Sara Copia Sullam (1592-1641) was an Italian poet and writer who lived in Italy in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. She was Jewish and very well educated. Despite being married, for many years she had what appears to have been an extremely close relationship, by correspondence only, with a writer, Ansaldo Cebà, whom she admired but whom she never actually met. He was a Christian, and at that point in his life he had become a monk. He appears to have fallen in love with Sara, and constantly urged her to convert to Christianity, but she resisted.
In 1621, Sara was accused of a serious crime of belief, a heresy, and was in danger of trial by Inquisition. She received almost no support from many of her friends, including Cebà. She died of natural causes in 1641. Of her writings, a number of her sonnets and her Manifesto (a response to the accusation of heresy) are all that have survived to the present day.
Sara was born in Venice in 1592 to a Jewish family. Her parents, Simon and Ricca Copia, had two more daughters, Rachel and Esther. Sara was given a basic education in both Jewish and Italian cultures, and learned several languages including Ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew.
In her poetry, Sara demonstrated her knowledge of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, as well as her familiarity with the works of Aristotle and Josephus. She started writing poetry in Italian at a young age and continued for the rest of her life.
As an adult she married Jacob Sullam. She and her husband loved the arts, and invited to their home both Christian and Jewish writers, poets, intellectuals, artists, and clerics. She was described as a woman who "revelled in the realm of beauty, and crystallized her enthusiasm in graceful, sweet, maidenly verses. Young, lovely, of generous impulses and keen intellectual powers, her ambition set upon lofty attainments, a favorite of the muses, Sara Copia charmed youth and age."
In 1618, Sara read the book L'Ester, a drama written by an author called Ansaldo Cebà. Twenty seven years her senior, Ansaldo Cebà had been a diplomat when he was younger, but had decided to spend the rest of his life living as a monk. He had gone on retreat in one of Genoa's monasteries.
Cebà's book made a great impression on Sara, and so she wrote a letter to him. In the letter she admitted that she carried the book with her all the time, and even slept with it. Cebà responded to Sara's letter, and this was the start of four years of letters, gifts and poems, exchanged between the two.
Ansaldo Cebà wrote to Sara that he wanted to help her convert to Christianity. He was aware of how beautiful Sara was, because his servant, whom he sent with presents for her, had told him so. And on one occasion Sara sent Cebà her portrait, writing: "This is the picture of one who carries yours deeply graven on her heart, and, with finger pointing to her bosom, tells the world: "Here dwells my idol, bow before him.""
Eventually Ansaldo's desire to convert Sara to Christianity became something more significant: it seems he fell in love with her, a love that was not necessarily just platonic. Their correspondence became more intimate, with some physical allusions and some sexual implications. It was as if they both were playing a game of love, although nothing was ever completely spelled out. Ansaldo wrote to Sara that if she would convert to Christianity, after death they would be united in Heaven.
Sara's name was originally spelled "Coppia" meaning "pair" or "couple", and in one of Cebà's letters to her, he said that the two letter "p"s in her name were an indication that the two of them could indeed become a couple, despite the fact that he was a Catholic monk and she was married. After that, Sara started spelling her name with a single "p": Copia. All the way to the end of their correspondence, Cebà tried to convert Sara; this became the greatest desire of a man who was getting older and whose health was now failing. However, Sara never submitted to his wish. She did however give Ansaldo permission to pray for her conversion to Christianity, and in return he allowed her to pray for his conversion to Judaism. Sara and Ansaldo never actually met.
In 1623, Cebà published 53 letters that he had written to Sara. Sara's letters to Cebà were never published, and are lost.
Baldassarre Bonifacio was a prominent Christian cleric who had been a guest at Sara and her husband's receptions. In 1621, he wrote a treatise Immortalità dell'anima (On the Immortality of the Soul). According to Bonifacio's account, two years before that, Sara had caused him to realize that she did not believe in the immortality of the soul. This was a very serious accusation of a crime of belief which could have resulted in a trial by inquisition.
In response, Sara wrote a work entitled, Manifesto di Sarra Copia Sulam hebrea Nel quale è da lei riprovate, e detestata l'opinione negante l'Immortalità dell'Anima, falsemente attribuitale da SIG. BALDASSARE BONIFACIO, translation: The Manifesto of Sara Copia Sulam, a Jewish woman, in which she refutes and disavows the opinion denying immortality of the soul, falsely attributed to her by Signor Baldassare Bonifacio. The Manifesto was dedicated to her beloved father, who died when she was 16 years old. In this work she defended her points of view, and attacked Bonifacio.
At the beginning of her response to Bonifacio's accusation was the following poem:
|"||O Lord, Thou know'st my inmost hope and thought,
Thou know'st whene'er before Thy judgment throne
Sara sent a copy of the Manifesto to Cebà, but he responded to her only after a few months delay, and instead of offering her help, he once again urged her to convert to Christianity. This was the last letter that Cebà, who died soon after, wrote to Sara.
Many of her friends and teachers stopped supporting her during her time of need. Not until 1625 did an anonymous author publish papers in her defense.
Sara died in February 1641, after a three-month illness.