A New Focus on a Jewish Artist Who Broke Barriers in Medici-Era Florence

ROME — The life of Jews in 17th-century Florence was quite constrained. They were confined to a ghetto, a cramped area about the size of a football field that housed about 200 families.

They could work only in certain professions, like rag-picking, and were not allowed to join professional guilds or corporations, which would have opened the door to fields like architecture. Their interactions with Christians were strictly regulated.

This is why scholars are puzzling over the life of the Jewish painter Jona Ostiglio, a card-carrying member of a prestigious academy founded by the famed artist Giorgio Vasari. A painter at the Medici court, Ostiglio’s existence was practically unknown until now.

“It’s quite a discovery,” Eike Schmidt, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, said on Wednesday ahead of a lecture seeking to extract Ostiglio and his work from historical oblivion. Several pieces attributed to Ostiglio are in the Uffizi’s world-famous collection. “We knew practically nothing about this artist,” Mr. Schmidt added, “an artist without works. ”

Ostiglio, who is believed to have been born between 1620 and 1630 and to have died after 1695, was a professional painter working in Florence for some of the Italian city’s most powerful families at a time when Jews were not normally given such opportunities.

“Was he an exception to the rules or was it more commonplace at the time than we know — that’s this question that remains open,” said Piergabriele Mancuso, the director of the Jewish studies program of the Medici Archive Project, who presented his findings at the Uffizi on Wednesday.

Professor Mancuso came across Ostiglio while researching an exhibition on the Jewish ghetto of Florence that will be hosted by the Uffizi late next year. He cobbled together a profile of Ostiglio from literary and archival sources.

“Landscape, Foreign Ministry,” by Ostiglio. Scholars in Italy portrayed the new research on the artist as historically significant.Credit…Gallerie degli Uffizi

The artist began painting relatively late in life for that era, starting in his early 30s. Self-taught, he was so good at copying the great masters that one chronicler said it was impossible to tell his copies from the originals. He was associated with a bustling painting studio in Florence and caused some scandal because of a tormented love affair he had with a young and rich Christian widow that nearly cost him his life at the hands of a monk. (It’s a long story.)

“The idea we have is of a Jew that is unique, quite familiar with the Christian environment and unafraid to distance himself from rabbinical laws that would have him behave in a more orthodox manner,” Professor Mancuso said. “His behavior was outside Jewish and Christian society of the time.”

Comparing detailed descriptions of his works with paintings flagged by Maria Sframeli, an art historian and curator at the Uffizi, Professor Mancuso was able to track down eight works he believes Ostiglio painted. They include still lives of fish and several landscape paintings.

“I’m so pleased that this painter was able to emerge,” Ms. Sframeli said. “Now we have brought to light some of his works.”

Ostiglio also painted the huge family tree of Florence’s aristocratic Mannelli family that hangs in the reading room of the state archives in the city, confirmation that he was working for Florence’s noble clans, “and that he was appreciated,” Professor Mancuso said.

Scholars in Italy portrayed the research on Ostiglio as historically significant.

“Jews weren’t allowed to become goldsmiths or painters of be part of any guild, so it’s quite extraordinary,” said Andreina Contessa, director of the historical museum of the Miramare Castle and Park in Trieste and former chief curator of the Nahon Museum of Italian Jewish Art in Jerusalem

Silvana Greco, a professor of the sociology of Judaism at the Freie Universität Berlin and the co-curator of a 2019 exhibition on Jews and Renaissance art, said Ostiglio’s story underlined the interactions that existed between Jews and Christians and the importance of Jewish culture in various artistic forms, “including painting.”

“Still Life With Fish and Crabs, Church of San Michele in San Salvi.”Credit…Gallerie degli Uffizi

“Even though the life of the Jewish and Catholic world was divided, there could be constructive exchanges,” she said.

Professor Mancuso said Ostiglio was not the only Jewish artist working in Italy at the time. But because of restrictions, Jews were relegated to more artisanal tasks. Ostiglio, on the other hand, was a professional painter and recognized as such.

“The rule was that they couldn’t enter guilds — not that they couldn’t work; they could, but they worked without signing their names,” said Ms. Contessa, citing the scribes who worked on illuminated manuscripts. (Guilds were professional associations for trades.)

Professor Mancuso cited Jewish sculptors working in both wood and marble. But they were considered artisans, not artists, he said.

Professor Mancuso said that as far as he knew, until the 20th century, Ostiglio remained the only Jewish member of the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, founded by Vasari and sponsored by the Medici grand dukes.

“The academy represented the highest level of institutional art and of the Medici, so being a member was extremely important,” said Giulio Busi, a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Berlin.

New research will examine the archives of other Florentine families to see whether other works by the artist emerge. “It will take time, but it’s not impossible,” Professor Mancuso said.

“Perhaps someone has a painting by Jona Ostiglio at home,” Mr. Schmidt, of the Uffizi, joked.

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