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The Jew in the Art of the Italian Renaissance by Dana E. Katz (review)

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 5, Number 2, July 2012
pp. 100-102 | 10.1353/jji.2012.0024

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Dana Katz's The Jew in the Art of the Italian Renaissance addresses Christian anti-Judaism in Renaissance Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and lends much-needed nuance to the historical understanding of tolerance in the Italian courts. Katz investigates how the Italian term tollerare acquired highly variant local meanings and how the dynamics of protection and persecution played out in the visual cultures of particular Italian regions. The study focuses on the Renaissance principalities of Urbino, Mantua, and Ferrara. All three city-states hosted relatively prosperous Jewish populations and they shared regional and political affinities as northern Italian territories governed by single despots. Katz contrasts these three princely states with republican Florence and Trent. She analyzes how each of the Renaissance court rulers distinctively upheld toleration legislation governing Christian-Jewish relations while supporting artistic commissions that represented violence against Jews. By exploring how representational modes such as narrative, portraiture, and allegory were used to depict Jews in Italian Renaissance Court paintings, Katz argues they portrayed the limited persecution of Jews and helped maintain Jews' safety.

Methodologically, the book focuses on the relationship between Italian art that represented hatreds against Jews and the historical record of Jewish-Christian interaction in the Renaissance. Katz sets out to demonstrate that although the regional despots enforced toleration legislation vis-à-vis Jewish populations while simultaneously supporting violent art against Jews, the economic benefits of toleration outweighed the animosity toward Jews' participation in Christian society. Katz suggests that Christian painters represented Jews' alleged crimes against Christianity—including host desecration, deicide, ritual murder, blood libel, and well poisoning—to deflect and play out their anger in relatively abstract ways. The volume posits that the production of such scapegoating imagery testifies to the distinctive policies reserved for Jewry in the northern Italian princedoms, republican Florence, and imperial Trent. For instance, Katz demonstrates that Jews were more expendable in Milan because of its larger commercial core and that Jewish usury, though beneficial to the Milanese economy, was not essential to local credit markets. However, Urbino, Mantua, and Ferrara were smaller and the local princes promoted Jewish settlement for economic prosperity because Jews developed fiscally the private credit markets and public finance based on precedent. This broad lens provides new insights into iconic paintings by Andrea Mantegna, Paolo Uccello, and others. This liberating methodology also helps viewers understand these paintings as belonging to larger art historical discourse that also incorporates non-canonical provincial works of art.

Katz's novel approach adds to the historiographical understanding of Renaissance Italy, particularly the debate on the "lachrymose" theory of Jewish history. Salo Baron attacked this theory as a story of individuals and persecutions, flawed by undue emphasis on independent events and ideologues. Katz is closer to Robert Bonfil and David Nirenberg, arguing that Jewish life in Renaissance Italy was neither an example of harmonious assimilation and beneficial cultural symbiosis nor the "lachrymose conception" of continuous exploitation, persecution, and expulsion championed by Yitzhak Baer. Katz's position supports Baron's approach that favors the analysis of Jewish history in a larger comparative context, updating Baron's anti-lachrymose theory in the context of Jewish history during Renaissance Italy. Katz joins Bonfil's approach to Jewish life in Renaissance Italy, which emphasizes the exceptionality of the Italian peninsula in its treatment of Jews while criticizing the standard interpretation of the Italian Renaissance put forth by historians such as Moses Avigdor Shulvass, Attilio Milano, and Cecil Roth. These historians cast the period as one of intense Jewish assimilation to the Christian majority.

Not all historians will agree with Katz's thesis that Renaissance art became part of a policy of tolerance that deflected violence to a symbolic status. In her case histories, Katz finds instances of mob violence that went against the letter of princely decrees of tolerance toward Jews. In her documentation of the rioting that followed the alleged accusations in Mantua that Jewish usurer Daniele da Norsa provoked violence by profaning Christian images, Katz considers two quattrocento Mantuan altarpieces associated with the riots. She argues that Andrea Mantegna in the Madonna della Vittoria and the anonymous artist of Madonna and Child with saints and Norsa Family imprinted Jewish persecution within the...



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