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.