"Wow! That stuff is crazy enough to be Shakespeare!"

 I was spinning the story line of L'Ebreo / The Jew to a usually sympathetic friend. So I was taken aback - but I had to admit that she had a point.

There were sixteen characters running around on stage,  tripping over each other's feet. Heedless young lovers... A jealous rival... Interfering parents... Scheming servants... Bumbling police...And so on... 

Plus - astonishingly enough - a Jew in the title role. Not to mention a hapless Christian impersonating a Jew (and making a comic mess of it).

L'EBREO / THE JEW (1613)
by Michelangelo Buonaorroti the Younger


Levantine Jew (rich merchant from Turkey)

Scheming Christian marriage broker

 Alamanno Tolosini
Domineering but gullible Florentine merchant with a marriageable daughter

 Dianora Tolosini 
Messer Alamanno’s wife

Oretta Tolosini
Alamanno and Dianora's only child

Riha, a.k.a. “Riccardo”
Gluttonous manservant of Alamanno Tolosini

Elderly maidservant of Dianora Tolosini

Pert young maidservant of Oretta Tolosini

Monna Simonetta 
Neighbor and confidant of Dianora Tolosini

Giovanni Barba 
Eligible young businessman and 
Oretta’s betrothed

Girolamo Amieri
Giovanni Barba’s best friend

Ambrogio Bordoni
 Pompous doctor of law and occasional Jew

Three Bumbling PolicemenPencola (corporal), Bergo and Bircio (constables)

Wise-Cracking Errand Boy

The actors of the Compagnia dei Gelosi, circa 1590, starring Isabella Andreini. 
The Gelosi were among the most sophisticated and accomplished proponents
 of the Commedia dell'Arte  - which strongly influenced Michelangelo
 the Younger, especially in L'Ebreo / The Jew.

L'Ebreo / The Jew is intensely Florentine in its language, its local references and its brand of humor. So, we're looking at lively caricatures of the folks next door - if you happened to be living in the Medici capital around 1600. 

But what - in fact - is going on? 

Here's the story, accompanied by some period  images...
An elegant young couple - imagine Giovanni Barba and Oretta Tolosini 
- from Cesare Negri's Nuove inventioni del ballo (Milan, 1604)

Giovanni Barba, a spirited young Florentine businessman, has recently returned home after making his fortune in the port city of Ancona. Giovanni has contracted a seemingly ideal marriage with Oretta, the charming daughter of Alamanno Tolosini, an elderly merchant with aristocratic pretensions

The old fool (Cocolin or Pantolon in the Commedia dell'Arte)
  - imagine Alamanno Tolosini - by Dionisio Minaggio (Milan, 1618)

Meanwhile, Ambrogio Bordoni—a pompous and miserly Doctor of Law—has also fallen in love with Oretta. He is committed to supplanting Giovanni as Oretta’s intended husband by any possible means.

A comic lawyer -  imagine Doctor Ambrogio Bordoni 
- derived from an 18th c. French source.

Federigo, a Christian marriage broker, and his alter ego Melchisedec, a rich Levantine merchant (a Sephardic Jew from the Ottoman Empire) propel the action. Ambrogio Bordoni approaches Federigo for assistance, since—as a marriage broker—he should know how to unmake matches as well as make them. Federigo decides to enlist Melchisedec the Jew, who is a business partner of Oretta’s father Alamanno. 


Left, a Levantine Jew in Turkish dress - imagine Melchisedec (Giovanni Grevembroch, 
Abiti dei Veneziani); right, from the Commedia dell'Arte, the crafty and ambitious 
Beltrame - imagine the marriage broker Federigo (D. Minaggio, 1618).

The plan is for Doctor Ambrogio to disguise himself as another Levantine Jew from Ancona (with turban and fake beard). He will call on Alamanno Tolosini in the company of Melchisedec and insinuate the false information that Giovanni Barba is bankrupt and has fled Ancona with massive debts. This will impel Alamanno to call off the marriage and give his daughter to Doctor Ambrogio instead.

In spite of his bumbling, Doctor Ambrogio succeeds in his impersonation. Then—as planned—Alamanno breaks Oretta’s engagement with Giovanni and promises her to Ambrogio (who has since reappeared in Christian guise). The situation then spins out of control...

 Italian comedians performing at the French Court (17th Century).

Oretta flees the Tolosini home (by way of adjoining roof terraces) and takes refuge with Monna Simonetta (their next-door neighbor and her mother’s best friend)—leading everyone to deduce (incorrectly) that she eloped with Giovanni Barba. Giovanni, meanwhile, takes possession of Oretta’s very large dowry (Alamanno deposited this money in a local bank in Giovanni’s name and then neglected to stop the order when the marriage was called off.)   

Spineta - imagine Oretta Tolosini - at an upper window (D. Minaggio, 1618)

Melchisedec allows himself to be arrested for debt by his partner Alamanno—in order to bring the police onto the scene, so that he can expose the machinations of Federigo and Ambrogio (with whom he has fallen out).

 The policeman Cietrulo arrests Bagutino - imagine Corporal Pencola arresting
 Melchisedec or Giovanni Barba (D. Minaggio, 1618).

Giovanni then reappears—and he is arrested as well for abducting Oretta and stealing her dowry.  After a series of comic misunderstandings, the truth emerges in all its complexity and improbability.  The Jew who exposed Giovanni Barba’s bankruptcy was no Jew at all...

Too many Levantine Jews - real or disguised? 
From Giovanni Grevembroch, Abiti dei Veneziani

...and Giovanni himself is rich and flourishing.  Now that Melchisedec has taken his revenge and unmasked his accomplices, he is happy to repay his debt to Alamanno Tolosiniwho drops all charges against him.

A lady and gentleman masquerading as peasants for Carnival 
- imagine Doctor Ambrogio's flight from Florence (Cesare Vecellio, Venice, 1590).

Ambrogio Bordoni panics and flees Florence, disguised as a peasant. And Giovanni Barba is reinstated as Oretta’s husband-to-be.

Mario and Flavia - an amorous couple from the Commedia dell'Arte 
- imagine Giovanni Barba and Oretta Tolosini (D. Minaggio, 1618).

The couple formally pledges their troth at the end of the last scene and the company repairs for a celebratory dinner—ending the play on a festive note.

A Medici banquet in Florence by Stefano della Bella (1627)

So, the play's the thing and L'Ebreo / The Jew tells one hell of a story. A slice of daily life in Late Renaissance Florencebalanced on the edge between the intensely real and the comically improbable. 

But it remains Michelangelo the Younger's least-known worknever published, performed nor even circulated in manuscript.  L'Ebreo / The Jew survives in only a single copy: a rough working draft in the archive of the Buonarroti family in Florence—filling 116 folios (232 sides), written in evident haste, with much crossing out and revision. 

L'Ebreo / The Jew—a work in progress.

The author signed off on the main body of the text (85 folios/170 sides) “finito addì 21 di settembre 1613” = “finished on the 21st day of September 1613”.   

Finito addì 21 di settembre 1613

But L'Ebreo / The Jew was still far from performable. The author left major inconsistencies in the story line, frequent shifts in the delineation of characters and sometimes rudimentary dialogue. 

A typical page of working notes for L'Ebreo / The Jew.

Michelangelo the Younger briefly resumed work on L'Ebreo / The Jew  some years later, composing a new prologue, redrafting the first two scenes (out of seventy-four) and dashing off many pages of notes and suggestions.

L'Ebreo / The Jew: A Comedy.

L'Ebre0 / The Jew is full of wonderful stuff. Intriguing characters... Sporadically brilliant dialogue... Startling situations... Privileged glimpses of everyday life in Medici Florence... Plus a Jew in the midst of the action.

But the author left us a dynamic work—still in progress after four centuries. How do we determine its essential meaning—on the page and between the lines

And then, how do we bring his characters to life and make them speak—on the stage to audiences today?

Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger.



  1. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it
    seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.
    You clearly know what youre talking about, why waste your intelligence on just posting
    videos to your site when you could be giving us something informative to read?

    my weblog; June 14 ()

    1. Thank you, Anonymous! This means a great deal do me. Even my best friends usually tell me to shut up because I talk too much... Seriously, it is good of you to say that I "clearly know what I am talking about"--but I am only at the beginning of a big project with "L'Ebreo" and I will know far more as things progress. Meanwhile, I have several more posts planned in this series--and eventually, a range of publications, scholarly and otherwise. I am, however, a bit confused by your reference to "videos". I wish that I had some to share but as yet, I don't. Ed G.