The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew

  • art
  • manuscripts
  • social history
  • judaica
  • cultural history

The exhibit The Renaissance Speaks Hebrew, by Giulio Busi and Silvana Greco, addresses one of the key periods in the cultural history of the Italian Peninsula, a time that was decisive in forming the Italian identity. It also reveals a completely original aspect: the presence of the Jews and the fruitful dialogue with the Christian culture of the majority.

On display are such paintings as The Holy Family and the Family of Saint John the Baptist (1504-1506) by Andrea Mantegna, the Birth of the Virgin (1502-1507) by Vittore Carpaccio, Christ Disputing with the Doctors in the Temple (1519-1525) by Ludovico Mazzolino and Elijah and Elisha by Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, known as Sassetta, surprisingly all of which feature significant texts written in Hebrew. There are illuminated Hebrew manuscripts in the rich Renaissance style, such as The Guide for the Perplexed by Maimonides (1349), purchased by the Italian State less than a year ago. There is also Italy’s oldest wooden Holy Ark, which has returned for the first time from Paris, and the Torah Scroll of Biella, a very ancient parchment of the Jewish Bible, still used today in the synagogal liturgy.

During the Renaissance, the Jews were there, right in the front row, active and enterprising. They were in Florence, Ferrara, Mantua, Venice, Genoa, Pisa, Palermo and obviously Rome. At times welcomed and well accepted as moneylenders, doctors and merchants, and not merely as secondary players, or the object of prejudice. They were exponents of times encompassing multifaceted experiences; meetings and conflicts, harmony and harsh clashes.

For the first time, MEIS tells the story of this rich, complex encounter, thanks also to the enticing background scenery conceived by the designers at Studio GTRF Giovanni Tortelli Roberto Frassoni.

Retracing such an interweaving of mutual experiences means, first of all, recognizing the debt Italian culture owes to Judaism and exploring the Jewish premises for Renaissance civilization. It also means admitting that this interpenetration has not always been synonymous with harmony, nor with undramatic acceptance. Indeed, it has led to intolerance, contradictions, social exclusion and violence against the Jewish group, engaged in the difficult task of defending its specific identity.