History of Italy's Jews on display in Ramat Aviv

In Roman times, Jews often arrived in Italy as slaves, although the very first Jews came as ambassadors sent by the Maccabees in 161 BCE.

menoart 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
menoart 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of the Israel Museum)
Jews and Italy go together like pasta and parmesan. True, there aren't many Jews living in Italy (only about 27,000 today), but they've been there a long, long time. Over the past 2000 years, Jews in Italy have been slaves, vintners, physicians, composers, scholars and everything in between. They've been courted by princes, persecuted by the Church, expelled and readmitted according to the ecclesiastical or political temper of the times. In short, Jews have left their mark on Italy and vice versa. This history is documented in Italia Ebraica, a truly unique exhibition of some 200 items that runs from December 4 - February 28 at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv. It covers the figurative arts, literature, music, publishing and science, divided among eight illuminating sections. It starts with "The Voyage," how the Jews first ended up in Italy, and ends with visual arts. In between there's "Life Denied and Regained" that covers attitudes towards the Jews from the Middle Ages to the Holocaust and "Public and Private Life" that catalogues the Jewish people and their doings. "There are few countries in Europe whose national culture has been so influenced by Jewish intellectuals as has Italy," says Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Culture Francesco Rutelli, who will be coming to the opening. In Roman times, Jews often arrived in Italy as slaves, although the very first Jews came as ambassadors sent by the Maccabees in 161 BCE. There were enough of them in Rome when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE for the 1st century Roman historian Suetonius to write that "a throng of foreigners went about lamenting - above all the Jews." Giovanni da Capestrano (1386-1456), a Franciscan friar and inquisitor, was typical of the churchmen who made the Jews' lives a misery from more or less the end of the Middle Ages until well into the 18th century. There's portrait of him by the 18th century painter Gaetano Lapis. There's also a 16th century notarial protocol written on a sheet of a copy of the Babylonian Talmud dating from the 12th century. The Talmud itself was proscribed and publicly burned in 1553. In 1870 Italy's Jews were emancipated and in 1907 Ernesto Nathan became Rome's first Jewish mayor. His favorite artist, Giacomo Balla painted his portrait in 1910; it also is part of the exhibition. Included in the exhibition are seven iron keys from the Ferrara ghetto in 1627, a copy, presumably by Michaelangelo, of David's head, a portrait by Amadeo Modigliani (1184-1920) of the painter Celso Lagar, and a sarcophagus dating from the third century CE decorated with two pagan goddesses with a menorah on one of their shields. A modern menorah by Giacomo Zarfati will also be on display. Zarfati made the menorah in 1943 at the convent of Saint Maria of the Seven Sorrows where nuns sheltered Jewish families during the German Occupation. Even a 1908 Olivetti typewriter, a product of the only great Jewish industry in Italy, will be on show. The items come from Italy, France, Switzerland, Portugal, the US and UK, from private collections, from museums, such as the Ufizzi in Florence and the National Gallery in Rome, and from libraries such the Palatine and the Apostolic Library in the Vatican. The exhibition is funded in part by the Compagnia di San Paolo banking group and Telit communications PLC, whose CEOs are also coming to the opening. Italia Ebraica was the brainchild of the dynamic Simonetta Della Seta, head of the Italian Cultural Institute in Tel Aviv, and her country's cultural attaché.