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  • The Jew in the Art of the Italian Renaissance
  • Natalie Tomas
Katz, Dana E. The Jew in the Art of the Italian Renaissance (Jewish Culture and Contexts), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008; cloth; pp. xi, 228; 70 b/w illustrations; $US55.00; ISBN 9780812240856.

This richly illustrated book deals with a subject that is not often discussed in Italian Renaissance art history: the representation of the figure of the Jew in Christian art. Dana Katz uses a case-study approach, informed by both surviving pictorial and written records, to argue that the few visual representations of Jews in Urbino (Chapter 1), Mantua (Chapter 2) and Ferrara (Chapter 3) are evidence of those princely states' toleration of their Jewish minorities. Katz argues that state-sanctioned, symbolic expressions of violence towards Jews and Judaism in paintings commissioned by the princely families in these city-states ensured that actual violence against their Jewish populations did not occur. In contrast, in the republican state of Florence (Chapter 4), a single [End Page 269] act of violence towards a Jew convicted of blasphemy is commemorated in a painting and in a state-sanctioned inscription affixed to the statue that had been desecrated. In imperial Trent (Chapter 5), a city on the Italian-German border, the destruction of the entire Jewish community that stemmed from a false accusation of the ritual murder of the two-year-old child Simon Unfordorben, led to mass pictorial representations of the supposed ritual murder throughout Trent and the surrounding region, as well as the development of a local cult of the 'blessed' Simon of Trent.

The toleration of the Jews in Renaissance Italian city-states referred to their right to live under the protection of the ruling family as long as they provided a benefit to the local community, usually but not exclusively, as moneylenders. This was the case in Urbino, Mantua and Ferrara.

A similar situation existed in Florence with Jews being invited to settle in Florence under the protection of the Medici in the fifteenth century. In 1493, when a Jew was killed by an angry mob for blasphemy, popular discontent with Medici rule was high. This rare incident provided an outlet for political tensions and its state-sanctioned commemoration helped unify a divided political community. In Trent, an imperial bishopric, anti-Jewish sentiment was much stronger with the cult around Simon of Trent helping to unify the Italo-German Christian community.

This summary cannot convey the complexity of the book's argument nor its rich, detailed visual analysis. Katz's argument linking the toleration of Jews with the commissioning of paintings depicting symbolic violence towards them, as well as the visual commemoration of incidents of anti-Jewish violence, deserves further exploration in other contexts, which this book should inspire. [End Page 270]

Natalie Tomas
School of Philosophical, International and Historical Studies
Monash University


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pp. 269-270
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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