The name of Leone da Modena conjures up one of the most fascinating personalities of Italian Jewish history. Infant prodigy and hoary prodigal; Jack of twenty-six trades (which he enumerates with some satisfaction), but master of none ; cynic enough to compose a memorial address upon himself, yet so constitutionally unfortunate as to survive the person designated to deliver it; polemist against his own convictions, and practiser against his own precept; fortune-hunter, who lost more than one small competence by gambling, repeatedly condemned the vice, yet remained addicted to it until his last days ; the innovator of the macaronic poems which made equally bad sense in whatever language they were read ; withal a scholar of unusual breadth, a prolific writer, and an eloquent preacher?the pride of the Ghetto even though at times its shame. In his days the beautiful Venetian synagogues were thronged with priests, grandees, ambassadors, sometimes even princes, who came attracted by the fame of his eloquence : and more than one remained to sit at his feet. Of hie literary productions, perhaps the best known is the Riti Ebraici: a composition of some importance in Jewish literature as being probably the earliest of the books produced by Jews in modern times to describe their religion to the Gentile world, and forerunner of a mighty tribe The circumstances of the writing of this work frequently republished, and translated into French, Dutch, German, English, Latin, and (paradoxically enough) even Hebrew?are of some interest in relation to Anglo-Jewish history. They are best described in his own words as given in his autobiography?the earliest in the Hebrew language. " Two years previous [to 1637], I had given a certain Frenchman who knew Hebrew, M. Giacomo Gafarelli, a work to read which I had composed more than twenty years ago at the request of an English lord to give to the King of England. In this I had described all the rites and laws and customs of the Jews in their exile at the present day : and at that time I took no precautions about inserting in it things in opposition to the censorship, seeing that it was in manu? script and intended for the perusal of persons who are not of the Papal religion." 1 The exact year of composition is not given: but in the first Venice edition it is apparently indicated, below the well-known portrait of the author which serves as frontispiece, as 1616?a date which is in complete agreement with the indications which he himself gives.
This accords admirably with other circumstances as we know them. The reigning English monarch was James I, an uncouth figure with a boundless curiosity and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. And in 1616 there had just returned to Venice as his ambassador, after an absence of five years, no less a person than Sir Henry Wotton, later Provost of Eton College, scholar, diplomat, and poet: precisely the man who might be expected to interest himself in abstruse branches of learning.