Friday, October 09, 2009

David Nieto, an art mystery and the joys of digitized books.

Here's a biographical blurb from 1806 about Haham David Nietto, author of Matteh Dan - Kuzari Sheni (1714, 1790, and 1890 editions.)

From A biographical history of England, from the revolution to the end v. 3, 1806.

By the way, I've always thought that "Haham" was a funny and most . . . ignorant? transliteration. I realize that generally people were following convention, just as I was by also calling him "Haham David," but it's funny to think when and how and why the practice of writing חכם as Haham, rather than Hakam, started. It obviously was a Portuguese, not an English thing, which would have been my initial suspicion.

For example, see the following quote from a book written in Latin by a German, printed in Frankfurt in 1681:

A reference to a book by a Haham Yitzchok Yeshurun:

Interestingly, you can see that "haham" was used to transliterate the word העם, in this quote from והחסידים לבדם עם העם ההולך אחריהם לחלק אחר, יוסיפון:

In any case, I'm sure Cecil Roth wrote a paper unknown to me about it.

Getting back to this master of correct hashkafah, here is the famous image of him:

It was painted by David Estevens, as the name on it reads. In fact, the name is usually given as "by David Estevens, after the Mezzotint of J. McArdell." There isn't a lot of information on who David Estevens was. I was surprised to learn that, in fact, he was a Jew.

The historian Israel Solomons, who happened to have owned a print of it, raised the question in a 1908 issue of Notes & Queries:

No one responded to his inquiry. Yet 20 years later it would seem that Solomons had found his answer. In an article called 'David Nieto and some of his Contemporaries' published in a 1931 Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England he wrote that he had come across an "Esteves," but not an "Estevens" (or a "David Esteves") in the burial registers of the Bevis Marks Synagogue. (Hey, maybe the Bevis Marks Esteves is Martin Sheen's Sabba Gadol.)

However, in 1941 Jewish art historian Fritz Landsberger published his "Jewish Artists Before Period of Emancipation" in HUCA v. 16 (1941). On pp. 387-88 he revealed that he had discovered who David Estevens was in "a Danish encyclopedia of artists" -- the Nyt dansk kunstnerlexikon (1896) by Philip Weilbach. -- ". . . Estevens lived in Denmark, where a branch of this Spanish family would seem to have settled."

Please allow me a moment to reflect on how insane it is that I, sitting at my desk, felt a fairly strong chance of being able to find a Danish lexicon of artists published in 1896, and in fact I found it in about 5 seconds? Wow.

Lansberger continues: "After he had received his training here from Jacques d'Agar, an artist who had come from Paris, he took up work in Copenhagen. In 1691 and in 1703 Estevens obtained passports to travel into foreign countries. That is all we know of his life. Inasmuch as the portrait of David Nieto shows certain books written by that Rabbi in 1714 and 1715, it follows that the portrait must have been painted at a time subsequent to 1715. We must therefore assume that at this time also, the artist was abroad. The reproduction in mezzotint , done by I. McArdell, did not appear until 1728, the year of Rabbi Nieto's death. It would be worthwhile to seek traces of Estevens in Denmark. According to the only work of his that has been preserved, though only in reproduction, he must have been a portrait painter of genuine talent and with a special gift for vigorous characterization."

As a postscript, having been accused of Spinozism ("God is nature"; see here), Haham Nieto anonymously published a pamphlet in his defense, the De la divina providencia: O sea naturaleza universal, o natura naturante. Tratado theologico, dividido en dos dialogos:

It was written in the form of a dialog between Reuven and Shimon:

It was published anonymously, but Nieto did something mischevious. In the words of the indefatigable Cecil Roth, "but the discerning might read the name of the author in successive letters of the printer's register at the foot of the pages." ("The Marrano Typography in England" in Library, 1960.)

Fully spelled out it reads Sr H.H. David Neto Rab del K.K. de Londres Ylul Anno 5664, &c.

And indeed at the foot of the first page, as shown above, we see Sr, and so it continues page after page. Detail below:

Lest anyone think some eagle-eyed genius or pedant discovered it, actually Nieto revealed it himself. In Roth's words, "This ingenious device would probably have remained undiscovered were it not for a clue given by the author in his letter toTheophil Ungar, the famous Christian Hebraist."

Below is Elisheva Carlebach's interesting description of the letter:

Roth did some sleuthing of his own, and used the painting to show proof that Nieto had written another anonymous pamphlet. In 1705 an auto-da-fe was conducted in Lisbon. The sermon preached on that occasion consisted of vigorous insults toward the victims. Some of it went like this: "Miserable relics of Judaism! Unhappy fragments of the Synagogue! Last remains of Judea! Scandal of the Catholics and detestable objects of scorn even to the Jews themselves!" When Neito received a copy of the sermon, he replied with a vigorously polemical pamphlet of his own. Being well received, there was a follow-up to that one, in Spanish and Portuguese, called Noticias Reconditas y Posthumas del Procedimiento delas Inquisiciones de Espana y Portugal, con sus Presos. The authorship of this pamphlet was disputed, but Roth points out that a copy of this work is seen in Esteven's portrait, which show Nieto's written works! -- although you can't see it in my poor image reproduced above.

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