Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara: Kabbalah, Italian Vernacular and Judaism.

An Exhibition of manuscript fragments at the Modena State Archives.

IRTH-Universita di Bologna

The seventh centenary of the death of Dante Alighieri (1285-1321) was celebrated with a wide range of events across Italy. The municipality of Modena in Emilia Romagna sponsored several initiatives on the occasion of its yearly edition of the Philosophy Festival. This time, from September 17 to 19, the festival was dedicated to the theme of “freedom” and an exhibition entitled Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara”: Frammenti di cultura medievale dal tempo di Dante was inaugurated in the main hall of the State Archives of Modena (ASMO) on 17 September, by the former director Patrizia Cremonini and thanks to the efforts of the exhibition coordinator Dr. Miles Nerini.

Photo 1: Vernissage

The aim of the exhibition, which will remain open to the public until 25 March 2022, is to display an overview of multifaceted medieval culture at the time of Dante, through a selection of manuscript fragments from ASMO’s great collection. The ASMO repositories indeed contain the vast archives of the long-established House of the Este, which ruled over Ferrara (1240–1597), Modena and Reggio (1288–1796). In 1598, Modena became the capital of the Estense territories, while accumulating as well a huge archival collection from the Roman Inquisition’s Holy Office, active in Modena until 1785. Thus, the documents in the archives can date back to the middle ages and roam far into the early-modern period.

The topics, history and contents of the fragments selected for this exhibition correspond to the themes encountered in the Divine Comedy and in Dante’s literary production, or treat the issues of “freedom” and “liberties”, in line with their medieval manifestations, varying according to culture and textual genre: from the juridical to the political, religious and even philosophical and esoteric; from Latin and Hebrew traditions to the increasing use of the vernacular in literary texts and documents. The archival documents presented in the exhibition are crucial witnesses of the literary, philosophical, legal and social landscapes of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, allowing a direct glimpse into this complex and refined society.

A good deal of the medieval specimens chosen for the exhibition are recycled parchment manuscripts, which were dismembered in early modern times – not foreign to the inquisitorial campaigns and the seizure of books – and then reused as covering sheets and envelopes of various seventeenth-century archival records. After having been detached and restored recently, they now stand as unique remnants of once existing medieval manuscript exemplars.

Emma Abate and Roberta Tonnarelli from the BwB team were asked to curate the section dedicated to the Hebrew fragments, in order to form a bridge between Judaism and Dante’s poetics. A choice was made among the almost two thousand Hebrew manuscript fragments preserved in the ASMO, amounting to the richest collection of Hebrew maculaturae worldwide[1]. The two curators focused on three different themes that engaged with Dante’s leitmotifs: mysticism, a central element in Dante’s otherworldly journey in the Divine Comedy; the use of the Italian vernacular, which Dante developed into an elevated literary language; the richness and vitality of Italian Judaism at Dante’s time, as it is witnessed by exemplary fragments which shed light on the spiritual and philosophical readings, the cultural variety and the mastery of the art of writing by the members of Italian Jewish communities.

As regards mysticism, three fragments are on display at the exhibition. The first one – fr. 188 (Busta 10) – is a parchment bifolium (fol. 330 x 231 mm) once reused for covering a seventeenth-century archival record (Partimenti dello Stato, partimento I [1643]). It includes a section of the kabbalistic commentary on the Torah by Menaḥem Recanati (1250-1310), an authoritative figure of the Jewish community and one of the most renowned Italian masters of the Kabbalah. Recanati was the first (or among the first ones) to introduce, in Italy, the theosophic kabbalistic doctrines and rituals of Spanish and Provençal origin. The thematic connections between Recanati’s and Dante’s visionary and mystical perceptions are still objects of intense debate. Native kabbalistic personalities have flourished in Italy since the late thirteenth century, and this author was part of this thriving movement. In his writings, he reworks, through a philosophical Neoplatonist perspective so typical of the Italian Jewish Kabbalah, the magnificent and blooming otherworldly imagery and symbolism of the main kabbalistic works circulating at his time: notably the Zohar (‘Book of Splendor’) and the Bahir (‘Book of Brightness’); writings by Mosheh Naḥmanides (1194-1270) and the Geronese school. The ASMO specimen in display contains a mystical interpretation of a section of the Book of Numbers, Parashat Balaq – corresponding to Numbers 22, 2-25, 9 – until the end of Parashat Pinḥas – Numbers 25, 10 –30, 1. This fragment is written in a semi-cursive Provençal handwriting, which, on paleographical grounds, can be dated to the fourteenth century. Our sample is not the only extant fragment of this manuscript: a dozen other fragments once belonging to the same codex, and encompassing different sections of Recanati’s commentary, have been found in the Modena and Nonantola Archives. They can now be combined in a virtual volume, as we did, in order to reconstruct at least part of the dismembered and lost original manuscript (see ASMO fr. 356.1-2; 363.1-2; 634.1-2 and Nonantola, fr. 196-200 corresponding to the virtual volume BwB 59)[2]. Kabbalistic manuscripts of that kind could have reached Italy, brought by migrants of Sephardi origins together with their belongings, or, as it is almost likely the case of this exemplar with Recanati’s Commentary, written down in Italy by Sephardi or Provençal scribes. Some of them were already freely integrated in the Italian communities since the late thirteenth century and participated in the cultural development of Italian Jewry, although they preserved the scribal customs of their original community.

Photo 2: ASMO fr. 188

As for the second and third fragments of our set, they also contain sections of Recanati’s work. They are two bifolios on parchment (fr. 750.1 – fol. 278 x 203 mm, and fr. 750.2 – fol. 276×199 mm) once belonging to one same fourteenth-century manuscript, which then served as a protecting sheet for a seventeenth-century archival register entitled Camera Ducale. Per le carte da gioco bollate (1641-1644). They stand among the few surviving folios (together with Hebrew fr. 102.1-2 held by the Archivio Capitolare of Modena) of a rich mystical and kabbalistic miscellany copied by an Italian Jewish scribe in an elegant and rounded Hebrew-Italian book-hand that recalls the style of the Latin rotunda. The texts preserved in the two fragments include passages of different mystical works circulating in Italy at that time. The first bifolium (750.1) contains again a section of the Torah Commentary by Recanati – in particular from Parashat Qedoshim (Lev 19.9-13; 20.25-21, 2), while in the second fragment (750.2) a portion of the Commentary by Recanati on the Prayers (Perush ‘al ha-Tefillot) is readable; remarkable is the section dedicated to the agencies of the Ten Sefirot (divine powers, emanations and instruments, according to Recanati’s conception) and to the effects of mystical prayer over the divine pleroma. The philological value of this text in comparison to the other branches of the tradition has been demonstrated by Saverio Campanini[3] and Giacomo Corazzol[4]. The reputation of Recanati, whom his contemporaries already considered a spiritual leader, influenced the following generations of Jewish and Christian kabbalists. His work was first translated into Latin by the convert Flavius Mithridates (fifteenth century) for his patron Pico della Mirandola (1469-1532); the Commentary on the Pentateuch was one of the first kabbalistic texts to be published in Venice in 1523; while the Commentary on Prayers was printed a bit later in Constantinople, in 1544.

In the second fragment of the same miscellany, we find an anonymous text entitled Ra’iti ta‘am katuv[5], describing a vision of the Heavenly World inhabited by angelic and metaphysical creatures similar to those that can be found in Ezekiel’s vision of the Merkavah, or…in Dante’s Paradise. This text is followed by the initial part of the Sefer Yeṣirah (Book of Formation), the celebrated early mystical text of unknown origins and date which describes the divine Creation of the Universe by means of thirty-two mysterious paths of Wisdom: ten dimensions and twenty-two letters. This text is accompanied by an anonymous commentary on this work, first attributed to Naḥmanides, while it has been only later recognized as authored by another kabbalist, R. Azriel of Gerona (1160-c. 1238). The editio princeps of Sefer Yeṣirah including also this commentary was published in Mantua in 1562

Photo 3: ASMO fr. 750.2

The theme of language is represented in our selection by some fragments from Sefer ‘Arukh, or simply ‘Arukh, the Talmudic dictionary Rabbi Nathan ben Yeḥiel (1035-1106) composed in Rome in 1102[6]. The work is the only original Hebrew literary testimony that has come down to us from eleventh-twelfth century Italy. It contains numerous lemmas considered by scholars to be among the most ancient witnesses of the Italian vernacular, written in an allographic alphabet. The lemmas refer to everyday objects and are valuable elements for the study of early Italian vernacular[7]. However, they are also important for tracing the origins of the Jewish-Roman language. Specimens from three manuscripts have been chosen for the exhibition. The oldest are three fragments glued together to form a single cover (Notarile di Modena. Pellegrino Ducci (1632-1633), fr. 341.1-3[8]). It happens that they are the earliest evidence of the work and among the oldest fragments ever found in bindings. Moreover, their dating on palaeographical grounds comes very near the time of the redaction of the work by Nathan ben Yeḥiel. As shown by recent research on Hebrew manuscripts in Italy, the production of a manuscript was entrusted to a plurality of copyists who worked collectively. The script of ‘Arukh in the fragments held in ASMO is very similar to the first extant samples of Italian Hebrew script, generally ascribed to the area of Salento (South-Eastern Italy) and defined by scholars as from the “School of Otranto”.

Other fragments of this same manuscript have been recently identified by Emma Abate during her search for reused manuscripts in the University Library of Pavia. Studies are underway to ascertain the presence of the hand of a third copyist in some parts of this reconstructed manuscript. The Roman rabbi’s work enjoyed success in Europe and many copies of his work followed. The ASMO collection as well preserves later versions of the ‘Arukh (Giusdicenze. Actorum iustitia (1650), fr. 1 [474.1], and Busta 10, fr. 101.), one in Italian and the other in Italo-Sephardic script, both on palaeographic grounds datable to the fourteenth century. In this period, the Italian script had changed compared to the beginning of the twelfth century; it has taken on rounded forms, likely influenced by the Latin Caroline script, and diverges significantly from the rigid linearity of the contemporary Ashkenazi forms. For this reason, some scholars define the Italian-Hebrew script of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as a “pearl necklace”.

Italian Jews up to the time of Dante were particularly engaged in the study of the Palestinian Talmud next to that of the Babylonian one. The Talmud Bavli seems to have spread in the Peninsula from the late twelfth century, if we rely on the witness represented by the fragments reused in bindings and by the manuscripts in Italian script. The fragments shown in the third section of our exhibition (Notarile di Modena. Giovanni Festasi (1553-1555), fr. 1 [340], fol. 361×296 mm), is about a hundred years older than the only entire copy of the Talmud Yerushalmi, which was copied in Rome in 1289 by the scribe Yeḥiel ben Yekutiel (preserved today at Leiden University Library – Ms Or. 4720), but it is posterior to the first Talmudic evidence whose fragments Mauro Perani brought to light in the State Archives of Bologna[9] (frr.564, 574, 651-652). The Modenese fragment, including the text of Talmud Bavli Seder Mo‘ed, Ta‘anit 9b-11a, is copied in a typically Italian square calligraphic script of great elegance. The degree of accuracy, calligraphy and format brings it very close to the square script which was usually adopted to copy the biblical text.

Photo 6: ASMO fr. 340

Another fragment on display once was part of a maḥzor of Italian rite, dating to the fourteenth-fifteenth century (Busta 10, fr. 150, fol. 252×185 mm). The rite of the Italian Jews was then, as it is today, the Roman one. It was especially in use in the Italian communities of central Italy, even before Dante’s time. The manuscript to which belongs this prayer book section – including moladot מפתח למולד לבנה, and prayer רשות לקדיש ישתבח – was dismembered and reused as a notarial binding in 1645. The state of preservation of the fragment does not allow to flatten it out completely for presentation. Therefore, it was decided to show the folds that were caused by its reuse as a cover and affected the parchment.

photo 7: ASMO fr. 150

Two thirteenth-century biblical fragments complete the exhibition: one in Italian Hebrew script (Giusdicenze, Squartius ad civilia (1668-1669), fr. 1 [512], fol. 332×245 mm ) and the other in the French-type Ashkenazi script (Partimenti dello Stato (1661-1668), fr.2 [222.2], fol 383×307 mm): they are witnesses of the great variety of traditions present in the cultural and liturgical life of the Italian Jewish communities of that time. Both fragments were once integral parts of precious volumes, which were prepared, laid out and copied according to different traditions, by competent scribes, excellent masters in the art of writing. The codices could have been either read in a synagogue, or, as it often happened, commissioned on the occasion of a wedding or another important family celebration.

Photo 8: ASMO fr. 512



Libertà va cercando, ch’è sì cara”

Frammenti di cultura medievale dal tempo di Dante

17 September 2021 – 25 March 2022

Archivio di Stato di Modena

corso Cavour 21, 41121 Modena

Open Tuesday, Friday

9.00am – 15.00pm alle 15.00

Admission free

Reservation: as-mo.prenotazioni[at]

Exhibition Journal:

[1] A major part of such a treasure of Hebrew fragments was first identified and inventoried by Mauro Perani and Saverio Campanini and in the past few years by Emma Abate and other researchers of the Books within Books project, contributing to their digitization and online descriptions: See M. Perani, L. Baraldi, I frammenti ebraici Modena, Archivio di Stato, Tomo I, in «Inventari dei Manoscritti delle Biblioteche d’Italia», vol. 113, Firenze, Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2012; E. Abate, “Books within Books e i frammenti ebraici dell’ASMO: Un lavoro d’equipe”, in «Quaderni Estensi», VI (2015), pp. 139-144:

[2] See M. Perani, Frammenti di manoscritti e libri ebraici a Nonantola, Comune di Nonantola, Nonantola-Padova, A. Ausilio editori, 1992

[3] See S. Campanini, “Recently Found Fragments of Kabbalistic Works from the “Italian Genizah””, in A. David, J. Tabory (eds.), The Italian Genizah, Jerusalem, Orhot 1998, pp. 37-45 (with edition of the fragment); Id., “Fragments of Kabbalistic Works from the “Italian Genizah” an Updated Survey”, in M. Perani, Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts Reused as Book-bindings in Italy, Leiden, Brill, 2022, in press.

[4] M. Recanati, Commentary on the Daily Prayers. Flavius Mithridates’s Latin Translation, the Hebrew Text, and an English Version, edited with an Introduction and Notes by G. Corazzol, 2 voll., Turin, Aragno, 2008.

[5] For the edition of this text, see also Campanini as cited in n. 3.

[6] See A. Kohut, Aruch completum sive Lexicon vocabula et res, quae in libris Targumicis, Talmudicis et Midraschicis continentur, explicans / auctore Nathane filio Jechielis, 8 voll., Wien-New York 1892.

[7] On the glosses see L. Ferretti Cuomo, “Il Giudeo italiano e le vicende linguistiche degli Ebrei in Italia”, in « Italia Judaica ». Atti del Convegno internazionale di Bari 1981, Roma 1983, pp. 427-454; Ead., “Dalle Glosse Giudeo-Italiane dell’ Arukh: accessori”, in « Quaderni di Acme » vol. 101, Milano 2008; Ead., “Le glosse volgari nell’Arukh di r. Natan ben Yehi’el da Roma: Note di lavoro a proposito del fondo germanico”, in « Medioevo Romanzo » vol. 22, Roma 1998, p. 232-276; Ead, “Le glosse volgari nell’Arukh di r. Natan ben Yehi’el da Roma: dal testo del Talmud e del Midrash alla glossa volgare: incontri e scontri sui fondi romanzo, bizantino e germanico”, in « COFIM » XII (1998), pp. 169-235.

[8] Corresponding to Virtual volume BwB 297,

[9] See, M. Perani, La nascita e lo sviluppo della scrittura ebraica italiana nelle Yešivot pugliesi dei secoli XI-XII, in C. Facchini (eds.), Non uno itinere. Ebraismi, cristianesimi, modernità, Studi in onore di Mauro Pesce in occasione del suo ottantesimo compleanno, in « Humanitas » 76, (Sup1/2021), pp. 365-394 and previous bibliography.

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