Treasures of the Venetian Ghetto – Restored by Venetian Heritage

March 5, 2015 by  
Read on for article

It is almost two decades since Australian hosted a major a major international exhibition on Judaica.

From: Jana Vytrhlik

Art Gallery of Western Australia Ends 16 March 2015

Jana             Photo: Ben Apfelbaum

Jana  Vytrhlik                           Photo: Ben Apfelbaum

Therefore it was with a sense of delight and curiosity that I recently visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia, the only Australian venue for Treasures of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice Restored by Venetian Heritage, on show until 16 March 2015.

Jewish days and years are marked by traditional ceremonies and religious rituals both at home and in synagogue. The ceremonial observances centre around the reading and celebration of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah (‘teaching’), embodied in the ancient form of a hand-written parchment scroll. Rich in symbols and stories, the many precious objects used during the ceremonies are called – in a broader sense – Judaica.

These objects may include embroidered synagogue textiles, etched glass vessels, brass candlesticks, metal lamps, porcelain plates, rare illuminated manuscripts, simple wooden items or diverse ritual silver relics. Throughout history, from ancient to modern times, Jews faced varied levels of persecution and destruction.

Surviving historical Judaica objects are therefore rare, and anything from before 1700, is extremely rare.

Until the 19th century, European Jews were generally prohibited from joining guilds and learning crafts, including those of silver and goldsmithing. The more important ritual objects had to be commissioned from non-Jewish silversmiths but the basic form of the objects remained consistent across time and borders, bound by the strict ritual prescriptions of the Torah.

Torah case Italy, 18th century gilt wood and fabric 90 x 38.5 cm Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

Torah case
Italy, 18th century
gilt wood and fabric
90 x 38.5 cm
Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud
Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

With a closer art historical assessment we soon discover that the applied decorative features correspond with the prevalent fashions and styles of the time. It also becomes obvious that there are enduring regional characteristics in material, basic form and ornamental decoration, regardless whether they belonged to the Sephardic or Ashkenazic communities.

In Australia, the major public Judaica collections include the Sydney Jewish Museum, Jewish Museum of Australia in Melbourne and the AM Rosenblum Museum at The Great Synagogue in Sydney.

These comprise objects primarily brought from central and western Europe, and to some extent from eastern Europe after WWII. Few of these objects date to the 18th century with the majority being from the 19th and early 20th century and representing primarily silver and textile artefacts.

The Treasures of Venice exhibition provides an opportunity to learn about Italian silver of the Venetian synagogues and Jewish homes ranging from early 1700 to mid-19th century.

It brings together Venetian liturgical relics used in synagogues to decorate the sacred scroll, Torah crown (keter Torah) and Torah finials (rimmonim), a group of eternal lights, pointers (yad) and spice boxes (besamim). Included are also three examples of wooden Torah cases (Tikim) where the scroll was housed and on top of which a crown or rimmonim were ceremonially displayed.

On entering the Treasures of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, one is welcomed by six eternal lights (Ner Tamid) from the 18th to 19th century, one of the very few liturgical artefacts shared between the Jewish and Christian religion. The light takes a form of a silver vase or urn, decorated in the style of the period and hanging on three chains in front of the Torah Ark. Some have an inscription in Hebrew and Italian, commemorating the donor and occasion.

Opposite, on the long white wall are two large Chanukiah lamps from the late 19th century made of bronze. They are composed of an extended half arm, holding a nine-branch candelabrum – indicating to perhaps a more practical than symbolical function. Walking further into the exhibition, there is the opportunity of a close-up view of the pair of large horn-shaped wooden and silver covered light consoles.

Further into the exhibition space, I was enchanted by the three restored Torah cases typical for Sephardic Jews, ranging from the early to the late 18th century. It is rare to see beautifully carved and gilded woodwork in connection with Judaica. The carving here is reminiscent of master sculptures of Italian baroque churches and also echoing the architectural elements of secular houses. [fig.1]   

Torah crown Italy, 1829 parcel-gilt silver 27 x 32 cm Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

Torah crown
Italy, 1829
parcel-gilt silver
27 x 32 cm
Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud
Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

 fig.1 Torah case Italy, 18th century gilt wood and fabric 90 x 38.5 cm, Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud, Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

The highlight of the exhibition is the group of magnificent Italian Torah crowns and rimmonim. Compared with the artefacts known from the synagogues in Prague, Berlin or Krakow, I was struck by the difference in shapes between the two groups. Firstly, the central European crowns are royal-like type and feature up to 6 arches meeting at the highest point and ‘crowned’ sometimes by a second, smaller crown. The Italian monumental crowns have been created with an open top end, perhaps allowing the use of rimmonim at the same time and sounding the bells against the inside body of the crown.

Lively ornaments form niches filled with flowers, scrolls and spirals reminding us of Italian baroque artists, architecture, and church sculptural art in particular.

fig.2 Torah crown Italy, 1829 parcel-gilt silver 27 x 32 cm Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

This mid-18th century silver ewer and basin, Levite set, is surprisingly plain and is in contrast to the rich baroque and rococo decoration we saw on the crowns. Here, the silversmith was no doubt familiar with contemporary fluted decoration of Italian silver coffee pots and other domestic wares. [fig.4,5]

Ewer Italy, mid-18th century silver 20 x 19 cm Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

Ewer
Italy, mid-18th century
silver
20 x 19 cm
Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud
Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

fig.3 Ewer Italy, mid-18th century  silver 20 x 19 cm  Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

 Rimmonim embellish the top of a closed Torah case when they are (sometimes together with the crown) placed on the protruding ends of the scroll staves. The silver rimmonim represented in Australian Judaica collections are largely a modest cylindrical stem topped with a spherical or semi-spherical ornament.  Noticeable here are the great variety of rich floral and foliage decoration and all the shaped little bells sometimes hanging on long silver chains.. [fig.4]

 fig.4 One of the pair of rimmonim Italy, 1747  silver 48 x 10 cm Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

fig.5 One of the pair of Rimmonim Italy, mid-19th century silver 25 x 10 cm Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud  Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

One of the pair of Rimmonim Italy, 1747 silver 48 x 10 cm (each) Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

One of the pair of Rimmonim
Italy, 1747
silver
48 x 10 cm (each)
Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud
Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

To fully understand the meaning of the exhibition, we need to know the survival story of these silver relics.

In order to avoid their destruction at the hands of the Nazis, the objects were hidden in a synagogue in 1943. They escaped detection and were only discovered by sheer chance during recent building restoration work. Although they suffered considerable damage, the objects survived, unlike so many of the Jewish community in Venice.

Toto Bergamo Rossi is a restorer and director of the Venetian Heritage, an international non-profit organization which had undertaken the massive task of cleaning and restoring the objects. In the exhibition catalogue Rossi describes the pitiful state the individual pieces were when found, and the process of painstaking restoration. The results are striking. The restoration process has not taken away any of the signs of age or witness marks of ceremonial use and nothing has been detracted from the beauty, style and qualities of these objects.

In 2016, the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, where the term geto was first coined, will celebrate its 500th anniversary. The celebration planning has drawn the attention of wealthy business supporters and international cultural institutions across Europe and the world. Over $12 million has already been pledged to restore the historical Jewish cultural centre dating from 1516, including the renovation of its five synagogues.

One of the pair of Rimmonim Italy, mid-19th century silver 25 x 10 cm (each) Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

One of the pair of Rimmonim
Italy, mid-19th century
silver
25 x 10 cm (each)
Photographer Jean-François Jaussaud
Collection of the Jewish Community of Venice (Comunità Ebraica di Venezia)

The accidental finding of the treasures of the Venetian Jews provided a focal point to the anniversary preparation. Demand for the exhibition has been significant. Major museums around the world, including Houston, New York and Vienna have already hosted it.  After concluding in Perth, it will travel to Paris Jewish Museum before returning to Venice in September this year for the preparation for the 2016 anniversary celebrations.

The credit for securing this important exhibition for Australia must go to the AGWA director Stefano Carboni. With his background in Islamic Art, PhD at the University of London and an impressive list of exhibitions and publications, Carboni is an accomplished scholar as well as an equally astute international diplomat on the cultural scene.

Bringing Treasures of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice to Australia would not have been possible without the generosity of Simon Mordant, an art philanthropist and 2015 Venice Biennale Commissioner, through a significant donation to the Art Gallery Foundation.
Curator Melissa Harpley, AGWA Curator of Historical Painting, Sculpture and Design has displayed the objects with understanding and respect of their ritual importance, history and artistic qualities.

The exhibition expands our knowledge and appreciation of Italian historical Judaica and draws attention to the 500th anniversary of the Jewish ghetto in Venice and to the message of survival it will send to the world.

Jana Vytrhlik was born in Prague, studied Art History and her career encompasses work with important decorative arts collections in Australia and overseas. Jana’s primary research interest is historic Judaica sparked by the world-renowned collection in the Jewish Museum in Prague .  She has worked on the “Precious Legacy, Treasures from the Jewish Museum in Prague” exhibition and catalogue at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney.

Recently she received a University of Sydney scholarship to research a pair of rare 18th century Dutch silver rimmonim traced in Sydney.

Jana joined the Sydney Jewish Museum curatorial team in October 2014.

 

Speak Your Mind

Comments received without a full name will not be considered
Email addresses are NEVER published! All comments are moderated. J-Wire will publish considered comments by people who provide a real name and email address. Comments that are abusive, rude, defamatory or which contain offensive language will not be published

    Rules on posting comments