A Hyphenated Culture

"Dante, Verona e la cultura ebraica" by Giorgio Battistoni, Florence, Giuntina, 137 pages.

Giorgio Battistoni is a scholar who researches the works of Dante Alighieri (1231-1265) and the influence of Jewish and Islamic culture on the great Italian poet's work, "The Divine Comedy." His book "Dante, Verona e la cultura ebraica" was published recently in Italy.

Dante, who was sentenced to death in Florence for plotting against the government, found refuge in the court of the governor of Verona and patron of the arts Can Grande della Scala (1291-1329). Also living in Verona at that time was the Jewish poet and translator Emmanuel of Rome. Battistoni believes that Dante and Emmanuel of Rome knew each other and were friends, and thus the great Italian poet was exposed to the Jewish way of thinking and to Jewish and Islamic literary sources that influenced his work; this was the subject on which he focused in his book "L'Inferno e il Paradiso." The work of Jewish translators and intellectuals like Avraham Ibn Ezra and Hillel of Verona, who had been active in that and other cities in Europe since the 12th century, created a kind of "hyphen" that linked Islamic culture, Christianity and Judaism.

In an interview with Haaretz, Battistoni talks about his new book, the connection he believes exists between the translations that were done in Verona and Dante's "Comedy," and the influence he believes they had on the development of philosophy and science.

What led you to research the influence of Jewish and Muslim culture on the works of Dante, and since when have you been investigating this?

Battistoni: "I've been engaged in this since the beginning of the 1980s, ever since I became aware of the Islamic book `Kitab al mira' (`The Book of the Ladder'), which was translated into Latin in 1246 as `Il Libro Della Scala.' This book, which relates Mohammed's journey to heaven, was according to Spanish scholar Miguel Asin Palacios, a source of inspiration for Dante in the writing of `The Divine Comedy,' as he explains in his book `La Escatologia musulman en la Divina Comedia.' Then I began to wonder: Who, apart from the della Scala library might have brought to Dante's attention a text about mysticism, about Muslim eschatology, if not people who were much closer than Christians to to this mysticism, this culture? And because it was the Jewish translators who went on journeys, the ones who knew languages, who could move from the Spain of Alfonso X, to the France of Anjou, to Papal Italy or to Ghibelline Italy, because in every city there were Jewish communities that took them in, it immediately seemed to me that they were the conjoining hyphen.

"During the period when Dante found refuge in the court of Can Grande della Scala, Verona was not only a flourishing economic and commercial center, but also a cultural nerve center where three worlds joined together, the three monotheistic worlds."

And what was the Jewish translators' contribution to this?

"The Jewish translators never received the full respect they deserved for their contribution. They translated texts from Arabic to Castilian, which were later translated from Castilian to Italian or to Latin by their Christian colleagues, to whom in retrospect most of the translating work was attributed. That is, the translations that done made were not credited to the Jewish translators. First of all, the work of translating itself did not get the full respect it deserved - whether the translators were Jews, Christians or others. The translator is perceived as someone who transfers a work from one language to another language, and there ends his role.

"But then, in the Middle Ages, or more precisely, starting in 1150, because that's where I begin my research, the work of translation was not a banal task the way it is nowadays, when the translators sometimes don't know what they are translating. In those days it was also necessary to invent the terms, the ways to say things. And thus the thesaurus was born - this was in essence a work of philosophy. Selecting the texts for translation was also a philosophical choice; the texts were not chosen because they were expected to arouse interest among the public, but because they were considered foundation blocks of culture."

Commissioned - or not

Did the translators themselves choose the materials to be translated?

"They could choose. The writings were translated at the request of people who commissioned them, and I will relate to two of the best-known ones: the court of the King of Spain, Alfonso X, and in Italy, the court of King Federico II. They were the main commissioners of translations. But the translators' work did not end with the translations of texts that were commissioned from them. The Jewish community, for example, could ask them for writings that had not been commissioned by Federico II, but were of tremendous interest to the community. And as the translators lived in Rome, or Palermo, or Capua or Napoli, and received their pay from the king or the nobleman, they could translate for their communities texts that had not been commissioned by their employers - texts that were not orthodox, Christian or Greek.

"However, even when they attributed to a translator the long list of writings he had translated, they did not credit him for his knowledge of such a wide range of subjects. When a person like that came from Toledo to Verona, and I'm talking for example about Avraham Ibn Ezra, he didn't come as a simple translator, but rather as a learned man, philosopher, astronomer, astrologer and intellectual bringing with him to Verona knowledge that had not existed there before."

And were these translators mainly Jewish?

"Of course. The Jews knew languages, they had tools that the Arabs didn't have, they had centers in Europe and in North Africa. The Muslims were not able to move around and settle inside the Christian world; the Jews could. Perhaps they were not treated very well, but they could do it."

Among the writings that were translated by Jews, were there any that had nothing to do with the Muslim culture and in your opinion had an influence on Dante or on the court of Can Grande della Scala?

"Yes, quite a lot. All of the pseudo-Platonic, neo-Platonic or attributed to Plato Greek culture are writings that were translated by Jews."

Why did the Jewish translators have particularly great influence at the court of Can Grande della Scala?

"It could be said that unfortunately for Alfonso X and Federico II, they had no one in their courts of the stature of Dante Alighieri. In the court of Federico II there were also outstanding Jews, but they were anonymous."

Had it not been for Dante, would the translations have died out?

"No, no. They would not have died out. They would have been imprinted on the larger social corpus. For example, the principles of the Renaissance would have been realized even without the Medici family, but they would have been diffused within the large body called history. But when an individual arises of the stature of Dante in the Middle Ages, or of Lorenzo di Medici in the Renaissance - they are like the north star for sailors. The translations were essential for the birth of science.

"Science would not have developed without the translations - the 17th-century science of Newton, and that poor fellow who had to recant, Galileo Galilei, would not have emerged. This is because with philosophy, science was born. Philosophy comes to the medieval man via the translators, and without the translators the way would not have been paved to the Greek philosophers, to secularism, and it would have been impossible to arrive at science as we know it today."