Bellusci (2019 Congress)

Alessia Bellusci
(Yale University)

“Jewish Pizza in Exchange for Invisibility:

Reconstructing a Recipe for Achieving Invisibility
from an Early Modern Italian Hebrew Codex and Its Earlier Analogues”

Abstract of Paper
To be presented at the 54th International Congress on Medieval Studies
(Kalamazoo, 2019)

Session on
“In the Absence of Manuscript Evidence:  Considering Lacunae in Manuscript Studies”

Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Justin A. Hastings and Derek Shank
2019 Congress Program

[Published on 14 March 2019]



Of all the different magical techniques, those for becoming invisible are perhaps the most puzzling.  Not only did the detractors of the magical art vehemently denounce  the unlikelihood of achieving invisibility, but sometimes even the magicians themselves admitted their skepticism for operations of this kind.  Yet, despite its implausibility, becoming invisible and disappearing by magical means at one’s convenience exercised great fascination in the pre-modern world, and a considerable number of recipes for invisibility have been found in magical compendia from different chronological and geographical contexts, thus demonstrating that certain individuals pursued invisibility also on a practical and ritual level.

In my contribution, I wish to discuss the magical pursuit of invisibility within Jewish culture, by focusing on a recipe for this purpose preserved in an unpublished early modern Hebrew manuscript.  It was copied in Italy by an Italian native speaker with fair knowledge of Hebrew, possibly working on a commissioned work for a Christian intellectual interested in occult knowledge.  The recipe under examination describes a complex multi-stage ritual based on both linguistic magic and the manipulation of specific materia magica.  It instructs users to go to a site of execution and conjure a mysterious — quite sinister — non-human entity, with whom they are expected to interact and exchange a “pizza” (!) for a garment of invisibility.

I will attempt to demonstrate that this specific experiment for invisibility documents a form of magical knowledge which precedes by several centuries the final redaction of the codex itself and which, to a certain extent, crosses the borders of Jewish magic, revealing a lively encounter with other magical traditions.  The recipe finds, in fact, close parallels both in Jewish and non-Jewish earlier magical texts.  Together they attest to the lively circulation of this specific magical technique within pre-modern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern regions.