Denigration: A Tragic History of Jews in Late Renaissance Art

Italian Jewish businessman Daniele da Norsa removed the exterior painting of the Madonna and Child, triggering a terrible series of consequences.

When successful Italian Jewish businessman Daniele da Norsa bought a beautiful new home in Mantua, Italy, he knew he would need at least one tricky upgrade: the painting of the Madonna and Child would have to be removed before they could move into the house around the corner from the Piazzetta di San Simone.

He respectfully asked the bishop of the northern Italian town for permission to paint over the fresco, and only when he received written approval did he erase the Christian painting of the facade of his new house. The year was 1493, only months after the catastrophic expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the renewed assertion of Church hegemony with the Catholic Reformation, and the da Norsa family would come to learn that the renovations of their new home would ultimately cost far more than their original purchase price.

#Despite official permission from the bishop, the idea that a Jew would remove a public exterior painting of Mary offended the local population.

The idea that a Jew would remove a public exterior painting of Mary offended the local population, regardless of the official permission granted by the bishop. Where the Madonna once overlooked the square, graffiti denouncing the da Norsa family soon appeared. Antisemitic agitation escalated dramatically in May 1495, when participants in a Christian religious procession claimed to have seen blasphemous counter-graffiti on the same wall, and a minor riot ensued with locals throwing stones on the house of da Norsa.

Daniele again wrote for official protection, this time to Francesco Gonzaga, the Marquess of Mantua, and in June da Norsa received an official note confirming that he was authorized to remove the original image and that the stoning of his house was forbidden. violation of public order.

Unfortunately, this last note was signed by Isabella d’Este, the Marquis’s wife, as Gonzaga himself was outside Mantua embroiled in a military conflict. When the Marquess heard of the incident two weeks later, he reversed his decision and instead ordered da Norsa to pay 110 gold ducats to commission a new portrait of the Madonna to replace the original fresco. Additionally, the replacement painting would include a depiction of the Marquess himself as a holy warrior, smiling smugly at Mary while wearing his full battle armor.

Francesco Gonzaga, detail of Andrea Mantegna, Madonna of Vittoria, ch. 1499. Source: Wikimedia commons.

The resulting picture by Andrea Mantegna, despite the obvious propaganda elements, is considered a masterpiece. After Napoleon invaded Mantua at the end of the 18th century, the image was seized and transported to the Louvre Museum in Paris, where it is displayed today.

But Gonazaga was not yet finished with the da Norsa family. Spicy from his own military reverses and sensitive to negative public opinion, he recognized the benefit of diverting popular anger onto the wealthy Jewish family. He therefore declared that Daniele should give up his house, which would be completely destroyed and a church built in its place. Today, the land once belonging to the da Norsas is occupied by the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, built in 1496.

Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Mantua. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Dana Katz, an art historian at Reed College, notes that the final element of the whole saga of the persecution of the da Norsa family is completed by another lesser-known image, also painted by a member of the Mantegna school. . sometimes titled The Madonna of the Jews, it was also hung in the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, creating a thematic pair: one image shamelessly extolling the Marquis and the other humiliating the Jewish family who were forced to pay for the privilege. Rare for Christian art of the time, several members of the Da Norsa family are depicted at the bottom of the painting.

At the bottom of the painting, Isaac da Norsa, his mother, his father Daniele and Isaac’s wife. The Madonna degli Ebrei. Source: Amici di Palazzo Te and Dei Musei Mantovani.

The expressions are realistic and probably accurate: contemporaries would have recognized the da Norsas and understood their humiliating portrait. Daniele and her son Isaac look directly at the viewer, while Daniele’s wife and Isaac’s wife wisely cast their gaze downward. They seem resigned to their fate, seething inwardly from the punishment they have received but unable to react otherwise.

Detail of The Madonna degli Ebrei. Isaac da Norsa, his mother and his father Daniele.

Both men prominently wear the Ruota, or “wheel”, the Jewish insignia imposed on many European Jews after the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 (ironically, this is not a realistic detail: as with many wealthy Jewish families, the da Norsas had planned personal exemptions from the humiliating badge). Their hats are yellow and red, two colors frequently required for Jewish male headgear. The women, interestingly, are not shown wearing the Ruota.

The bashing of the da Norsas is obvious to the casual viewer, but to ensure the message is not lost, a tablet titles the image with the Latin phrase, Debilatta Haebraeorum Temeritate– “The temerity of the Jews is weakened”, or in more colloquial terms, “the nerve I sent.”

What nerve? Obviously, the nerve to expect that the da Norsas might expect fair treatment from their local government in the charged atmosphere of late fifteenth-century Europe.

Sources to go further:

  • The best article dealing with this history is that of Dana Katz, “Painting and the Politics of Persecution: Representing the Jew in Mantua in the Fifteenth Century”, Art History 23:4 (2000), pp. 475-495. Black and white reproduction of the images discussed are included.
  • See also Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg and Joseph Leo Koerner, “Iconoclash in Northern Italy circa 1500”, Critical inquiry 48:1 (2001), 94-125.

    On the Da Norsa image, see also Don Harrán, “The Jewish nose in early modern art and music”, Renaissance Studies 28:1 (2013)

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