A Convert's Tale: Art, Crime, and Jewish Apostasy in Renaissance Italy

A Convert's Tale: Art, Crime, and Jewish Apostasy in Renaissance Italy

by Tamar Herzig


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An intimate portrait, based on newly discovered archival sources, of one of the most famous Jewish artists of the Italian Renaissance who, charged with a scandalous crime, renounced his faith and converted to Catholicism.

In 1491 the renowned goldsmith Salomone da Sesso converted to Catholicism. Born in the mid-fifteenth century to a Jewish family in Florence, Salomone later settled in Ferrara, where he was regarded as a virtuoso artist whose exquisite jewelry and lavishly engraved swords were prized by Italy’s ruling elite. But rumors circulated about Salomone’s behavior, scandalizing the Jewish community, who turned him over to the civil authorities. Charged with sodomy, Salomone was sentenced to die but agreed to renounce Judaism to save his life. He was baptized, taking the name Ercole “de’ Fedeli” (“One of the Faithful”). With the help of powerful patrons like Duchess Eleonora of Aragon and Duke Ercole d’Este, his namesake, Ercole lived as a practicing Catholic for three more decades. Drawing on newly discovered archival sources, Tamar Herzig traces the dramatic story of his life, half a century before ecclesiastical authorities made Jewish conversion a priority of the Catholic Church.

A Convert’s Tale explores the Jewish world in which Salomone was born and raised; the glittering objects he crafted, and their status as courtly hallmarks; and Ercole’s relations with his wealthy patrons. Herzig also examines homosexuality in Renaissance Italy, the response of Jewish communities and Christian authorities to allegations of sexual crimes, and attitudes toward homosexual acts among Christians and Jews. In Salomone/Ercole’s story we see how precarious life was for converts from Judaism, and how contested was the meaning of conversion for both the apostates’ former coreligionists and those tasked with welcoming them to their new faith.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674237537
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 12/03/2019
Series: I Tatti Studies in Italian Renaissance History , #23
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Tamar Herzig is Director of the Morris E. Curiel Institute for European Studies and Professor of History at Tel Aviv University. She has published extensively on various aspects of the Italian Renaissance, gender history, and religious history. Her books include Savonarola’s Women and "Christ Transformed into a Virgin Woman": Lucia Brocadelli, Heinrich Institoris, and the Defense of the Faith.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Convert's Tale 1

I The Virtuoso Jew

1 A Moneylender's Son Turned Goldsmith 13

2 The Jewish Widow's Testament 22

3 Eleonora of Aragon's Court Goldsmith 30

4 A Murdered Child 36

5 Friends and Foes 45

II Apostasy

6 A Jewish Sodomite? 59

7 Conversions: Voluntary and Coerced 70

8 Princely Justice and Christian Piety 78

9 Baptizing the Jews 93

III A Family of Converts

10 A Haunting Past 113

11 Travels and Troubles 121

12 Cesare Borgia's "Queen of Swords" 130

13 Anna: Lucrezia Borgia's Damsel 139

14 Sister Theodora: From Jewish Girl to Bride of Christ 146

15 The Family Workshop: Master Ercole and His Sons 162

IV Between Christians and Jews

16 In Prison, Again 183

17 Plague and Malaria 195

18 Ferrara at War 207

19 Glitter and Grief 221

20 Gold Pawned to the Jews 230

Epilogue: One of the Faithful? 241

Notes 249

Acknowledgments 373

Index 377

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