Dante's Debt to Judaism

Ha'aretz interviews Giorgio Battistoni, who in his book about Dante Alighieri and Immanuel of Rome, explains how the two poets may have influenced each other's work

"L'Inferno e il Paradiso," by Immanuello Romano. Introduction, notes and comments by Giorgio Battistoni, preface by Amos Luzzatto, translated from Hebrew into Italian by Emanuele Weiss Levi, Giuntina, 2000, 168 pages

In fair Verona, the city of the star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet, a book has recently been published with little fanfare about an earlier pair of lovers identified with the city, literary lovers who perhaps never parted - who knows? - during their lives or in their deaths: the Italian poet Dante Alighieri and his contemporary, the Hebrew poet Immanuello Romano (Immanuel of Rome).

The author of this book, Giorgio Battistoni, visited Israel after the book was published; a translator for Ha'aretz, Saviona Mane, who speaks Italian, heard him lecture at the Italian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv and told me about this. On the Saturday before his return to Verona, Saviona and I interviewed him, and a whole new world of ancient links between Hebrew and Italian literature at a moment of glory for both of them opened before us over a cup of coffee on Rothschild Boulevard.

Battistoni's book contains an item of great importance: the first translation into Italian, after 600-and-something years, of the major homage that Immanuel of Rome dedicated to the great Italian poet Dante Alighieri after his death. This is Mahberet Hatofet Veha'eden ("The Mahberet of the Inferno and Paradise" - according to T. Carmi in "The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse," p. 119, a mahberet is a work of alternating rhymed prose and metrical poetry - Ed.), the 28th mahberet in his major work known as Mahbarot Immmanuel. This is known to the non-specialist Hebrew reader primarily for the scatology it includes, which quite a few years ago served Dan Almagor as material for an amusing play.

Immanuel of Rome was also one of the initiators of the sonnet form in Hebrew, a secular poet and one of our first.

What brought you to this pairing of the relatively obscure Hebrew poet and Dante, who to this day is the national poet of Italy?

"The big mystery that concerns me in my book is the meaning of the silence about the connection between the Jewish poet and the Italian poet, and why the only homage is from Immanuel to Dante and there is no mention by Dante of his Jewish friend. And the question of whether there was a one-way influence by Dante on Immanuel and not, perhaps, the other way around. Maybe, I ask myself, it was Dante who owed much more to his Jewish source, and therefore blurred the connection that existed between them.

"After all, it is impossible that they did not know one another because Dante frequented the court of the Veronese patron Can Grande della Scala. Alongside him there was an active Jewish patron, Hillel Ben Shemuel, the founder of a dynasty of Jewish patrons active in Verona from the middle of the 13th century to the end of the 14th century. Immanuel of Rome was his protege. Thanks to this family, Avraham Ibn Ezra came to Verona and wrote two books, and the family also invited Immanuel to leave Rome, his birthplace, and settle in Verona. Hillel Ben Shemuel was also the friend of kabbalist Avraham Abulafia.

All this is circumstantial evidence. It feels like you want to convince yourself. Give us a reason to be convinced as well.

"Is Umberto Eco acceptable to you? So, Umberto Eco says that Dante knew about the Kabbala through Avraham Abulafia. Tell me: How do you think all the wisdom got from southern Spain to Verona if not with the Jews who migrated there, and first and foremost among them Avraham Ibn Ezra? And there was also Kalonymos Ben Kalonymos, who dealt in many translations from Arabic and from Hebrew into Latin. And there was also the Tiboni family who dealt in such books throughout Christian Europe, and the best proof of this is Thomas Aquinas, who when he wrote his Summa theologica mentioned that he had in his possession a Latin translation of the Rambam's `Guide for the Perplexed.'"

According to your description, it sounds like the books were easily accessible. Let's not get carried away: The printing press had not yet been invented.

"True, access to books and to knowledge was the province of very few, but what was behind the flow of information was interest on the part of a somewhat greater public. At that time, people were beginning to think about secularism, and if not about true secularism then about a blurring of the boundaries between the monotheistic religions. Of course, such thoughts were considered subversive and encountered the sharp opposition of the various religious establishments, but they could no longer be silenced.

"After the rediscovery of Greek philosophy in Europe, Judaism, biblical Judaism, and especially the prophetic books, looked like a kind of stage of metaphysics, and there was the beginning of the fascination with the figure of the biblical prophet, who in this context of the beginnings of secularism, embodied the figure of the new enlightened individual.

"And this is exactly what Immanuel of Rome did in his `Mahberet Hatofet Veha'eden,' when the Prophet Isaiah is elevated to the level of purity because of his learning, because of his understanding of the Scriptures."

The question of imitation is unavoidable. From this it is clear that Immanuel of Rome imitated Dante in everything, and the impression is that Immanuel simply adjusted him to the Hebrew language, and his achievement is in this adaptation of Dante into a Semitic tongue.

"I would suggest being very careful about using the word `imitation.' And perhaps the opposite is the case? First of all, I believe that if Immanuel of Rome was imitating anyone, it was not Dante but Alharizi, the originator of the mahberet genre, which was in turn an imitation of the Arabic maqama genre. The lines of influence and imitation, if at all, are far more indirect. Dante did not invent the plot model itself for the `Divine Comedy.' The general lines of the story of the poet descending into the world of the dead is already found in Sefer Hama'alot ("The Book of Degrees," by Rabbi Shem Tov Ibn Falaquera, 13th century) or the Arabic Kitab al miraj, which preceded Dante, and was translated into Latin and French. And these things were even studied in the early stages of Dante research."

So why is so little known about this, to the extent that you need to make an issue of it now?

"My aim is to correct an historical injustice, in fact. The tragedy is that in 1921, the 600th anniversary of Dante's death, these ideas began to be current. However, with the rise of Fascism in Italy, all the curiosity about Dante's foreign sources gave way to a narrow nationalism, in which Dante was perceived as the great national poet of Italy, the purely Catholic poet, and it was no longer possible to talk about Muslim influences, never mind Jewish. Ironically, the great Jewish scholar Umberto Cassuto contributed to this when he stated definitively that Dante had not known Immanuel of Rome, and that it was all a matter of wishful thinking. In this way, the possibility was blocked of seeing a connection between Immanuel of Rome and Dante, despite all the paths, which cannot be denied, that lead to the conclusion that there had been a connection between them.

"For many years, the notion prevailed that Dante hated Jews, because of various quotations from his works. I will prove that this is not true! For now, I am pleased that I have proved, in this book, how much Dante owed Judaism."