How Renaissance Italy’s Great Jewish Artist Was Forced into Conversion

Born in Florence to a family of Jewish moneylenders in the mid-15th century, Salomone de Sesso by the 1480s had become one of Italy’s most sought-after goldsmiths, having as his primary patrons the duke and duchess of Ferrara and their daughter Isabella. Ariel David, drawing on a new biography of Sesso and his family, describes his success. (Registration may be required.)

Isabella, in particular, was a refined patron and collector who supported artists of the caliber of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, and Titian. Authoritative and ambitious, she was also a fashion icon of her time: her choices in clothes, style, and jewelry were copied by women of the ruling classes across Europe. Many of her prized jewels were designed by Salomone, whom she praised in one of her letters as “molto virtuoso.”

Working between Ferrara and Mantua, [where Isabella was married to the duke], Salomone arguably became the most renowned Jewish artist of his period—and his patrons seemingly respected his devotion to Judaism. For example, they granted his requests when he interceded on behalf of Jews who were persecuted in other northern Italian cities. And records from Ferrara show that the duke even paid for his kosher meals at a Jewish hostelry in the city.

But then he experienced a rapid fall from grace:

Salomone’s problems began in August 1491, when he was arrested in Ferrara for as-yet unspecified crimes. It appears that the artist had suddenly made an enemy of one of his powerful patrons: Francesco Gonzaga, Isabella’s husband. In a letter to his mother-in-law Eleonora of Aragon, Gonzaga accused the goldsmith of committing “very enormous errors,” including cheating him of some gold when forging a chain for him a few months earlier, but especially of “upsetting all the Jews” of Mantua. Gonzaga did not clarify what Salomone had done to anger the city’s Jews, but insisted that the goldsmith be punished for this particular transgression.

If Salomone had been a wealthy Christian, he would have been able to escape with a hefty fine, . . . or he could have bribed his way to avoid prosecution altogether. But as a Jew, and one with few if any financial means at his disposal, Salomone’s fate appeared to be sealed.

Fortunately, the duchess and duke of Ferrara had other plans. [They] were zealously religious—or at least desired to display their piety to their subjects—and they saw an opportunity for a high-profile victory in Christianity’s long-standing battle to convert the Jews.

Thus Salomone and his children converted to Catholicism—his daughter became a nun—and he expanded his repertoire to religious art.

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Read more at Haaretz

More about: Conversion, Italian Jewry, Jewish art, Renaissance

As Vladimir Putin Sidles Up to the Mullahs, the Threat to the U.S. and Israel Grows

On Tuesday, Russia launched an Iranian surveillance satellite into space, which the Islamic Republic will undoubtedly use to increase the precision of its military operations against its enemies. The launch is one of many indications that the longstanding alliance between Moscow and Tehran has been growing stronger and deeper since the Kremlin’s escalation in Ukraine in February. Nicholas Carl, Kitaneh Fitzpatrick, and Katherine Lawlor write:

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Ebrahim Raisi have spoken at least four times since the invasion began—more than either individual has engaged most other world leaders. Putin visited Tehran in July 2022, marking his first foreign travel outside the territory of the former Soviet Union since the war began. These interactions reflect a deepening and potentially more balanced relationship wherein Russia is no longer the dominant party. This partnership will likely challenge U.S. and allied interests in Europe, the Middle East, and around the globe.

Tehran has traditionally sought to purchase military technologies from Moscow rather than the inverse. The Kremlin fielding Iranian drones in Ukraine will showcase these platforms to other potential international buyers, further benefitting Iran. Furthermore, Russia has previously tried to limit Iranian influence in Syria but is now enabling its expansion.

Deepening Russo-Iranian ties will almost certainly threaten U.S. and allied interests in Europe, the Middle East, and around the globe. Iranian material support to Russia may help the Kremlin achieve some of its military objectives in Ukraine and eastern Europe. Russian support of Iran’s nascent military space program and air force could improve Iranian targeting and increase the threat it poses to the U.S. and its partners in the Middle East. Growing Iranian control and influence in Syria will enable the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [to use its forces in that country] to threaten U.S. military bases in the Middle East and our regional partners, such as Israel and Turkey, more effectively. Finally, Moscow and Tehran will likely leverage their deepening economic ties to mitigate U.S. sanctions.

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Create a free account to continue reading

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register

Read more at Critical Threats

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Russia, U.S. Security, Vladimir Putin