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172. Seal of Leone and Jacob Norsa

Dimensions: 11 × 13 mm. Impression.

Location: Gonzaga Archives, State Archives of Mantua, F. II. 8, b. 2398, c. II.

This oval seal, obviously the signet of a signet ring, is impressed on a document dated August 13, 1462,* illustrated here. Though weakly stamped, it shows a crowned woman front face. According to Vittore Colorni, she seems to embrace two children with her right hand and to have her left arm stretched toward a column. It is Colorni’s opinion that the figure is symbolic and has nothing to do with the Norsa brothers.

This 1462 letter is of exceptional interest. It is written and signed by “Leonus” and “Jacob da Nursia,” that is, Leone and Jacob Norsa, and sent to the Marquis Ludovico Gonzaga. The bishop of Cervia in the province of Ravenna, it says, has had a court sentence levied against the brothers on the basis of a papal bull, condemning them to pay a large fine. But the bishop has not given them their copy of the citation on which the sentence is based nor has he permitted them to respond. They request that Gonzaga intercede, to write or have a letter written to Rome regarding the matter because if not, great damage will be done to them.

Appeal for justice, Mantua, August 13, 1462, sealed with the seal used by Leone and Jacob Norsa. Gonzaga Archives, State Archives of Mantua, F. II. 8, b. 2398, c. 11.

Though the subject of the papal bull is not discussed, we can be assured that it deals with usury. The campaign against the practice of charging interest on money loans or against pawned objects, led mainly by the Franciscans, was beginning to grow strong. Although in theory the papacy had been implacable regarding this matter for many years, in practice the Church had bent backwards to avoid a confrontation because the Lombards (whose families filled many seats in the Curia) were leading moneylenders. The new outcry by evangelical preachers could no longer be ignored, however. Even the Gonzagas, whose tyrannical rule often dispensed with niceties, had to lean with the wind, and on May 18, 1462, Ludovico Gonzaga himself prohibited usury in Mantua and its possessions. The prohibition lasted only four years; once the immediate pressure was relieved, it was business as usual again. In this case the practice of pawning was not only personally beneficial to the Jews and their Gonzaga partners but also to the poor of Mantua, who had no source for emergency loans other than the Jewish pawnshops.

The Norsa letter does not question the papal bull but deals only with the improper procedures whereby the Norsa brothers have been fined. We do not know the outcome of this case, but the document itself has an amusing allusion. When the Norsas plead for the intervention of Ludovico Gonzaga (an action which by itself indicates some intimacy prevailing between the parties), they write that if Gonzaga does not intercede, he may at sometime be unable to defend himself against a similar injustice. The shrewd Jews were aware that the Gonzagas, tyrants who had obtained power on a very dubious basis, would be sensitive to such parallel circumstances. Indeed, in a certain important sense the Jewish usurers and the condottieri—soldiers of fortune like the Gonzagas—had more in common with each other than either did with the hereditary nobility; both represented the new age unfolding.

We know a great deal about the Norsa family, whose background is documented even more meticulously than that of the Finzi family. The late Paolo Norsa, a direct lineal descendant, many years ago presented the writer with his two rare and fascinating biographical books dealing with the Norsa history. The first volume (Norsa, 1957) contains a genealogical chart analyzing the family members over seven centuries and cataloguing 255 names through twenty generations. The second volume (1959) deals more specifically with the family during the 1600s. The Norsa family had two main branches, one in Mantua and one in Ferrara, though a third branch settled in Milan as well. The Mantua branch, the wealthiest, is the one involved in this August 13, 1462 document.

In 1428 Manuele, son of Abramo, moved from Rimini to Mantua. In 1435 he received a concession from Giovan Francesco Gonzaga to lend money and sell pawns. Manuele had two sons, Leone and Jacob, the parties to this letter, who entered the business and thrived. Apparently in this period they also branched out into other fields, for in 1482 the records indicate that Leone was authorized to trade in cloth, an industry for which northern Italy was world-renowned at that time. It would seem that the Norsa brothers weathered the suspension of moneylending in 1462 and came back stronger than ever.

Leone Norsa had four sons, of whom one, Daniele, has an unusual claim to fame. In 1493 Daniele bought a house in the city of Mantua with a painting on its facade showing the Virgin. With the permission of the bishop, he erased this image. Such an uproar ensued that he had to pay a commission of 1,100 gold ducats to the painter, Andrea Mantegna, to paint the Madonna (this painting is now in the Louvre). Then he was forced out of his house, which was demolished, and made to contribute to the building of a church on its site. A picture of his degradation was then painted by one of Mantegna’s students. It depicts the enthroned Virgin; on one side a saint offers her a model of the church erected where the house had been. Daniele Norsa and three members of his family are shown in the lower panel of this painting (see the detail of the figure), the two men wearing the Jewish badge on their breasts. (This was extraordinary because Jewish bankers at this period in Italy—as well as other distinguished Jews, such as physicians—could almost always purchase an exemption from wearing the Jewish badge.) Cecil Roth considered this painting to be the first known of a Jew done in Europe, excluding satirical drawings and coarse anti-semitic depictions. It still hangs in the Basilica of St. Andrew at Mantua.*

Painting by a student of Mantegna showing the disgrace of the Norsa family, Basilica of St. Andrew, Mantua, 1495 (much reduced). Latin panel states, “The temerity of the Jews subdued.”.

Closer view of the bottom panel showing the Norsa family, the two men wearing the Jewish badges.

The Norsa family played a leading role in the city of Mantua over many centuries. They were among the richest Italian Jews of the Renaissance, and a family also notable for cultural achievements. The most famous Norsa was Jedidiah Solomon (1560–1616), a great Masoretic scholar who devoted most of his life to establish through massive and painstaking research, an authentic version of the Bible, eliminating all variants that had crept in. This work was not published until more than a century after his death. The Norsa family had a private synagogue at Mantua. It was destroyed when the ghetto was torn down but has been reconstructed and is now the only synagogue in that city.

The puzzling aspect of the letter which the brothers Leone and Jacob wrote to Ludovico Gonzaga is not the contents but the seal. We would expect some record of this seal in the history of the family, but there is no such evidence, not even in the two books written by Paolo Norsa, who mentions this letter without referring to a seal.

Ancient coins from the city-states flourishing in Palestine after the destruction of ancient Judea may have served as models for small seals like this one and No. 170. Cecil Roth (1959) states that Italian Jews were constantly going on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and there are at least half a dozen travel diaries of these trips which are among the classics of Jewish travel literature. Some of the pilgrims combined their religious zeal with antiquarian research and collected specimens of Jewish coins, which were eagerly studied on their return.*

We know for example, that a sixteenth-century Finzi, David of Mantua, had a collection of Jewish and non-Jewish coins. Jehiel Nissim da Pisa (see below) obtained a shekel from Jerusalem in 1527 and attempted to establish its relative value in Tuscan currency through the weight of the silver. It may very well be that these small coins from post-Judaean Palestine served as the prototypes for such Italian seals.

Three city coins of Neapolis, Palestine, showing city goddess wearing turreted crown, 2d century A.D.

Even odder is the fact that this seal, which must be identified with the Norsa brothers who signed the letter, has no relation to a Norsa family badge adopted shortly thereafter.* The base of this badge indicates on ribbons the three cities of Mantua, Ferrara, and Milan, the places to which the family had emigrated from Norcia. Dated 1493, this family badge shows the heads of three blackamoors, whose symbolic meaning is not fully known. The three heads are superimposed on a shield with two six-pointed stars at the center and a crescent moon between, an example of the staying power of these typical Jewish symbols from the earlier medieval period. Manifesting the influence of the Italian Renaissance, two nude putti hold up the shield, encircled by laurel branches. “Norsa” is on a ribbon at top. A greater iconographic mishmash can hardly be imagined. The earliest record of these imaginary symbols of nobility that this writer has seen is that of Daniel son of Samuel the Doctor (Ha Rofe in Hebrew), from Venice, whose escutcheon appears several times in manuscripts dated from 1383 through 1405. One such is illustrated here. Daniel’s device is a rampant lion to the left emerging from a base whose design changes in each presentation, sometimes showing a legend, sometimes a crested helmet with the lion device repeated.

As the Finzis and Norsas of Mantua are among the most distinguished Jewish families in history, it is not unexpected that they had seals. As did the Jewish elite everywhere in the Middle Ages, the families intermarried and their names became intermingled. This did not prevent rivalry and conflict. Italian Jewry was split in the early sixteenth century by a financial dispute between leading scions of these families. Emanuele (Immanuel) Norsa, of the Ferrara branch of the Norsas and one of the richest Jews in Italy, was a partner with Abraham Raphael Finzi of Bologna in a loan-bank. Children of the two men intermarried, cementing the alliance. In 1507 Abraham Finzi, who had suffered severe business losses in other ventures, wanted to sell his interest in this loan-bank to satisfy those creditors. To consent to the sale, Emanuele Norsa insisted on an unfairly low price, even blocking his own brother-in-law, a member of the da Pisa family, from purchasing Finzi’s interest. Abraham Finzi was forced to sell to Norsa at a price reputed to be one-sixth of the real value. Before the sale, which took place on February 28, 1507, Finzi made a declaration that he was only selling to Norsa under duress and that any statement he might sign to the contrary would be false. This declaration was properly witnessed.

Badge of the Norsa family, 1493. Cecil Roth Collection. Photo courtesy of Irene Roth.

Some twelve years later, after recovering from his business reverses, Abraham Finzi submitted the case to a bet din or Jewish court at Bologna, his home. Emanuele Norsa, claiming Bologna did not have jurisdiction, refused to abide by the decision and insisted the matter be tried at Ferrara, his home. A violent controversy ensued, the rabbis at Ferrara supporting the position of their rich client while almost all the rest of the Italian rabbinate (as well as the rabbinate of other countries, which now entered the dispute) supported Finzi. In the end Emanuele Norsa, a man noted for his arrogance as well as riches, had to yield, and Finzi won his case. The matter split the parties and their supporters for many years.

What makes this dispute even more interesting is that Abramo Emanuele Norsa, a direct descendant of Emanuele Norsa, was the second practicing Jew we know to have had a portrait medal made of himself.* A one-sided medal made in 1557 by the famous medalist Pastorino de’ Pastorini, it shows Norsa with bust to the right, wearing a long beard, as we see here. The inscription is ABR.EMA.NVR., the NVR. indicating that the name still had not yet been fixed as Norsa. This Norsa was a banker from Ferrara and a community leader. Thus the Norsa family contributed to art history the first known portrayal of a contemporary Jew in oil, the first generally recognized Jewish family badge, and the second known portrait medal of a Jew.

Badge of Daniel son of Doctor Samuel, shown in siddur from Forti, 1383. British Library, Add. 26968, fol. 230r.

Abramo Norsa (1505–1579), banker from Ferrara. Medal by Pastorino de’ Pastorini. Note the resemblance to Angelo Finzi seal. Formerly at the Giovanni Mariotti Museum, Parma. From Norsa, 1939, opp. p. 34.


*A fourth document in the Gonzaga Archives dated August 12, 1462—the preceding day—carries the number F. II. 8, b. 2398, c. 10. In it, the Jews ask for justice from the office of the city of Mantua regulating the liquidation of unredeemed pawns. The substance of this letter is thus intimately related to the problem involved in the August 13, 1462, letter, namely, the consequences of the prohibition of moneylending. The August 12th letter is likewise sealed, the diameter of the seal being 14 mm. However, its surface is entirely obliterated, and it is signed in a non-specific way by “very faithful Jews.” It has thus been eliminated from this study.

The surname and its variants—da Nursia, da Norcia, da Norsa, and Norzi—refer to the fact that the family comes from Norcia, a city in central Italy in the province of Umbria. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists entries for the family under “Norzi.” Recently the family has preferred “Norsa,” which has become the accepted spelling.

*Nuño Gonçalves in 1465–67, some thirty years earlier, painted the Portuguese court praying before St. Vincent, the patron saint of Portugal. The chief rabbi, with the Jewish badge on his robe, is indicated among the figures. It is not clear which rabbi this may be. The altarpiece is located at the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon. There are also miniatures in oil from Italy that show known Jews from the fifteenth century: see, for example, the Montefiore Ms. 249, Jew’s College, London.

*The Jews in this period did not know anything about ancient Jewish coins, as evidenced by the false shekels—obvious because of their modern square Hebrew letters—which were accepted and venerated as genuine. Any old coins coming from Palestine at that time would have been regarded as “Jewish”; these coins, though truly issued in Palestine, were of course not Jewish at all.

*Most writers refer to this as the Norsa coat of arms, which is in the technical sense absurd. A coat of arms has a military origin and is granted. These rich Jewish loan-bankers merely adopted identification insignia, which they—imitating their more lordly Christian neighbors—then called, without any justification, a “coat of arms.” As Giacomo Bascapè says, “It is a known fact that some families in Italy, though lacking a patrician or feudal title, assumed heraldic shields. Likewise Jews, assimilating into the cultural setting, followed such a custom” (Bascapè, 1973, p. 161).

Arthur Fox-Davies discusses eight different varieties of well-known heraldic heads. One is the head of a moor, usually described as a blackamoor. As examples he gives the family of Moir of Otterburn (“Moir” means moor), which shows “Argent, three negroes’ heads,” and the family of Moir of Stonniwood, which shows “Argent, three Mauritanian negroes’ heads” (1904, p. 118). It is possible that the Norsa family was punning on its name and the Italian word nerezza, or “blackness,” thus the three blackamoors, each standing for one of the cities to which they had originally emigrated from Norcia. A variant Norsa badge, where the figures are not blackamoors, has also been reported (Revue des études juives [125]:403).

*The first known Jewish portrait medal was issued only five years earlier, in 1552, for Elia Delatas. On the reverse it bore the image of his mother, Rica Delatas. Elia Delatas was the son of Emanuele Lattes, an Italian physician, and the grandson of Bonet de Lattes, well known as a physician and astronomer.

*A fourth document in the Gonzaga Archives dated August 12, 1462—the preceding day—carries the number F. II. 8, b. 2398, c. 10. In it, the Jews ask for justice from the office of the city of Mantua regulating the liquidation of unredeemed pawns. The substance of this letter is thus intimately related to the problem involved in the August 13, 1462, letter, namely, the consequences of the prohibition of moneylending. The August 12th letter is likewise sealed, the diameter of the seal being 14 mm. However, its surface is entirely obliterated, and it is signed in a non-specific way by “very faithful Jews.” It has thus been eliminated from this study.

The surname and its variants—da Nursia, da Norcia, da Norsa, and Norzi—refer to the fact that the family comes from Norcia, a city in central Italy in the province of Umbria. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists entries for the family under “Norzi.” Recently the family has preferred “Norsa,” which has become the accepted spelling.

*Nuño Gonçalves in 1465–67, some thirty years earlier, painted the Portuguese court praying before St. Vincent, the patron saint of Portugal. The chief rabbi, with the Jewish badge on his robe, is indicated among the figures. It is not clear which rabbi this may be. The altarpiece is located at the National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon. There are also miniatures in oil from Italy that show known Jews from the fifteenth century: see, for example, the Montefiore Ms. 249, Jew’s College, London.

*The Jews in this period did not know anything about ancient Jewish coins, as evidenced by the false shekels—obvious because of their modern square Hebrew letters—which were accepted and venerated as genuine. Any old coins coming from Palestine at that time would have been regarded as “Jewish”; these coins, though truly issued in Palestine, were of course not Jewish at all.

*Most writers refer to this as the Norsa coat of arms, which is in the technical sense absurd. A coat of arms has a military origin and is granted. These rich Jewish loan-bankers merely adopted identification insignia, which they—imitating their more lordly Christian neighbors—then called, without any justification, a “coat of arms.” As Giacomo Bascapè says, “It is a known fact that some families in Italy, though lacking a patrician or feudal title, assumed heraldic shields. Likewise Jews, assimilating into the cultural setting, followed such a custom” (Bascapè, 1973, p. 161).

Arthur Fox-Davies discusses eight different varieties of well-known heraldic heads. One is the head of a moor, usually described as a blackamoor. As examples he gives the family of Moir of Otterburn (“Moir” means moor), which shows “Argent, three negroes’ heads,” and the family of Moir of Stonniwood, which shows “Argent, three Mauritanian negroes’ heads” (1904, p. 118). It is possible that the Norsa family was punning on its name and the Italian word nerezza, or “blackness,” thus the three blackamoors, each standing for one of the cities to which they had originally emigrated from Norcia. A variant Norsa badge, where the figures are not blackamoors, has also been reported (Revue des études juives [125]:403).

*The first known Jewish portrait medal was issued only five years earlier, in 1552, for Elia Delatas. On the reverse it bore the image of his mother, Rica Delatas. Elia Delatas was the son of Emanuele Lattes, an Italian physician, and the grandson of Bonet de Lattes, well known as a physician and astronomer.

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780814344859
MARC Record
OCLC
1055142843
Pages
344-350
Launched on MUSE
2018-10-02
Open Access
Yes
Creative Commons
CC-BY-NC-SA
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