From Italy’s Jewry Come 2,000 Years of Treasures

As published in The New York Times

At the end of Primo Levi’s novel ”If Not Now, When?” a group of Eastern European Jews arrives by train in Milan and discovers to their surprise that there are Jews in Italy. ”Italian Jews are as odd as the Catholics,” Levi’s narrator thinks to himself. ”They don’t speak Yiddish; in fact, they don’t even know what Yiddish is. They only speak Italian; or rather, the Jews of Rome speak Roman, the Jews of Venice speak Venetian, and so on. They dress like everybody else, they have the same face as everybody else.”

A similar ignorance existed in this country until a few years ago when Levi’s own success helped generate a flurry of interest in Italian-Jewish culture. This growing curiosity has culminated in a major exhibition opening next Sunday at the Jewish Museum. ”Gardens and Ghettos: The Art of Jewish Life in Italy,” which continues through Feb. 1, 1990, is believed to be the first exhibition of its kind in this country and the most extensive anywhere.

That Italy’s Jewish community should be so little known is somewhat ironical in light of the fact that it is the oldest continuous Jewish community in Europe, dating from the second century before Christ. The current exhibition begins, appropriately, with a cast of the Arch of Titus, showing Roman soldiers carrying a Jewish menorah in a triumphal pageant. In 70 A.D. the Emperor Titus sacked Jerusalem and dragged thousands of Jewish slaves back to Rome.

”Gardens and Ghettos” covers nearly 2,000 years of history and includes more than 300 works ranging from Roman funeral monuments to illuminated manuscripts from the early Renaissance, baroque craftsmanship in silver and bronze and some 100 paintings, sculptures and photographs of modern Jewish artists of the last century. The show is divided into four parts: the Roman Empire (first to fifth century); the Era of the City States (1300-1550); the Era of the Ghettos (1550-1848), and the period following the unification of Italy and Jewish emancipation from 1848 until the present.

As the initial quote from Levi suggests, Italian Jews have often been regarded as ”odd,” seeming more like Italians in their speech and appearance than Jews. This phenomenon is evident as far back as the Roman Empire: several of the Roman funeral monuments on display have inscriptions in Latin rather than in Hebrew, indicating that even in 200 A.D. the Roman Jews were using the local dialect.

While the Jewish communities of Spain, Germany and Eastern Europe were large and autonomous enough to maintain a separate language and culture, the Jews of Italy – whose numbers have rarely exceeded 50,000 – relied on and mixed with their fellow Italians to a much greater degree. In the past this has caused some Jewish scholars to regard Italian-Jewish culture as a weak, impure tradition, but it is precisely this open, eclectic quality that is likely to intrigue the audience for this show.

The give-and-take between the small Jewish minority and the dominant Italian society, the ability of Jewish artisans to absorb and rework Italian artistic styles within a Jewish context, is the dominant theme of ”Gardens and Ghettos.” This cultural dialogue has not always been smooth and uninterrupted: it has quickened and slowed with shifting waves of tolerance and persecution. Through the objects in this show (organized by the curators Vivian B. Mann and Emily Braun) one can trace this complex history.

The free mixing of Jewish and pagan themes on the Roman sarcophagi, for example, reflects the comparatively easy relations between Jews and Romans during the Empire. Many Romans regarded Jehovah as simply another god in their pantheistic universe, and the Jews of ancient Rome had little inhibition about buying sarcophagi from pagan craftsmen and adding a specifically Jewish touch to them. Especially striking is a marble sarcophagus that features various Dionysian figures, three satyrs crushing grapes, and putti and the four seasons together with the Jewish menorah.

Leaving the Roman period, the exhibition jumps almost 1,000 years from the Empire to the Renaissance. This gap (which is covered well in the show’s catalogue) reflects a major crisis for Italian Jews. During the Middle Ages, Jewish life thrived primarily in Sicily and southern Italy, but was largely wiped out when the Spanish took control of this region and expelled the Jews in 1541.

With the rise of the northern city-states in the 14th and 15th centuries, Italian princes and dukes invited Jewish bankers from southern Italy, Germany, Spain and Portugal to live in their cities in order to attract capital and stimulate trade. Many of the great Jewish banking families commissioned works of art and, in imitation of the Italian nobility, even created coats of arms, which can be seen stamped on many of the objects displayed.

Jewish artisans moved relatively freely in Italian Renaissance society and were allowed to enter Italian trade guilds. The richly illustrated manuscripts exhibited in the show reflect the way Jewish artisans reveled in the astonishing cultural wealth of the Italian Renaissance. Frequently they combine Italian style and Jewish content: a Florentine prayer book from 1492 portrays King David in the manner of an Italian prince attended by a courtier playing a lute.

Although Jewish artisans drew heavily on Italian culture, the dialogue was not entirely one way. Humanist scholars such as Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola studied Hebrew and Jewish mysticism, and in turn influenced the Jewish scholars with whom they worked. The longstanding tradition of Jewish erudition found a happy outlet in the invention of printing, and this exhibition contains many of the first Jewish books printed.

Jews in the Renaissance were also leaders in the fields of music and dance. Gugliemo Ebreo da Pesaro (William the Jew from Pesaro) wrote 7 of the 10 surviving Renaissance treatises on the dance (one of which is included in the show). But Gugliemo converted to Christianity in order to achieve full acceptance (and knighthood) in the courts of Italy, changing his name to Ambrogio Ballerino (Ambrose the Dancer).

This golden age of Italian Jewry was not without its darker side, however. A panel painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Simon of Trent documents an infamous ”blood libel” leveled against Italian Jews. In 1475, Jews in the city of Trent were accused of killing a Christian child to use his blood for Passover matzoh. The charges unleashed violent reprisals against the Jews and led to the canonization of little Simon, who remained a saint of the Roman Catholic Church until after World War II.

The first ghetto was created in Venice in 1516, but only later, at the instigation of the Vatican, was the ghetto used in a harshly punitive fashion. In fact, many of the richest examples of Jewish culture on display are from the 16th and 17th centuries – a clear testament to the fact that the ghetto by no means ended contact between Jewish and Christian artisans. Jewish dance, music, map making, medicine, engraving, printing, metalworking all continued apace. Salomon de’ Rossi (whose music will be played at the exhibition) composed his famous Renaissance madrigals from within the confines of the Mantua ghetto.

In the mid-17th century, however, persecution of Jews grew stiffer with the expulsion of Jewish artisans from Italian guilds. Yet in the book illustrations, Torah scrolls and elaborate silver and bronze objects produced in this period, one can sense Jewish artisans peering out of the ghetto gates and watching the developments of late Renaissance and baroque art with fascination. A scroll of Esther from the 18th century, for example, shows a Jewish prophet sitting atop an ornate baroque balustrade decorated with lush floral arrangments while naked cherubs below him hold up a garland of vines and flowers.

While the Jews looked longingly out of the ghetto, Christian artists gazed with curiosity into it. It is highly revealing that virtually all the pictures of ghetto life in this exhibition are the work of Christian artists. Not until the mid-1930’s did Jewish artists – in the shadow of Hitler and persecutions – begin to look back to the ghetto.

”Gardens and Ghettos” also contains one of the earliest surviving portraits of a Jew, providing a glimpse of the Jewish self-image in mid-17th-century Venice. Unlike Shakespeare’s Shylock, Jacob Caravalho, a real-life merchant of Venice, presents himself as an Italian gentleman of the period, with powdered wig, ruffled shirt, buckled shoes and breeches. He does not however, deny his Jewish identity: he is holding a wedding ring between his fingers to demonstrate an important moment in the Jewish wedding ceremony.

Eventually the restrictions of the ghetto began to take a heavy toll on Jewish artwork. Banned from working outside the community, Jewish artisans turned inward, working primarily on liturgical objects for the synagogues. The restricted patronage of Jewish artisans led to a narrowness in their work which came to consist almost exclusively of religious objects: Torah covers, Torah shields, Hanukkah lamps, prayer shawls, Torah crowns and Torah binders. While many of these objects show a high level of craftsmanship, the monotony of subject matter suggests the stunting and suffocating effects of three centuries of ghetto life.

The contrast between the age of the ghetto and the modern era could not be greater. The visitor entering the modern section of the show is confronted with brightly colored landscapes of the Tuscan countryside, suggesting the surge of joy and freedom Italian Jews felt on leaving the cramped, dark ghettos in the middle of the 19th century.

Because Jewish emancipation was one of the results of the creation of a unified Italian state, these first modern Jewish painters were strongly patriotic. Vito D’Ancona and Serafino De Tivoli fought in the wars of unification (1848-1870) and played important roles in the ”Macchiaiola” movement that favored painting out of doors and a strong rootedness in the Italian soil.

The sudden, total absence of explicitly Jewish references in this work suggests that Jewish artists were eager to put the experience of the ghetto behind them and reflects the remarkable rapidity with which Jews were accepted into modern Italian society. It is not until the mid-1930’s that Jewish themes reappear in their work.

If the objects presented in the first three quarters of the show are of more historical than artistic importance, the modern section is an art exhibition of major scope that also provides a window onto a fascinating cultural milieu.

While many modern Italian-Jewish writers (Italo Svevo, Alberto Moravia, Umberto Saba, Natalia Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, Giorgio Bassani and Primo Levi) are widely read in this country, this exhibition demonstrates that a similar flowering took place in the visual arts. Amadeo Modigliani and, to a much lesser degree, Carlo Levi are virtually the only Italian-Jewish painters known here; other artists such as Mario Cavaglieri, Corrado Cagli, Roberto Melli have enjoyed success in Italy but have never been studied together in an exhibition of Jewish painters.

It is extremely difficult and probably reductive to try to define these works as particularly Jewish. The 19 artists represented here operate in a broad spectrum of modern artistic currents: academic classicism, Impressionism, Surrealism, Expressionism and magic realism. And yet, as is documented by the paintings and photographs on display, many of these Jewish artists had close personal and professional ties.

Italian Jewish painters were politically as well as artistically diverse. Because Italian Fascism did not adopt anti-Semitism until 1938, Jewish artists, like other Italians, were Fascist, anti-Fascist or apolitical.

”Gardens and Ghettos” explores the important role in Fascist art played by Margherita Sarfatti, who was both Mussolini’s mistress and the art critic of his newspaper Popolo d’Italia. The show contains portraits of Sarfatti by the photographer Nunes Vais and the Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni.

Italian Fascism did not enforce the same artistic conformity as German Nazism and did not attack ”degenerate” modernism until its alliance with Germany in 1937. Thus there is very little explicitly Fascist about pro-Fascist Jewish artists such as Roberto Melli. Corrado Cagli, on the other hand, executed monumental wall murals celebrating the glories of the regime. It is both sad and fascinating to see the mural he painted for the Italian pavilion at the Universal Exhibition of Paris 1937, on the eve of the Italian racial persecutions.

At the other end of the political and artistic spectrum was Carlo Levi, who is more famous in this country for his memoir ”Christ Stopped at Eboli” than for his painting. Levi’s art in the 1930’s was not openly political, but the fact that he looked to Paris and not Rome for artistic inspiration was an implicit dissent from the emphatically Italian values of Fascism. Levi also painted portraits of important anti-Fascist figures, three of which are present in this exhibition.

Just as the artists of the ghetto period turned inward, so Italian-Jewish artists of the 1930’s returned to Jewish themes with the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. From 1935 we have Ulvi Liegi’s post-Expressionist rendering of the synagogue of Livorno, which, like so much of the earlier art in this show, applies Italian artistic values to a Jewish subject.

Three of the artists represented in the exhibition – Aldo Carpi, Arturo Nathan and Gino Parin – were deported to German concentration camps. Carpi surived by drawing pictures for the German SS; he also secretly made sketches of concentration camp life, some of which are featured here. While the Holocaust revived a sense of Jewish identity among many of these Italian artists, virtually all of them chose to remain in Italy, keeping the 2,000-year-old dialogue between the Italian and Jewish traditions alive.

– 9 September, 1989


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