Something Good #17: Four More Lives
Often when reading, researching or procrastinating, I come across a real-life character whose story fascinates or touches me in some deep way. When I can’t fit them into whatever I’m working on, I put them aside, to return to later.
This is the second in a series.
Here are four more lives.
Sarra Coppia Sullam
A Jewish writer and salonnière, Sarra Coppia Sullam had a brief but fascinating literary career in 17th Century Venice. She was known for her poetry and her letters, most notably those she exchanged with the Genoese writer and monk Ansaldo Cebà.
After reading his play Ester, she sent him an admiring note, and the two began a rather zesty correspondence. Cebà hinted that they could be a couple, comparing them to the two Ps in her middle name, and begged her to convert to Christianity. Sullam wrote back and basically told him to go get circumcised—a roast for the ages. It’s also said that she sent him some bottarga, a delicacy of dried and pressed fish roe frequently used in Italian Jewish cooking.
They flirted from afar but never actually met. Cebà did send some of his servants to visit her, though, and Sullam supposedly performed Ester for one them—a fascinating image.
In 1621, bishop Baldassare Bonifacio, a guest at one of Sullam’s salons, wrote a treatise titled On the Immortality of the Soul, in which he accused Sullam of not believing in this important piece of doctrine. This piece of shit was fully aware that this was an accusation of heresy that could well have let to a trial by inquisition for a Jewish woman like Sullam. Cebà, who it became increasingly clear was also terrible, did nothing to come to her defence. But Sullam hit back with her own treatise, The Manifesto of Sarra Copia Sulam, a Jewish woman, in which she refutes and disavows the opinion denying immortality of the soul, falsely attributed to her by Signor Baldassare Bonifacio, thoroughly ethering Bonifacio and putting the matter to rest.
She died in 1641, after a brief illness.
From 1983 to 1999, Scorpia reigned as the pre-eminent critic of computer adventure games from her perch at Computer Gaming World magazine. She was a deeply influential writer, whose praise could make a game’s reputation—and whose harsh criticism could destroy it. Readers adored her; game designers feared her.
She was fastidiously anonymous. Only her editor at Computer Gaming World knew her real name; her paycheques were made out to only “Scorpia.”
Magazines were important then, and flush with cash from advertising. Amazingly, at least from the perspective of 2021, they were the only real way for the industry and its audience to communicate. As intermediaries, they held a great deal of power.
Video games were different then, too. They were often intensely difficult and sometimes maddeningly obtuse. The graphics were, of course, less than primitive by today’s standards. But anyone who was into computer gaming in the ‘80s can tell you that they were all-consuming, especially computer games of the likes of Richard Garriott’s celebrated Ultima series.
I never actually played any of the Ultima games myself, but they were legendary, and I could have read about them for hours. In an era before websites, YouTube playthroughs, Twitch streams, a single article about a game I was interested in could occupy my mind for months. (This was true of music and movies, as well—there are still many legendary albums and films that I have thought about for decades but have never actually seen!)
Scorpia’s reviews arguably elevated the Ultima series to its lofty heights (her influential review of Ultima IV can be read here); but they could also be devastating. Interestingly, for someone with such power and who hid behind such a mysterious pseudonym, her her writing style was far from grandiose, and her reviews were as much gameplay guides as critical assessments. (“Sooner or later, you’ll be visiting the dungeons. I suggest stocking up on magical mapping gems, as they will make your life much easier down there.”)
Some game developers couldn’t handle the criticism. After a searing review of Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World, designer Jon Van Caneghem inserted a monster named after Scorpia in the next game in the series, describing her as “a mistress of death.”
In 1999, with the internet on the rise and magazines on the wane, Scorpia was fired. She blogged a little but never quite found her footing and has retreated back into anonymity.
Her real identity remains a secret to this day.
Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa, Duke of Palma and last Prince of Lampedusa
Orbiting the Sun at a distance of approximately two Astronomical Units is 14846 Lampedusa, a six-kilometer-wide asteroid named after a Sicilian nobleman and one-time novelist.
Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa was the last in a long line of aristocrats. After his family palace was bombed by the Allies during World War II, it’s said he fell into a deep depression, which he worked through by writing a novel based on the life of his great-grandfather. Il Gattopardo, known in English as The Leopard, tells the story of a prince observing the decline of his class during the Risorgimento, the Italian unification movement of the mid-19th Century. As de Lampedusa was himself the last of his line, the parallels with a character based on his ancestor, himself facing his own decline, make for a resonance that is really unique in literature.
de Lampedusa finished writing the novel—his first and only—in 1957. Then he died.
The manuscript was rescued by a friend, Giorgio Bassani (the author of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, in which, coincidentally, Sarra Coppia Sullam is briefly mentioned) who arranged for its publication. It was immediately celebrated, though the praise must have been a little bittersweet. It’s up there with the great posthumous novels, a really strange category1, and more specifically the posthumous one-off (the only other which comes immediately to mind would be John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, though I’m sure there are others).
Luchino Visconti would later lavishly adapt it into a starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon. It won the Palme d’Or at the 1963 Cannes Film Festival.
Like Prince Fabrizio in Il Gattopardo, de Lampedusa was an avid astronomer. In 1989, the asteroid 14846 Lampedusa was discovered at the Osservatorio San Vittore near Bologna and named after him.
On July 4, 1976, the Sex Pistols played what’s been called “the gig that changed the world,” a poorly-attended concert at the Manchester Trade Hall that nonetheless spawned, from its 40-odd attendees, the Smiths, the Buzzcocks, the Fall, Joy Division and Factory Records. But it’s a show they put on a month later that I’m concerned with today.
On July 3, the Sex Pistols opened for the heavy metal band Budgie at Hastings Pier, and Marianne Elliott-Said was in attendance. Inspired, she would go on to take the name Poly Styrene and form legendary punk rock band X-Ray Spex. With curly hair, a mouth full of braces, this daughter of a legal secretary and a Somali aristocrat was, in my opinion, infinitely cooler than the Sid Viciouses and Johnnies Rotten of the era.
X-Ray Spex songs were fierce, funny, weird, unabashedly critical of capitalism and patriarchy and at the same time—deeply tender. They had this unshakeable melodic mixture that came out of the fusing of Poly Styrene’s voice and the saxophone playing of a 16-year-old prodigy with the amazing punk name Lora Logic. Self-described “deliberate underachievers,” they put out one, immortal album, Germfree Adolescents.
Styrene was later misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and briefly institutionalized. She emerged to become a devout Hare Krishna and put out some well-received solo albums before she died, way too young, in 2011.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired comes to us courtesy of Nick Amberg. It’s a beaut. Please send your submissions to email@example.com, as large attachments bounce off the Substack server. There are still so many treasures left to uncover!
Bonus track: I’m really looking forward to Szaio’s debut album, coming out later this month. This song is great, and the video was shot on 35mm in Warsaw—both very good things.
Every Wednesday I will send you Something Good, unless you change your mind. If you like it and want to support it, please tell a friend.
Weird fact: Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series was entirely published after his death.