Metalwork

In Italy, the production of objects in silver developed mainly during the seventeenth century, in the Baroque period. During this era, Italian Jews ordered silver artifacts from non-Jewish artists, as attested by ceremonial silver articles bearing the hallmarks of well-known Christian silversmiths. Nevertheless, documentary records mention Jewish artisans active in Florence, Mantua, Modena and Verona long before the granting of civil rights, in a period when Jews were not allowed to choose certain professions freely. The criteria adopted on this matter by each town or area varied according to time and place. Whereas in Rome, Jewish goldsmiths had to manage with restrictive measures issued in the Papal States, in Piedmont Jewish silversmiths were able to practice their craft freely from the second half of the eighteenth century. Jewish craftsmen possibly worked in Venice, where several workshops specialized in Jewish ceremonial art. These artifacts became popular in all Italian communities, and influenced the design repertoire, virtually dominating Italian production of ceremonial objects between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Stylistically, Jewish metalwork, whether made by Jewish or Christian silversmiths, reflects the Italian artistic trends of the Baroque and Rococo, its illusionistic tendency exalted by the proliferation of volutes, swollen acanthus leaves, rocailles and elaborate ornamentations.

A specifically Italian Jewish iconographical trait is the insertion of separate golden ornaments portraying elements from the array of Temple implements, such as the Holy Ark, the Tablets of Law, the incense altar, the fire altar, the High Priest’s mitre, a censer, a Levitical ewer, a priestly garment, or the menorah. This particularly Jewish trait appears both in crowns and finials. Finials for the Torah scrolls look like miniaturized architectural towered structures, punctuated all around by balustrades, niches and blind arches, topped by a cupola and decorated with exuberant volutes, garlands and flowering urns. Bells are suspended from the balconies of these sumptuous structures by long chains. A bunch of flowers at the top of the finials echoes the natural origin of the object, with blossom forms emerging from the finial trunk.

The Baroque and Rococo style were particularly popular for the decoration of domestic objects, such as wedding rings, silver cases for the Scroll of Esther; small amulets called Shaddai because they bear the divine name in a central clypeus; large Passover plates, and prayer book bindings.

Silver-bound prayer books were used by wealthy Italian Jews for private use and were often given as wedding gifts. Coats of arms of the relevant families were frequently embossed on the covers.