“Jewish culture is part of us”

By Dario Franceschini*

Beyond the Ghetto. Inside&Out is the evocative title of the third MEIS exhibition on Italian Judaism: an important piece of Italy’s history and, at the same time, a crucial theme that prompts us to tackle important questions, today more than ever. Based around the central theme of the Jewish identity in Italy, this modern exhibition guides us across the centuries, through the vicissitudes of the Italian Jewish experience, taking in both the dark chapters characterized by segregation, made real by the establishment of the ghettos (the first in Venice, in 1516, followed forty years later by Rome), and a number of significant positive turning points, such as the extension to Jews of all civil and political rights, with their immediate participation in the process of the Risorgimento and in the construction of a united Italy. Jewish culture is part of us; indeed, it constitutes an important, profound piece of Europe’s root.
In Italy, in particular, we are talking about an uninterrupted presence that stretches back twenty-one centuries, making it the most longstanding Jewish presence in the West. For this reason, it is incumbent upon us to renew our awareness of just how valuable and fertile the contribution by Italian Jewry to the cultural, religious, social and political history has been.
Italy, and Europe as a whole, are now becoming increasingly multicultural and multi-faith. In the face of the re-emergence of the poisonous seeds of fear of the other and of difference, intolerance, xenofobia and antisemitism, it seems urgent to promote culture as an antidote, and to forcefully affirm the value of diversity. The new exhibition confirms the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah’s ability to work in concert with all of the national museums in Italy and to be granted access to major works on loan from institutions both within and outside the country.
In this regard, to prove the point it is sufficient to cite just a few of the paintings on display in this exhibition: Esther before Ahasuerus by Sebastiano Ricci (1733) comes from the collection of the Quirinal Palace, no less; Interior of a Synagogue by Alessandro Magnasco (1703) is on loan from the Uffizi Gallery; the Portrait of Victor Emmanuel II (painted between 1850 and 1899) comes from the Museo Storico e il Parco del Castello di Miramare in Trieste; and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim (1862), was sent from the United States of America. I am also delighted that in just a little over two years since its opening to the general public, MEIS is displaying objects from its collection: busts, documents, photographs and personal items of Jewish families. Indeed, how could we fail to notice the growth of this esteemed national museum? With the Beyond the Ghetto exhibition, it completes its offer, and in Ferrara visitors can now dive into an all-encompassing experience of the Italian Jews’ history and culture, from the time of ancient Rome right up to the creation of the united Europe. I would like to applaud MEIS’s President, Dario Disegni, and Simonetta Della Seta, under whose direction this important exhibition was conceived and organized, for reaching this ambitious goal. A special thanks should go to the curators of the exhibition – Andreina Contessa, Carlotta Ferrara degli Uberti, the museum’s curator Sharon Reichel and the aforementioned Simonetta Della Seta – and to the designer Giovanni Tortelli, the various prestigious loaning bodies, the institutional and private sponsors and, last but not least, all those who have contributed to this new part that enriches the museum’s offer. Albeit still under construction, MEIS is already attracting students and tourists from around the world.

* Italian Minister for Cultural Heritage and Activities and for Tourism

Above, the Minister Dario Franceschini at the opening of the exhibition “Beyond the ghetto. Inside & out” at the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah in Ferrara.