In 1393 the humanist Pier Paolo Vergerio (the elder) composed a funeral oration in memory of Francesco il Vecchio da Carrara, lord of Padua, who died in a Visconti prison. Vergerio’s is the earliest funeral oration yet found by Renaissance scholars which follows classical (as opposed to medieval) norms for oratory. As opposed to the thematic sermons of a more general nature preached by others on the same occasion, Vergerio’s classicizing panegyric focused on Francesco himself, reviewing his virtuous actions in both the private and public realms in a manner which, it has been claimed, “slavishly imitated ancient rhetorical canons.” In the following decades this classicizing form of eulogy became increasingly influential. In 1428, as Hans Baron has shown, the Florentine chancellor and noted humanist Leonardo Bruni modeled his oration on the death of Nanni degli Strozzi, a prominent general in the anti-Viscontean coalition, on the funeral speech of Pericles as reported by Thucydides. A recent study has found, in fact, that of the three oratorical genres inherited from classical antiquity, epideictic (as opposed to judicial and deliberative) oratory, the performative form of rhetorical discourse to which the eulogy belonged, “constituted the leading genre throughout the Italian Renaissance.” More significantly for our purposes, it has been found that Renaissance orators “practiced funeral oratory more extensively than their ancient predecessors ever did.”
These developments evidently had some impact, albeit belated, upon Jewish society in Italy. When, on Lag ba-Omer of 1572, R. Moses Isserles, perhaps the leading Polish rabbinical authority of his time and one who, in his short life, had achieved international recognition, died in Krakow, he was eulogized in the ghetto of Venice by his relative, colleague, and frequent correspondent, R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen. The latter’s was probably not the only eulogy for Isserles that was delivered, but it is evidently the only one whose text was deemed worthy of preservation. This was not because his Polish contemporaries were niggardly in their praise for their great rabbi. R. Solomon Luria, his twin tower in the rabbinic world of sixteenth-century Poland, had written to Isserles during his lifetime that “from Moses [Maimonides] to Moses [Isserles] there has been none like Moses,” and this encomium, never used lightly, was inscribed with even greater permanence upon his tombstone.
Rather, it must be recognized that the funeral sermon was a far less developed literary genre in the culture of sixteenth-century Ashkenazic Jewry than it was among their Italian brethren, among whose Christian neighbors, as noted above, funeral oratory had been especially cultivated since the early Renaissance. What is striking, however, in the case of Rabbi Katzenellenbogen of Venice, is that he too, as he would have been proud to admit (and as his name could scarcely conceal) was an Ashkenazi, but one born and bred in northern Italy. He was thus possessed of a rather different cultural orientation, of which his sermon on the death of Isserles is but a small indication, from those of his ilk beyond the Alps. Despite his clear Ashkenazic affiliations as a member of the Minz rabbinic dynasty, Katzenellenbogen was capable of delivering, very possibly in Italian, funeral sermons of considerable polish and sophistication, if not as dazzling in their rhetorical flourish as those of his Mantuan colleague, R. Judah Moscato. And yet, one might argue that it was precisely on account of those same Ashkenazic affiliations that he was prompted to launch his career as an eloquent public eulogist in Venice with the death in distant Krakow of R. Moses Isserles.
R. Samuel Judah was then just past his fiftieth birthday, and had succeeded his father R. Meir Katzenellenbogen (known also as “Maharam Padovah” and regarded by scholars as the greatest Italian rabbi of the period) to the position of senior member of the Venetian rabbinate, possibly even before the latter’s death in 1565. Of the six eulogies which he later published in Shneim-Asar Derashot, his 1594 collection of selected sermons, five can be assigned at least approximate dates, and of these the earliest is that delivered upon the death of Isserles in 1572. None of the published Jewish funerary sermons from Italy were delivered before that date, although, as we shall see, some delivered as early as fifteen years previously survive in manuscript, and earlier ones may, of course, yet be discovered. It nonetheless appears that the humanistic revolution in funerary oratory inaugurated in Italy by Pier Paolo Vergerio in 1393 had no more than a limited, and certainly delayed, impact on Jewish society.