Isaiah Sonne (1887-1960) was a distinguished scholar, paleographer, bibliographer, librarian, book dealer, and collector active between Habsburg Galicia, Fascist Italy, Mandatory Palestine, and Postwar America during the first six decades of the twentieth century.
Sonne’s record of publications in different languages (German, Hebrew, Italian, English, and French) is remarkable, not only for the quantity but especially for the quality and range of topics. Sonne’s curiosity led him to explore many different fields from the history of Italian Jewry in the Renaissance to aspects of textual criticism, from the paintings of the Dura-Europos synagogue to medieval piyyutim, from Abravanel’s Dialoghi d’amore to the Dead Sea Scrolls, from Hebrew printing and censorship to the theory of music in Judeo-Arabic literature, from Spinoza to the Sabbatean movement and more.
Even though Salo Baron pointed out that Sonne never produced a “major work of historical synthesis” in his long career, he praised his insatiable intellectual curiosity, unorthodox views concerning intriguing and unusual Jewish historical personalities, and his astonishing discoveries of new documents from archives and libraries.
During his eventful life, Sonne was indeed able to discover and publish many hitherto unknown Hebrew works and documents like, for instance, the Hebrew chronicle Divre ha-yamim shel ha-’apifior Paolo revi‘i ha-niqra Teatino (“Chronicle of Pope Paul IV, Known as the ‘Theatine’”) written in the second half of the sixteenth century by the Italian moneylender Benjamin Neḥemiah ben Elnathan from Civitanova Marche, which was the topic of my dissertation and first monograph.
Although he was a prolific author and appreciated by many individuals, primarily because of his paleographic skills and profound knowledge of the Italian Renaissance, manuscripts, and early printed books, his persona and scholarship have been neglected after his death.
Based on new archival materials I have gathered during the last five years at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, the National Library of Israel, and the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem, my book project aims at reconstructing the incredible story of this scholar and his endless love for Italy and book culture.