Textiles

All Italian synagogues have a wealth of embroidered hangings of extraordinarily high quality: sophisticated drawn velvets, damasks and taffetas, usually brocaded with gold and silver and embroidered in silk with gold and silver threads. All of the textiles used in the synagogue liturgy — Torah mantles, binders and reader’s desk covers — were commonly made of valuable fabrics, many of them also embellished with some form of needle and thread embroidery.

The city-states of the Italian peninsula were the main producers of European luxury silks and textiles well into the seventeenth century. The textile field was strongly rooted in Italian Jewish tradition, and embroidery was one of the few Jewish figurative arts which Jews were free to practice from the late medieval period until the Emancipation. In the Middle Ages and early Renaissance period, embroidery was practiced in Italy by males, and only in the sixteenth century did it become an important part of women’s education. The Jewish Italian women’s role in supplying embroidery for the synagogue was more common than in other countries. Indeed, Roman rite prayer books acknowledge their role in the passage recited during the Shabbat morning prayer, “[bless] every daughter of Israel who makes a mantle or cover for the Torah.”

The skilful handiwork of female Jewish embroiderers can be seen by the dedicatory inscriptions which they sewed along the edges of beautiful embroidered pieces hung at the focal points of synagogues, such as Torah curtains and reader’s desk covers. Italian Jewish women also embroidered binders for the Torah, as well as mantles and elaborate reader’s desk covers. Binders were made to commemorate a major event in the cycle of a woman’s life, such as marriage and the birth of a child.

In addition to the decorative and floral motifs derived from contemporary embroidery, the creators of these hangings included some important iconographic scenes and symbols that were easily recognizable to the community faithful. One of the most frequent is the depiction of the giving of the Torah, evoked by an image of the Tablets of Law emerging from fiery clouds at the top of a mountain, a common motif in Rome.