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FRANCESCO ZORZI A METHODICAL DREAMER Giulio Busi RANCESCO ZORZI (1467-1540) HAS BEEN CONSIDERED a central figure F in sixteenth-century Christian kabbalah both by his contemporaries and by modern scholars." In spite of the considerable number of studies that have been dedicated to his literary works, it is still difficult to perceive the complexity and the richness of the outstanding personality of this friar. While playing an important role in the Franciscan Order of Minor Friars in Venice, where he lived, he was also the prolific author of voluminous texts onmystical symbolism. His writings, which cover thousands of pages, won him the reputation of a deep erudition and a great originality. From the chronicles of his relative Marin Sanudo; the famous diarist of Renaissance Venice, we know that Zorzi was considered the most eminent preacher of the city, his sermons being followed by the authorities of the Republic in the most important church of the State: the Basilica of San Marco.’ His eloquence was an effective blend of rhetorical skill and sincere religious feeling. From the testimonies of the persons who made his ac- quaintance, one gets the idea of a kind of inner fire burning behind his aristocratic manners. Son of a noble family, Francesco conserved, even under the rough Franciscan cowl, the prerogatives of his class, remaining in touch, all his life long, with the oligarchic rulers of the Serenissima. In order to thoroughly understand his thought, it is therefore important to consider his public ca- reer and his involvement as an unofficial representative of Venetian diplo- matic interests in highly important negotiations. The prestige of his accomplishments certainly gave him an uncommon freedom of expression, making more acceptable his innovative and non-conformist theories. In fact, the cultural élite of sixteenth-century Venice was deeply fascinated by his C97] The Christian Kabbalah. Jewish Mystical Books and their Christian Interpreters, edited by J. Dan, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard College Library, 1997. NCESCO ZORZI A METHODICAL DREAMER D a FRA — sh but, at the same time, perceived the danger concealed in his ¢ sromt dncourses and writings, Itis well own that, although 3 the end of his life his works aroused the suspici ‘as ierarchies, the atti. i relate: aie pf respect for his outstanding personality. One of he oe the Benedictine Gregorio Cortese, went as far as to say that even hic oddest ideas seemed tolerable when he explained them directly, thanks to the energy and the vivacity of his eloquent speech.“ In Francesco Zorzi, the deep mysticism and the simplicity of the Franciscan tradition coexisted with the highly learned humanistic heritage. Indeed there was a third element that gave a very particular flavor to his literary career: he possessed an unusual command of Hebrew, and was con- vinced of the importance of Jewish literature, and especially of Jewish mys- ticism. Afier Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who was the founder of the Christian kabbalah, Zorzi can claim the second place; that is to say that he is certainly the Italian sixteenth-century author who left the most compre- hensive and well-documented presentation of Jewish symbolism. Most of the studies devoted to Zorzi’s works are very detailed in discussing the Latin, Italian and Greek sources, while the Hebrew foundation of his work, al- though generally considered of extreme importance, has remained almost who expressed their doubts about Zorzi’s ortho, unexplored. Some attempts have been made, notably by Francois Secret, Chaim Wirszubski and Jean-Francois Maillard,’ to trace the major works in his Hebrew library. Zorzi is commonly considered a kabbalist, but this defi- nition seems to assume a kind of absolute value, deprived of any concrete historical evidence. How did he become a kabbalist? Which kind of read- ings and personal acquaintances enabled him to penetrate the obscure world of Jewish tradition? Far from being a mere curiosity, the discovering of He- brew literature represented for Zorzi a meaningful itinerary in a foreign land. Thanks to his belief in the essential harmony of human cultures, Zorzi was able to transform the Jewish heritage into an essential component of his inner spirituality. We shall now investigate the evolution of Zorzi’s Jewish knowledge, fol lowing the progressive widening of his readings and the development of his linguistic skills. Very little is known about the early years of Zorzi’s life: he Probably studied in Padua,® where he certainly had the opportunity to learn ‘he rudiments of Hebrews? The Jewish studies of our aristocratic Venetian [98] FRANCESCO ZORZI_ A METHODICAL DREAMER friar followed a fourfold path. In this regard, the first important experience in his life must have been the period Francesco spent in the Holy Land. After having entered the Franciscan Order in 1481, in 1493 he set out on a journey to Palestine, where the Franciscan Order was then in charge of the Custodia Terrae Sanctae. This stay contributed to transforming Zorzi’s inter- est in Jewish history into a living and creative experience. In his writings, he repeatedly refers to the scenes he saw in the Holy Land, according to his habit of describing the empirical aspects of life. While we have no system- atic diary of Francesco's journey, through the passages scattered through- out his books it is possible to follow many steps of his visit, from the first appearance of the coast of the Promised Land, which, he writes, “emanates its perfume into the sea for many miles” to the rich variety of fruits and to the ancient monuments of Jerusalem.* The second way Zorzi must have acquired an intimate knowledge of Judaism was personal contact with learned Jews and converts from Juda- ism. The oldest evidence refers to his acquaintance with Girolamo Soncino. In the dedication of a book printed by Soncino in 1502, the humanist Laurentius Abstemius testifies to the friendship that linked the Jewish printer to the Venetian friar.’ In this short text, conceived as an epistle to Zorzi, Abstemius declares Soncino tui amantissimus, meaning that the printer held Francesco in great esteem. The relationship between the two must have therefore been quite close and had certainly developed during Soncino’s sojourn in Venice between 1498 and 1501."” In 1528 Zorzi delivered, in the Basilica of San Marco, a sermon on the conversion of a Jew, of Neapolitan origin, named Jacob.” This convert is probably the same famous rabbi that Zorzi claims to have induced to aban- don Judaism for Christianity through theological arguments based on Jew- ish literature.” At the beginning of the third decade of the sixteenth century, another convert, highly esteemed for his learning, named Marco Raphael, was very close to Zorzi," while a famous Jewish physician and translator, Jacob Mantino, is reported discussing Jewish matters in the “chamber” of the friar.'* ‘The third path followed by Zorzi in his quest for the Jewish roots of the Christian faith was the study of the texts of the early Christian kabbalists, namely Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin. To the Conclusiones cabalisticae of Pico, Zorzi consecrated an extensive commen- [99]