Judaism, in color, in Italy

The world-famous Uffizi Gallery in Florence brings the little-known art of Jewish textiles to light.

August 17, 2019 14:02
Judaism, in color, in Italy

‘THE COLORS of Judaism in Italy’ – in its splendor in Florence, in the Galleria degli Uffizi’s Aula Magliabechiana wing – is due to run until October 27.. (photo credit: OPERA LABORATORI FIORENTINI PER LE GALLERIE DEGLI UFFIZI)

During the spring of 1749 in Rome, a young Roman Jew, Anna Del Monte, was kidnapped by papal soldiers and locked up in the House of Catechumens, a Catholic institution aimed at converting Jews to Christianity.

Anna, however, resisted the attempts to persuade her and after 13 days she was allowed to return to her family in the ghetto.
A few years later, in celebration of Anna’s miraculous return, her father, Baruch Del Monte, donated to their synagogue a finely embroidered mappa, a rectangular piece of fabric designed to protect a Torah scroll. The artifact, about 60 cm. wide and 140 cm. long, was made of silk embroidered with spun silver. It featured an extraordinary image of Mount Sinai blooming with flowers, the Tablets of the Law surrounded by clouds and musical instruments, and a Hebrew inscription with a verse from Isaiah: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and those who return with righteousness.”

The Del Monte mappa is one of the 140 pieces featured in the exhibition “The Colors of Judaism in Italy,” which is open until October 27 in the prestigious Uffizi Gallery in Florence, under the high patronage of the president of the Italian Republic. The initiative is promoted by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage, the Foundation for the Jewish Museum of Rome, the Foundation for Italian Jewish Cultural Heritage and the network of Florence Art Museums.

Curated by the directors of the Jewish museums of Florence and Rome, Dora Liscia Bemporad and Olga Melasecchi, respectively, “The Colors of Judaism in Italy” sheds light on the little-known art of Jewish textiles.

The showcase marks the first time in the four centuries of history of the iconic Uffizi that an exhibition is devoted to a Jewish topic, as Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi, explained in a phone conversation with the Magazine.

“This initiative is part of a strategy that has seen several exhibitions focusing on religious diversity in Italy. They included a showcase on the Lutheran Reformation and another on Islam in Florence. Showing that Italy has been a much more pluralistic society than the presence of the papacy might suggest has been one of my priorities,” said Schmidt, who was appointed as the head of the museum in 2015.

Schmidt explained that the idea of a retrospective focusing on Jewish textiles was first conceived by Daniela Di Castro, the late director of the Rome Jewish Museum, who died in 2010.

Many years later, her vision has turned into a reality. In fact, the Uffizi exhibition marks the first time that a history of the Jewish people has been presented through the art of weaving and therefore also through those who were its protagonists: Jewish women.

The showcase includes tapestries, textiles, decorative fabrics, lacework, clothing, paintings and other items of daily or religious use from all over Italy, displaying a riot of colors, materials and wisdom.

The richness of a community that, if never strong in numbers, has played a crucial role both in Italian and in Jewish history is conveyed through objects such as breathtaking Torah scroll covers, colorful parochot (curtains that cover the Torah ark in synagogues) and silver rimonim (ornamental objects that decorate the tops of the roller handles of the Torah scroll).
Most objects are made in Italy, but some come from places like Egypt and China, bearing testimony to the extensive commercial and personal relationships Italian Jews cultivated.

“The Jewish production of textiles, as indeed of silverware and of other forms of decorative art, is closely bound to the broader history of Italian art. It has been influenced down the ages by the changing tastes of Italy’s artistic civilization and has itself caused and influenced those changes,” explained Alessandra Di Castro, president of the Foundation for the Museo Ebraico di Roma, in a statement.

AT ITS peak at the end of the 15th century, right before the expulsion of Jews from Spanish domains – which included all of southern Italy – the Jewish community on the Italian peninsula numbered around 50,000 people. A similar Jewish population lived in the country on the eve of the Holocaust. Today, estimations suggest that about 25,000-30,000 Jews live in Italy, half of whom are in Rome.

The Italian capital is one of the very few cities in the world where Jews have been continuously living since before the destruction of the Second Temple.

Although Jews were never expelled from Rome, they had to endure cruel persecutions and restrictions.

(Top) MAPPÀH DONATED by Rabbi Corcos in 1703- 1704. Central part; late 17th century, side parts), Roman embroidery (central part)/Swedish or Italian manufacture, grosgrain embroidered and brocade satin; Jewish Museum of Rome. (Bottom) MAPPÀH DONATED by the Zaddik brothers in 1629-1630. Roman embroid (Credit: OPERA LABORATORI FIORENTINI PER LE GALLERIE DEGLI UFFIZI)

In 1555, Pope Paul IV established the Jewish ghetto. The measure was accompanied by several further limitations in daily life, including the professions that Jews were allowed to practice. The commerce of secondhand clothes and rags was among the few jobs that were permitted. Roman Jews were forced to reside in the overcrowded, insalubrious neighborhood on the banks of the Tiber River until 1870, when Rome was conquered by the newly established Kingdom of Italy.

Schmidt emphasized that one of the main themes of the Uffizi’s exhibition is to illustrate “the relations between the communities and the gentiles in Italy throughout the centuries.”

“The textiles are especially suited for this purpose because the irrational and negative decision by the pope in 1555 was followed by the development of incredible Jewish expertise in the textile sector,” the director pointed out.

Weaving was therefore embraced and elevated into the highest art form.

“The most valuable pieces of fabrics were refashioned in ritual objects and ornaments for the synagogues. And this is how most of these textiles survived,” Schmidt added.

Well-off families often donated a ritual object to the synagogue to celebrate a joyous occasion or to commemorate a deceased relative. The custom became more and more popular after 1625, when the Inquisition forbade Jews to put any inscriptions on tombstones (with the sole exception of those for rabbis and scholars), as explained by Melasecchi in the exhibition’s catalogue.
“The first example we received is... the mappa donated in 1629-1630 [therefore only four years after the papal decree] to the Scolanova Synagogue by the Zaddik brothers in memory of their father, Shmuel,” she further wrote.

The fiery-red Zaddik mappa, sewn in satin embroidered in gold thread and damask, quotes a verse from Psalms, “The righteous man will flourish like the palm tree.”

A glimpse of what was going on in the ghetto is offered in the exhibit by the 1881 painting La piazza delle azimelle nel Ghetto (The Square of the Unleavened Bread in the Ghetto) by Ettore Roesler Franz.

The painting portrays a small square named after an oven for the matzot that stood there. A few years before, Jews had been emancipated, but the scene captured in the painting is still informative: several women are mending and selling used fabrics, some colorful and expensive-looking, while two men with bulky bags walk toward the main road.

Roesler Franz’s work is not the only painting featured in the exhibition. Several others portray noble families and women in magnificent outfits, whose fabric often shows a striking resemblance to the ones used for synagogue ornaments.

One of those is the “Allegory of Five Senses” by Sebastiano Ceccarini (1703-1783), a family portrait. The magnificent yellow dress decorated with a floral pattern worn by the young girl in the foreground seems almost identical to the texture of a Florentine Torah scroll cover featuring a colorful embroidery applied on a yellow satin ground.

ME’ÌL, FLORENTINE embroidery (Early 18th century, embroidery; 19th century, construction), embroidery appliqued on yellow satin ground, in red, azure and green cut velvet, white, green and two-tone pink satin; Jewish Community, Florence. (Credit: OPERA LABORATORI FIORENTINI PER LE GALLERIE DEGLI UFFIZI)

IT WAS not unusual for Jewish artisans to rework cast-off dresses and objects that previously belonged to the most powerful families of the time.

For instance, in 1704, Rabbi Tranquillo Vita Corcos, one of the most extraordinary leaders of the community during the most oppressive centuries, donated a cerulean mappa that was created using upholstery from the carriage of the former Queen Christina of Sweden, who moved to Rome after abdicating her throne in 1654. The embroidered grosgrain and brocade satin mappa featured an elaborated crowned shield surrounded by fluttering ribbons framing two lions, a three-peak mountain and three ears of wheat.

“In 1681, when Pope Innocent XII ordered the suppression of Jewish lenders, they had to find new sources of income. After the first period of confused reorganization, a new extraordinary season focused on the sector of luxury goods followed,” historian Serena Di Nepi explained in the catalogue.

“Throughout the 18th century, few prominent families started over from the old rags that Paulus IV and his successors had designated as the most suited goods for Jewish commerce. From used to antiques, the transition was quick. The elites of the ghetto specialized in furnishing noble families, cardinals and ambassadors’ palaces of antique furniture and textiles, importing valuable fabrics, often new, from Italy and from abroad,” she added.

As the exhibition demonstrates, the textile-related Jewish expertise was handed down generation after generation to modern times. Hence, a number of contemporary creations are also on display in the Uffizi, such as a red, white and black dress in printed polyester jersey created in 1976 by Roberta di Camerino; an Italian griffe established by Jewish designer Giuliana Coen Camerino; and a black evening gown produced in the 1960s for the Italian actress Silvana Pampanini by Jewish stylist Gigliola Curiel. Her brand is still a leader of the fashion world, headed by Curiel’s daughter and granddaughter, Raffaella and Gigliola, respectively.

“We decided to include modern creations in the showcase because we felt it was important to show the continuity of the affinity between the Jewish community and the textile industry that has carried on to this day. Some of the major producers of textiles are Jewish. The art of weaving does not belong only to the past; its tradition still inspires stylists and designers,” Schmidt explained to the Magazine.

“Florence is an important fashion capital. We hoped to attract those who work in the fashion industry to visit the exhibition. It is happening,” he added.

Asked whether he is especially fond of any of the artifacts, the director of the Uffizi responded that it was impossible to choose but “if there were a fire, since we have a Torah scroll on display I would probably save that. That said, I really hope that there is no fire.”

Schmidt said that the exhibition has been very successful so far and that other museums’ curators have expressed an interest in it.

“The Uffizi attracts visitors from all over the world, and this exhibition is very popular, always full of Italians and foreigners. Even for local Jews, it represents a unique opportunity, since many of these artifacts are on display for the first time. It is a great celebration for the eyes and the minds,” he concluded.

ARON HAKODESH (Holy Ark) from the Conegliano Veneto Italian synagogue, open to visitors of the U. Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art. (Credit: DUDI SA’AD)

An exquisite taste of  Italian Jewish textiles in Jerusalem

Italian Jewish prayer books include several unique features that distinguish them from those of other Jewish communities. After all, Jews were living in Italy way before the Jewish world split between Ashkenazim and Sephardim around 1,000 years ago.
One of the most fascinating elements is incorporated in the Shabbat morning prayer: a special blessing for Jewish women.
The prayer reads: “He Who blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, may He bless every daughter of Israel who fashions a coat or covering with which to adorn the Torah, or who prepares a candle in honor of the Torah. May the Holy One, Blessed be He, pay her reward and grant her the good that she deserves and let us say: Amen.”

The text is featured on the wall in the first hall of the exhibition Warp & Weft – Women as Custodians of Jewish Heritage in Italy, which opened Monday at the Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art on Hillel Street in Jerusalem.

The Nahon Museum’s valuable Jewish textile collection has always been part of its permanent exhibition. However, as the legendary Gallerie Degli Uffizi in Florence has devoted a vast exhibition to the topic, the boutique museum in Jerusalem has decided to showcase its collection. Although more limited in size, Warp & Weft still presents pieces that are as valuable and unique, offering those who live or visit Israel the opportunity to have a taste of the treasures of the Italian Jewish tradition.
The artifacts on display include ritual objects, such as the newly-restored Tedeschi parohet (Torah Curtain), created in 1572 in Venice and considered the oldest in the world, and several brocade mei’lim (Torah covers).

The interconnection between life-cycle events and textiles is also explored. As explained in the exhibition’s panels, “Every important moment in a woman’s life cycle was enshrined in textiles, usually pieces embroidered by her.”

For example, the custom was for future brides to embroider the prayer shawl (tallit) of their fiancés, and for women in the family to sew a long piece of cloth (hitul or fascia, in Italian) to wrap a baby boy during the circumcision ceremony. The fabric was later donated to the synagogue to serve as a Torah binder.

One of such items on display, made in silk with silk thread embroidery, was brought from China to Florence in the 19th century as a gift to the Neppi and Modona-Viterbo families.

The panel points out that the artifact was donated to the museum by Lionella and Giuseppe Viterbo.

Indeed, it is not rare in the Nahon Museum to spot centuries-old objects that were offered to the institution by descendants of the original owners, bearing witness to the extraordinary continuity that Italian Jewish families often embody.

The exhibition route could not but end in the splendid Conegliano Veneto Synagogue.

The synagogue features a 17th-century aron kodesh (holy Torah ark); exquisite golden, carved wooden decorations; and other rare pieces of furniture that were brought to Israel in the 1950s by the museum’s founder, Umberto Nahon. It is still a major center of the life of Italian Jews in Jerusalem who hold regular services there.

‘Warp & Weft’ is curated by the Nahon Museum’s curator Anastazja Buttitta and will run until December 31.

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