Sometime before 1580, somebody transliterated a Spanish translation of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso into Hebrew letters (aljamiado). This took place somewhere in the Ottoman Empire, probably in Anatolia. At some point later on, four folios were added to the transliteration containing an epitaph for a woman composed in Patras (present day Greece) in 1580.
The question is ‒ why would somebody go to the trouble of doing this? The Orlando Furioso was one of the undisputed bestsellers in Renaissance Europe. An Italian epic romance in verse, it was first published in 1516, and then again in a revised edition in 1521 as well as in a revised and enlarged edition in 1532. Soon it had been translated into several European languages ‒ French, Spanish (1549), English (1591) and German. The first Spanish translation, by Jerónimo de Urrea, was reprinted ten times in the first 34 years. Two complete translations more would be published before the end of the sixteenth century.
The volume took as its main characters Orlando (Roland) and the other paladins of Charlemagne’s court at war with the Saracen army that had invaded France. The work in its final version comprised forty-six cantos (forty-five in the Spanish translation) with 4,842 stanzas (4,902 in the Spanish translation), which makes for an astonishing 38,736 (39,216) lines in total. The appetite for chivalric romance in the sixteenth century was clearly limitless.
The work itself originally had been published well after the expulsions of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and the Spanish translation even more so. Still, several generations after the 1492 Expulsion, Jews of Sephardi origin continued reading the same works as their Christian contemporaries; this phenomenon took place not only in the West, but also, as our work shows, in the Eastern Mediterranean. For, indeed, it was in the Ottoman Empire that the manuscript under discussion herein was produced, according to Malachi Beit-Arié. Adolph Neubauer, the Hebraica Curator who produced the Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, thought the work was written in transliterated Italian and had been written somewhere in the Italian peninsula. This is a plausible guess, but does not stand up to a closer examination of the manuscript. Laura Minervini, an Italian scholar, studied it more recently and wrote about it.
It is very unlikely that an Italian Jew would want to read the Orlando Furioso in Spanish. Furthermore, a Sephardi descendant of those expelled from Iberia residing in the Italian lands would not need to read the work in Hebrew letters, in the unlikely case that they could not read the Latin alphabet.
The work offers a fascinating view into a world where Jews in the Ottoman Empire kept up with the reading preferences of their contemporaries in the Hispanic world, yet found it more congenial to read them in the Hebrew alphabet. Curiously, the work was transliterated following the source word for word, with no attempt to “judaise” the original’s Christian phrasing, as is often the case for similar works. The very world described in the Orlando Furioso, a world of valiant Christian and Muslim knights (some of them women), ladies, sorcerers, flying steeds, enchanted castles and exotic lands would seem totally alien to traditional Jewish culture, and yet somebody clearly saw it as worth the effort to produce this transliteration. Thirty-six of the Spanish translation’s forty-five cantos were transliterated, with the only apparent difference between the two being the suppression of thirty-eight of the seventy-two stanzas added by Urrea to Canto 34 (35 in the Italian original), eulogising the great figures of Spanish history.
The Spanish Orlando Furioso in Hebrew letters (aljamiado) gives us a glimpse of a world of which very little has remained, where the descendants of Jewish exiles from the Iberian Peninsula read a widely successful Italian chivalric romance in a Spanish translation written in Hebrew letters, comprising thousands of stanzas relating the wildly improbable adventures of knights and ladies. For all these reasons and specificities, it throws light on a fascinating corner of Jewish life.