SAHULA, Isaac ben Solomon, ibn.
‘THE ILLUSTRATED HEBREW BOOK PAR EXCELLENCE’
Meshal ha-ḳadmoni.Venice, Meir Parenzo, c.1547.
Small 4to. ff. 64. Hebrew letter, partially vocalized. Woodcut printer’s device to title, 79 small woodcuts (some repeated, one censored in ink) of animal fables, 5 diagrams showing the Creation. Light age yellowing, initial and final ll. just browned, lightly waterstained at margins and strengthened at gutter, tiny worm trail at blank gutter of last few ll., inoffensive marginal ink, oil and finger marks or occasional foxing. A well-preserved copy in c1600 sheep, probably Piedmontese, triple blind ruled, blind-stamped fleuron and cherub to covers, flat spine, single blind ruled, extremities worn, a little scattered worming, light water stain to lower half of upper cover. C20 bookplates of Mayer Sulzberger and the Jewish Theological Seminary (stamped ‘withdrawn’), early Hebrew autographs and ms notes to title, front eps and couple of text ll., early autograph (‘A. Bedesghi’?) and marginal ms notes to title and one text leaf, C17 autographs ‘Francesco Lonperto Grattarogna Foa’, ‘Giaco[mo] Giustiniano’, ‘Giacomo Otavio Giustiniano’ and ‘Giaco[mo] Carlo Brignoli’ to rear eps.
Third edition of the first illustrated Hebrew book, with 79 very fine woodcuts, the earlier eds are usually found with 75. Rarely found complete, this is also the earliest obtainable edition, the first (1491) and second (1497) have passed through the market, both in incomplete copies, only twice. This copy is also remarkably preserved in an early binding, with interesting early North Italian provenance.
It is the only ‘medieval Hebrew work with a continuous tradition of illustration going back to the author himself who provided rhymed captions for illustrations (Stern). The printer of this lovely and elegant ed., Meir Parenzo, learnt his craft at the Venetian presses of Daniel Bomberg and Marco Antonio Giustiniani. The illustrations had been an integral part of the work since its composition and are present in medieval mss as well, the earliest surviving codex dating from c.1450 (Habermann, p.169). The woodcuts reprise ‘those in contemporary eds of Aesop’s fables, depicting animals, and less often people, engaged in various activities, including their discussions. […] They were prepared by three different hands’ (Haller, p.333). ‘Although these woodcuts are frequently referred to as sensuous, or even pornographic, there is but one illustration (p.170). that of the faithless wife and her lover, that includes an explicit feature. In some copies [as in the present], this has been obscured by pen-work’ (Loewe, p.cxxiv).
Isaac bin Sahula (b.1244) was a Hebrew poet, scholar, physician and kabbalist from Castile, who travelled widely in the Iberian peninsula and Egypt. ‘Sahula’s “Meshal ha-kadmoni”, completed in 1281, is one of the most famous works of Jewish literature from medieval Castile. Divided into five sections respectively on wisdom, penitence, good counsel, humility and reverence, it comprises dozens of self-contained fables, mostly accompanied by an illustration, in rhyming Hebrew prose with occasional verse following the Arabic ‘maqāma’ tradition, featuring animals as protagonists. Indeed, Sahula became known as ‘the Jewish Aesop’. The fables are inserted as examples within a broader dialogue on those virtues between a Cynic and a Moralist. Among the fables are passages on natural science, medicine, philosophy, astronomy, geography, perception, meteorology and astrology.
The late C17 and early C18 provenance appears to be north-west Italian, like the binding. Giacomo Ottavio Giustiniani was a Genoese aristocrat and commissioner at Ovada, Piedmont, mentioned in numerous local records c.1660s-80s. The Giustiniani family was born as a ‘maona’ (business aggregation) of kin Genoese aristocratic families, in charge of the Island of Chios, which they lost in 1566. Some of the Hebrew autographs mention members (Abraham and Isaac) of the Valabrega family, present in Piedmont since the C16, and the manager of several ‘banchi’ in Turin, in the C17 and C18. The Foa, originally a Jewish family from France, had been in Piedmont since the C15. Francesco Lonperto’s name is followed by the Italian nickname ‘Grattarogna’ (‘scab scratcher’), an anti-Semitic stereotype found in several European proverbs (e.g., Poland, in Skuza, p.55, Venice, in Fortis, p.281) whereby Jews were denigrated for their dirty appearance and related skin conditions (especially ‘rogna’). The Babylonian Talmud also has a few lines on scratching one’s own scab on the day of the Sabbath. Mayer Sulzberger (1843-1923) was a judge and book collector, owner of one of the finest private libraries in America, later donated to the Jewish Theological Seminary.Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl., 5415; Vinograd, Venice 319; Sander 3490. Not in USTC or EDIT16. H. Lachter, ‘Spreading Secrets: Kabbalah and Esotericism in Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-kadmoni\', JQR, 100 (2010), pp.111-38; I. Ibn Sahula, Meshal Haqadmoni, ed. R. Loewe (2004); S. Skuza, ‘L’immagine dell’ebreo nei proverbi polacchi’, Phrasis (2018), pp.49-59; U. Fortis, ‘Riferimenti agli ebrei in un inedito del Settecento veneziano’, Rassegna mensile di Israel, 38 (1972), pp.268-81; Haller, The Sixteenth-Century Hebrew Book (2004), vol.I.; A. Habermann, ‘The Jewish Art of the Printed Book’, in Jewish Art: An Illustrated History, ed. C. Roth (1971), pp.163-74; S. Foa, ‘Banchi e banchieri ebrei nel Piemonte dei secoli scorsi’, Rassegna Mensile di Israel, 21 (1955), pp.520-35.