Martina Mampieri on Isaiah Sonne (1887-1960)

My research project as a Moritz Stern Fellow in Modern Jewish Studies at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg investigates the figure and scholarship of Isaiah Sonne (1887-1960), a pioneering although neglected scholar of Jewish Studies. Born in Galicia (Hapsburg Empire) and educated in Switzerland and Italy, he was active for almost twenty years in Italy up until the issue of the Italian Race Laws (1938) before moving first to Jerusalem, and then to Cincinnati, Ohio. Among other things, Sonne was tasked by the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities to compile a catalogue of the archival documents, manuscripts, and rare Jewish books preserved in the Italian Jewish communities’ libraries and archives. Although partial, the typewritten inventories prepared by Sonne inform us on the bibliographic patrimony held by twenty different communities before some of them (like the one of Rome) had been heavily plundered by the Nazis in 1943-45 or dispersed during and after the war. For several reasons, these inventories had never been published. A digital publication will be soon available on the website of CDEC (Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea) in Milan. As a member of this project, I submitted a short biographical profile of Sonne and the list of early printed books that appear in Sonne’s typewritten inventories.

In order to start planning my biography of Sonne and selecting the huge amount of papers and correspondence I gathered in Cincinnati and Jerusalem, I read again Lisa Moses Leff’s biography of Zosa Szajkowski, a Jewish historian who stole thousands of documents related to French Jewish history and sold them to American libraries. The book adds food for thought on many interesting aspects such as the role of historians during and after WWII; the blurred boundaries between rescue/theft, licit/illicit; the obsession for the Jewish past and archives; job dissatisfaction and resentment towards academia. I am still asking myself the questions I want to address in this book project and wondering how to narrate the individual story of a twentieth-century Jewish barely-known historian in connection to big topics such as the exile of Jewish intellectuals from Nazi-Fascist Europe, Holocaust, the diaspora of manuscripts and books, the legacy of Italian Jewish Studies.

Another aspect covered by my research project is Sonne’s private collection of manuscripts and books which is housed in the library of the Yad Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. So far, I had the chance to work only on the early books printed between the beginning of the sixteenth century and 1750. I organized the information about bibliographic details and the many “footprints” or marginalia (such as ownership notes, dates, censors’ signatures, ex libris, drawings, etc.) that appear on the folios of the specimens. Based on this research, I recently submitted an article (currently under review) on the Amsterdam printed editions and the footprints I was able to found in the Sonne collection. Still on material evidence from Sonne’s books, I am now planning to turn some papers I presented last year at Harvard into articles.

During the last days, I have been working on the final proofs of an article concerning an unpublished giudiata, a rhymed composition mocking Jewish funerals, which was very likely performed (sung and staged) in Rome at some point between 1648 and 1650. The author of this song was a Roman polemist named Melchiorre Palontrotti, who was the author of several lessons on the Psalms and treatises against the Jews. The text is preserved in the Vatican Library in the manuscript collection of Ivan Paštrić, italianized as Giovanni Pastrizio (1636-1708), scriptor hebraicus of the Vatican Library since 1694 up until his death. My essay furnishes information on Palontrotti and the historical background in which the song was written and performed, while connecting the genre of the giudiate to the Roman Carnival in which they first made their appearance. The article explores the content, languages (Judeo-Roman or giudaico-romanesco, Hebrew, Italian), and the style of the text. My transcription of the Vatican manuscript is reproduced in the appendix.

Drawing on my book on a sixteenth-century Hebrew chronicle on the pontificate of Paul IV (1555-59) by the Italian Jewish moneylender Benjamin Nehemiah ben Elnathan from Civitanova Marche, I am preparing an article on the prisons of the Roman Inquisition, which were destroyed and burned by the Roman populace at Paul IV’s death on August 18, 1559. The chronicler, who was an eyewitness of those events as he was imprisoned there between July and Paul IV’s death, provided fresh descriptions about the prisons, the organization of the Inquisition, the names of notable prisoners as well as curious details around the food served to them.

On April 1, I officially took up the position of co-editor at H-Judaic, the Jewish Studies Network of H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online. My tasks involve moderating posts concerning announcements, calls for papers, calls for applications, job offers, new publications, etc. as well as approving new subscribers. If you are not already registered and you would like to receive daily news and/or post your own announcements, you can join H-Judaic here:

I hope you and your loved ones are all healthy and safe.

Yours from afar,

Martina Mampieri