired Florentine playwright of his day, and this play casts a light on the complex history of Jewish life in Italy at that time.
Jewish history in Italy spans more than 2,000 years.
The Jewish presence in Italy dates to the pre-Christian Roman period. Despite continued periods of religious and ethnic persecution, that presence continues on modern Italy.
The Jewish community of Rome is one of the oldest continuous Jewish communities in the world, surviving from classical times to today. After Jewish citizens achieved civic equality in the 19th century, Italian Prime Minister Luigi Luzzatti, who took office in 1910, rose to become one of the world’s first (unconverted) Jewish heads of government.
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By 1920, there were 19 Jewish members in the Italian Senate. About 5,000 Jews served in the Italian military in World War l, comprising nearly half of the officers in that conflict. During World War II, despite Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler and the denial of many basic rights to Jews, Italy had the highest Jewish survival rate of any Nazi-occupied country except Denmark.
In Florence at the time “L’ebreo” was written, Goldberg points out,
“Scarcely 500 Jews lived in the Tuscan capital in 1613, among 60,000 Christians, but they were a conspicuous sight in its alleys, passages, and squares. Florentine bargain-hunters scoured ghetto shops for ‘Jewish deals’ and visited Jewish money-lenders to borrow on the sly. On occasion, Christians might even develop relationships with these intriguing strangers, usually of a business nature, but sometimes veering into the realm of Hebrew language and Hebrew culture, not to mention Kabbalah and the occult.”
At the same time, he notes, “
…rich and cosmopolitan Sephardic merchants from the Ottoman Empire were settling in Florence, carving a privileged place for themselves half-in and half-out of the local ghetto. They seized the attention of more or less everyone, Buonarotti included, with their “exotic garb, foreign manners and evident wealth.”
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Goldberg describes the play’s main character thusly.
“Your quintessential Levantine — with a turban, a long robe, and a hennaed beard. However, what was he doing in the midst of a raucous farce in the Commedia dell’arte mode, surrounded by young lovers, meddling elders, comic servants, mistaken identities and intercepted letters — the whole bag of tricks.”
How politically incorrect is the play? Goldberg provides a balanced opinion.
“Throughout (the play) his characters channel ancient prejudices that are politically incorrect today. But history is a funny thing. Back in 1614 ‘L’ebreo’ was politically incorrect too, for precisely the opposite reason.”
Buonarotti riffs on the Jewish stereotypes of his time, treating them as comic fodder. So, the biggest bigots get the biggest laughs for their sheer ridiculousness.
Ed Goldberg faced a triple challenge in restoring this obscure and never-performed drama. He had to retrieve the author’s own words. But then, even more crucially, he needed to delve beneath layers of revision in the original manuscript to reveal the play’s dramatic core. Only then could he shape it into a performance-worthy script, in English no less, while preserving the sound and sense of the original.
The play’s debut was a genuinely historic event.
Hopefully, “L’ebreo” will one day have a performance in its original Italian. Perhaps in Florence during a future Carnival season. The new museum of Italian Jewish history in Ferrara couldy be an appropriate venue.
Meanwhile, congratulations to Ed Goldberg for the significant historical contribution he has made.
— Headline image: Commedia dell’arte figure, “The Jew.” Image in the Public Domain.