The Jewish community of Mantua started to produce plays in 1520 for carnival celebrations and civic spectacles to honor visiting dignitaries and to celebrate births and marriages of the reigning Dukes. What began as simple carnival performances by “the Jews” (known as ebrei) soon evolved into an annual tradition with increasingly elaborate costumes and stage effects. The theatrical productions would continue until 1650. This book explores how the Jews of Mantua made history by creating highly elaborate and popular theatre productions.
In Mantua, Jews found security and safety while elsewhere throughout Europe they faced exile and forced conversion. Azariah de’ Rossi, a resident of Mantua at the time, called the town a “happy city” (in Hebrew, a kiriya aliza). But Mantua was much more than just a safe haven. There, the vibrant practice of making theatre became another way for Jews and Christians to interact.
One document reveals the possibilities that theatre making offered to the Jews of Mantua. In a letter dated 1579, the prolific Jewish playwright and producer Leone de’ Sommi (1527-1592) wrote to Duke Guglielmo Gonzaga. De’ Sommi enticed his Duke with the promise of upcoming carnival celebrations. He shared that during the night “there came to me a fancy,” an idea, an inspiration for a performance that De’ Sommi was so taken with that it awakened him at night. De’ Sommi excitedly revealed that this “fancy” promised to be so amazing that it would “increase the pleasure for the spectacle.” These words teased the Duke’s curiosity, and also served to entice the patron into allotting more time for De’ Sommi to develop his play. The letter gives insight into the early-modern entertainment world and invites a comparison to today’s promotional tactics. In the 21st century, the equivalent of this letter could entail film promos or movie previews. At the time, De’ Sommi’s letter was a masterful manipulation of a system generally rigged against the Jews — evidence of how the Jews employed theatre as “cultural currency” to grapple with ruling authorities.
De’ Sommi’s letter is one of several documents, play productions and images studied in Jewish Theatre Making in Mantua, 1520-1650. Collectively, these materials tell the rich story of how the Jewish community of Mantua created a theatre making tradition for well over a century.
by Erith Jaffe-Berg