Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Pietro Metastasio (1698–1782) and Dr. Isaac Luzzatto

Avi Ohry
Tel Aviv, Israel

Memorial plaque for Pietro Metastasio (“Gedenktafel für Pietro Metastasio”). Photo by GuentherZ on Wikimedia. CC BY 3.0

While attending a meeting in Vienna and enjoying its old buildings, parks, and museums, I found myself, as usual, reading the names of the streets and various historical plaques on the walls. To my surprise, I saw in central Vienna a plaque dedicated to a man called “Metastasio.”1 Metastasis is a well-known complication of a cancer spreading from an initial or primary site to a different or secondary site in the body.2 The word is listed in the Thesaurus Lingua Graeca and is first attested to the lyric poet Simonides (6th–5th century BC).2 In Greek, metastasis (μετάστασις) means removal or migration, dislocation, but also departing from life. But this Viennese street is named after an Italian, Pietro Antonio Domenico Bonaventura Trapassi. “Trapassi” in Greek is synonymous with “Metastasio.”

As a young boy, Trapassi grew up in a poor family and read poems in the street. At age ten, he worked for a while for a goldsmith, but luckily, a rich lawyer named Giovanni Vincenzo Gravina heard Trapassi reciting his poems in the streets. He adopted Trapassi and cared for his studies, especially of law and classical culture. He changed the boy’s name to Pietro Metastasio. The boy became a famous Italian lyric-sentimental-dramatic poet who composed songs, lyrics, and libretti. His lyrics were written to music and almost all composed by famous composers such as Gluck, Hasse, Bach, Pergole’se, Hendel, Scalieri, and Mozart.3 His fame reached Vienna, and he was invited to become the Court Theatre’s poet. By the year 1730, he elegantly paved his way to glory and international fame.3

Thanks to Prof. Ezio Giacobini, MD, PhD, from Geneva, Switzerland, I learned about the Jewish-Italian poet-physician Isaac Luzzatto (1730–1803), who studied medicine in Padua in 1750; in 1779, Luzzatto traveled to Vienna to convince the Austrian authorities to shelter his fellow Jewish citizens who had been expelled from his hometown, San Daniele del Friuli, in the Venetian Republic. In Vienna, Luzzatto met Metastasio.4 Metastasio invited him to translate his song “La Libertà” into Hebrew. His poetic compositions were published only as late as in 1944 in Toledot Yiṣḥaq (Stories of Isaac). The collection includes sixty-four sonnets dealing with various topics, including satires of doctors.

Isaac’s brother, Ephraim Luzzatto (1792–1729), also studied medicine at the University of Padua5,6 and practiced medicine in several cities in Italy. He later was appointed physician of London’s Portuguese Jewish Community. After thirty years, he decided to return to Italy, but died in Lausanne on the way. While in Italy, he had written some Hebrew poems, but their themes are “disparate” and refer to other fashionable works of the period; this applies to his reworking in Hebrew some of Metastasio’s work.7 We note that both brothers were practicing physicians, poets, scholars, and community workers.


  1. “Metastasis.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metastasis.
  2. Retsas S. “Cancer and the arts: metastasis-as perceived through the ages.” ESMO Open. 2017;2(3):e000226.
  3. “Pietro Metastasio.” Simple English Wikipedia. https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pietro_Metastasio.
  4. “Luzzatto Isacco.” Dizionario Biografico dei Friulani. https://www.dizionariobiograficodeifriulani.it/luzzatto-isacco.
  5. Betzale Alexsil (Ruth). “On Ephraim Luzzatto.” Modern Hebrew Literature – a Bio-Bibliographical Lexicon. Ohio State University. https://library.osu.edu/projects/hebrew-lexicon/03150-files/03150203.pdf.
  6. Salaman RN. “Ephraim Luzzatto (1729–1792).” Transactions (Jewish Historical Society of England) 1918-1920;9:85-102.
  7. Nissan E. “The Friulan Expatriate Ephraim Luzzatto, Physician, Hebrew Poet, épateur des bourgeois. Part I: Practising Medicine and Mocking his Patient in Georgian London.” http://kharabat.altervista.org/RSIM-9_Nissan_Part1_on_Ephraim_Luzzatto.pdf.

AVI OHRY, MD, is married with two daughters. He is Emeritus Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at Tel Aviv University, the former director of Rehabilitation Medicine at Reuth Medical and Rehabilitation Center in Tel Aviv, and a member of The Lancet‘s Commission on Medicine & the Holocaust. He conducts award-winning research in neurological rehabilitation, bioethics, medical humanities and history, and on long-term effects of disability and captivity. He plays the drums with three jazz bands.

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