The Parma Psalter
MS. Parm. 1870
(De Rossi 510)
A 13th-century exquisite book of Psalms (Tehillim) with a commentary by Abraham Ibn Ezra.
One of the great treasures of Hebrew manuscript illumination.
ISBN 0 948223 111
Of all medieval Hebrew manuscript Psalters (tehillim), one of the earliest and most important to survive is the masterpiece Ms. Parm. 1870 (Cod. De Rossi 510), the treasure of the Palatina Library in Parma, Italy. This profusely illuminated book of Psalms was written and decorated in about 1280, probably in Emilia in Northern Italy. Its 452 pages contain the biblical text in a clear, large vocalized Hebrew hand. Each psalm is illuminated and numbered, and many are exquisitely illustrated with musical instruments or with scenes described in the text - extraordinary for a Hebrew manuscript of the period, and proof that it was the work of Jews. Only a wealthy patron could have commissioned so lavish and tasteful a manuscript; and the presence of Ibn Ezra's commentary suggests that he was also well educated. Early copies of Abraham Ibn Ezra's great commentary on Psalms are rare, and the one in this manuscript records many wordings not to be found in other versions. A joy to hold, this facsimile will serve as a constant reminder of the rich legacy of medieval Jewish scholarship and artistic patronage.
The manuscript also contains the ceremonies for engagements, marriages, circumcisions and funerals, as well as for the end of a Sabbath followed by a Festival, times at which Psalms were especially recited.
Tehillim, the Psalms, are loved by Jews more than any other book of the Bible apart from the Torah: almost every ceremony includes at least one of its 150 chapters and many other prayers are virtually mosaics of psalmic verses, reassembled out of familiar phrases. A detailed knowledge of this book could be assumed by traditional Jewish writers, because it has been customary for centuries for pietists to recite all 150 psalms cyclically each week: every page of the present manuscript bears a headline indicating on which weekday it is to be read.
The popularity of Psalms is easy to explain. It comprises a rich assortment of hymns, laments and didactic poems written in a compact and striking style at times mysterious and obscure, in which ideas are developed through double or triple arrangements of lines in a manner characteristic of biblical poetry. Its personal and urgent tone made it a natural complement to the Pentateuch. One midrash makes this feeling explicit: 'Moses gave the five books of the Torah to Israel, while David gave them the Psalms, with its five books'. The fivefold subdivision - marked by doxologies at the ends of psalms 41, 72, 89 and 106 - may indeed be related to an ancient but now lapsed practice of reading psalms in conjunction with the weekly readings from the Pentateuch.
The 150 psalms probably correspond to the 150 readings into which the Pentateuch was divided and originally read over a three-year cycle a custom that died out in the Middle Ages. The illustrations in this manuscript are particularly valuable for musicologists and art historians of the Middle Ages: depictions of contemporary musical instruments are extremely rare, and the present volume contains many.
This sumptuous manuscript comprises 226 folios (452 pages), 13.5cm x 10cm (5.33" x 4.0") contained in 23 quires. One 16-page quire, added at a later date, contains the ceremonies for engagements, marriages, circumcisions and funerals, as well as for the end of a Sabbath followed by a Festival, times at which Psalms were especially recited. The rich decorations are characterized by the delicate use of harmonious colours; gold is used liberally but with sensitivity, the illuminator carefully balancing the Psalms and commentary with the images in the margin. This manuscript is one of the great treasures of early Hebrew manuscript illumination. The Palatina Library in Parma, Italy, which holds close to 1650 Hebrew manuscripts, is one of the world's greatest collections. Giovanni Bernardo De Rossi, a Christian Hebraist, whose collection is now housed in the Palatina, built up one of the richest libraries of Hebrew manuscripts and printed books ever in private hands.
Abraham Ibn Ezra, born in 1089 in Tudela, Spain, was a master of several branches of medieval learning - mathematics, astronomy, grammar and philosophy, as well as the exposition of biblical texts. He combined far-reaching rationalism, with a firm belief in astrology in a way that may seem surprising to a modern mind, yet this was normal at that time. He may have been poor for much of his life but travelled widely, and was able to face ill-fortune with equanimity and even humour.
His opponents were not spared his savage wit, which was rich even for a Spanish Jewish poet. All this must be seen against a background of genuine religious humility, which emerges in his finest works of poetry and prose. Abraham Ibn Ezra left a large body of writings - he is said to have written no fewer than 108 different books, not all of which have survived or been published. His highly influential thought and literary creativity did much to spread the science and spirituality of Spanish Jewry far beyond the regions in which it originated. Aged seventy-five and feeling his death approaching, he punned on a scriptural verse: And Abraham was seventy-five years old when he departed from the 'anger of the world'. The Bible actually states, in Genesis 12:4, that he left the city of 'Haran', but Ibn Ezra could not resist jesting on its similarity to haron, ‘anger’ or ‘fury’. Throughout history, Abraham Ibn Ezra has been respected as one of Judaism's greatest sages.
Abraham Ibn Ezra married, according to legend, the daughter of another great poet, Judah Halevi, and had five sons. Only one of them, Isaac, is believed to have survived an epidemic that killed his entire family, yet Isaac seems later to have deserted Judaism for Islam, and Abraham Ibn Ezra, then in his fifties, did penance by becoming a wandering scholar. His journeying took him to Rome, Lucca, Pisa, Mantua, Béziers, Narbonne, Bordeaux, Angers, Rouen and London, as well as Spain and North Africa. The rabbis of Jewish communities he visited in France in 1147 described how he 'opened their eyes' with his wisdom.
His commentary on the book of Psalms displays some of the qualities they so admired: his fine feeling for complex language, his independent intellect and deep insight into human nature. Di Rossi believed this manuscript was completed in Rhodes in August-September 1156, but this is in fact the date on which Ibn Ezra completed his commentary on Psalms of which this is a copy. As to the location, it seems that Ibn Ezra wrote his commentary in Rouen in Northern France. Since in Latin this was called Rodamagus, shortened to Rodez (as reflected in hebrew documents), it was easy for a misunderstanding to arise. The attribution of the book of Psalms to King David - who conquered Jerusalem for his people - is based not only on his reputation as a “sweet singer of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1), but on the recognition that no fewer than 73 include his name. The fact that others bear different attributions has been accounted for in different ways. Ibn Ezra handles the question of authorship with characteristic balance and intelligence. The commentaries of Ibn Ezra enjoyed great popularity from the start, and are still admired, especially by advanced students, not only for their encyclopaedic character and terse and enigmatic style, but for their critical, thought-provoking spirit as well as their wit. Numerous super-commentaries were written on his glosses, making his work a vital link in the long chain of Jewish Bible commentary.
This facsimile is the fruit of many years of effort and research by Michael and Linda Falter, who have established their reputation for creating some of the finest manuscript reproductions in the world today by virtue of their ability to replicate exactly the vellum, delicate colours and burnished gold of medieval manuscripts. Each copy is as close a reproduction of the original as can be achieved. This facsimile not only looks but also feels like the original.
The original manuscript was written and illuminated on soft, translucent and extremely thin foetal vellum which required the development of yet another special paper. The result is a fine, uncoated, neutral pH vegetable parchment with the same natural characteristics of skin that makes printing on it very difficult indeed.
Photographing the manuscript is the first stage in the production of the facsimile. Vivi Papi, the late renowned Italian master photographer, photographed the manuscript at the Palatina Library, Parma, under the supervision of Hebrew Manuscripts curator Nice Ugollotti. To completely eliminate any curvature close to the spine the manuscript was disbound so that it could be photographed flat. Specially manufactured glass which is both ‘optically flat’ and ‘optically white’ was used to hold the disbound folios flat during photography. The printed page is, therefore, exactly the same size as the original.
Colour Separation, Proofing & Printing
After photography, colour separations were made using the latest digital technology. These were corrected in minute detail by an expert hand retoucher before the first of many sets of proofs was prepared. Each proof was then checked against the original manuscript in detail, adding colours and correcting where necessary to ensure complete colour fidelity, and then re-proofed in Italy (up to four times for each page) until the colour-match was exactly right. Standing by the press for the entire duration of the printing process, the publishers personally checked and passed every single page which was printed in up to ten colours.
The raised gold of the original is in extraordinarily good condition even though it is more than 700 years old. It was reproduced in a special process developed by us which faithfully reproduces the raised gilding without embossing. Craftsmen applied the gold-coloured metal leaf by hand to all the manuscripts illuminations.
The number of each facsimile volume is permanently hand-stamped into the binding using metal dies. All the printing plates were destroyed, with rabbinical consent, so that no subsequent copies could be printed thus ensuring the uniqueness and value of the edition.
Over the years librarians have added a number of labels to the inside back cover. These have been individually reproduced and pasted onto the inside back cover.
The Parma Psalter binding was recreated by our Master Binder in London. All that remains of the original binding is the spine which has been copied in minute detail on Havana sheepskin, gold tooled weathered and aged by hand. The front and back boards have been covered in the finest English parchment.
Before binding, the irregular page edges of the Psalter were laboriously cut to exactly the same size and shape as the original and then gilt. Once completed, each book was discretely numbered with minute steel punches on the inside back cover.
The commentary volume is bound in a dark brown calf skin and gold-tooled on the spine.
The facsimile and commentary volume are presented together in a marbled slipcase. Every set is accompanied by a certificate bearing the seals and signatures of both the Palatina Library and Facsimile Editions.
The edition is strictly limited to 500 numbered and 50 ad personam copies. Every copy is accompanied by a certificate bearing the seal of the Palatina Library, verifying the number of the facsimile and the size of the edition.
Shipping, Packaging & Insurance
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Scholarship has always been an important aspect of the work undertaken by Facsimile Editions: great care is taken to commission leading scholars to examine each manuscript, frequently revealing fascinating new information. Each commentary volume is exquisitely printed and bound to match the facsimile. That of the Parma Psalter contains substantial extracts from Ibn Ezra's commentary, some of which have never before been translated.
Emmanuel Silver, formerly of the British Library, spent many years examining this important text of Ibn Ezra's and comments at length on the passages he translated.
Malachi Beit-Arié, Ludwig Jesselson Professor of Codicology and Palaeography at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem investigated the codicology of the manuscript.
Thérèse Metzger, art historian, discussed the iconography and illumination.
Nice Ugolotti, Curator of Hebrew Manuscripts at the Palatina Library, described the De Rossi collection in Parma. De Rossi compiled and published a catalogue of his library in 1803, but within a few years, in 1816, had sold it to Napoleon's wife, Marie-Louise, Duchess of Parma, for 100,000 francs. It was she who presented it to the Palatina Library where it still resides.
The commentary volume, edited by Jeremy Schonfield, contains information that has never previously been available. It provides non-specialists too with a unique introduction to the world of medieval Jewish thought and art.
Ibn Ezra's seminal commentary on Psalms has never been translated in its entirety, so the present study enables scholars and lay readers alike to appreciate its sophistication. Emmanuel Silver provides a scholarly survey of Ibn Ezra's life and works, including translations of some of the more important Psalm commentaries. Most of the facts of Ibn Ezra's life are so shrouded in mystery that he has become the subject of numerous legends, some of them the purest works of fantasy. Emmanuel Silver clears the ground by outlining some of the salient facts, including the evidence for his death in London, and relating Ibn Ezra's ideas to the schools of thought of his time.
Aspects of his complex personality emerge through scattered remarks in his works, and particularly in his poetry, some of which has a distinctive ring of courageous detachment. The commentary volume not only outlines the place of Psalms and of Ibn Ezra's highly original contribution to its understanding in Jewish life, but describes the world from which this particular manuscript came. The Jews of Italy during the thirteenth century faced violent onslaughts on their faith and lives The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 attempted to reduce them to serfdom, and introduced the compulsory wearing of a distinctive badge; while the ‘trial’ and burning of the Talmud that took place in Paris in 1240 also had repercussions in Italy. By 1278 their position was in general exacerbated by the transfer of the South of Italy to Angevin rulers in 1265 under the direct influence of the Popes. It was there that most Italian Jews lived - some 12,000-15,000. Following a blood-libel in Trani, a violent crusade was launched to convert them, and by 1294 perhaps half had succumbed, others being forced to flee or to practise their faith in secret. It was in the late thirteenth century that this exquisite book was commissioned and made.
Excerpt from the commentary volume:
Of all the bright stars in the firmament of medieval Jewish history and literature, perhaps the most fascinating personality is Rabbi Abraham ben Meir, surnamed Ibn Ezra, of Tudela in Spain. He is celebrated equally as an incessant traveller, as a lifelong luckless but cheerful pauper, and as an amazing polymath, prolific writer and poet. Up to a couple of generations ago, you could mention his name to the average Jew in the synagogue - or for that matter the average Jewess in the kitchen, or even the child in cheder - and you would call forth a plethora of anecdotes, epigrams, travels, adventures, witty retorts and a list of literary works.
Compare him with, say, Moses Maimonides, his younger coeval and compatriot, who likewise left Spain, travelled far and authored numerous books. He, too, is familiar to the Jewish masses thanks to the survival of a great deal of biographical details. But fascinating? Was he not a cold, logical thinker, a rational philosopher, a strict, legalistic codifier, a dry moralist who delighted in disabusing his contemporaries of their fond beliefs in the existence of demons and the efficacy of astrology and witchcraft? Ibn Ezra, by contract, is all light, wit, warmth, humour, adventure, poetry, a generous purveyor of astrological treatises and horoscopes, a pauper but a cheerful one, a man of the people wherever fate took him - isn't he?
And yet, when we look closely at the evidence available, the comparison may have to be turned on its head. Maimonides' life is extraordinarily well documented. Hundreds of his letters have survived and been published, many of them 300 years ago. He could trace his descent back through seven generations of distinguished rabbis (although we never hear of his mother). He was ascetic, yes, but not cold; he was very emotional and compassionate. A large part of the motive behind his second major opus, the legal code, was his desire to lead back to full belief and observance those of his coreligionists who had begun to fall under sectarian influences - and he succeeded by persuasion where his predecessors (e.g. Rabbi Saadia Gaon) by literary belligerence had generated more and more resistance. His third great work, The Guide for the Perplexed, was undertaken, not as a prescriptive code of what Jews should believe, but in response to an appeal by a young aspiring scholar in distant Iraq for guidance in his search for truth. And his fourth celebrated corpus of writings - the medical works - includes countless letters answering cries for help from the sick, Jewish and Muslim. His nursing of Richard the Lionheart (his employer's enemy) back to health is attested. On this score, too, should be remembered his description of his daily routine (in a letter dissuading a young French scholar from making the hazardous voyage to visit him at Cairo): 'When I return in the afternoon from my duties at Court, I find my surgery besieged by the sick waiting to consult me, both rich and poor, and I am so exhausted that I have to lie down while seeing patients.'
 See the subscription (author's postscript) at the end of his first great work, the Commentary on the Mishnah.
 Compare his letter to Japhet ben Elijah, dayyan at Acre: ' ... The greatest evil that has ever befallen me in my life, the death of [his younger brother David] who was drowned in the Indian Ocean, taking with him a huge amount of money, his own, mine, and other people's, and leaving his baby daughter and his widow with me. For a year after hearing the news I was dangerously ill in bed with a serious skin disease and fever and depression. Since then, for the past eight years, I am still grieving and unconsoled. How can I feel consoled? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, my pupil, he it was who ran the [family] business and earned our living while I could sit in peace [to study and write]. He was knowledgeable in... My only joy was seeing him... Every time I see his handwriting or one of his books, my heart turns over and my sorrow is reawakened ... '
 See, for instance, his Iggereth Teman and Iggereth ha-Shemad.
 The passage actually runs thus: '... You are welcome to come ... I long to see you ... but I would not like you to endanger yourself on such a voyage, for all you would achieve would be the sight of my face ... Do not hope to have my company or my attention for a single hour by day or night. This is how I pass my time: I live in Fustat and the king lives in Cairo two kilometres [lit., 'two sabbath journeys'] away. I have to visit him every morning early. If he feels weak or ill, or if any of his children or wives is sick, I will be there most of the day. Then one or two of his courtiers may feel ill and require my attention. In sum, ... if nothing untoward arises, I arrive home, never before midday, starving with hunger, to find the porticos brim full of people - Gentiles and Jews, important and ordinary, judges and officials, friends and enemies, all kinds - who know when I return. I dismount from my donkey, wash my hands, go out to them and beg them to fogive me while I eat a snack, the only meal I manage in twenty‑four hours. Then I go out and treat them and write them prescriptions and remedial regimes. They never cease entering and leaving until nightfall, sometimes two hours later or more. I speak with them lying prostrate from exhaustion. At night I am too weak to speak. In short, nobody can have a private discussion with me except on the sabbath. Then all or most of the congregation come after prayers and I give them instructions for the rest of the week ...' (Letter of Moses ben Maimon to Samuel ben Judah Ibn Tibbon, translator of The Guide for the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew. Dated 8 Tishre 1511 Greek Era [September/October 1199].
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