The dangerous game of Queen Esther

By Serena Di Nepi*

The following is an excerpt from the introduction to the new international project “Jews in Politics in Long Renaissance Italy”. Starting from a magnificent painting representing Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus by Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1733), one of the leading figures in late-Baroque Venetian painting, the author guides us throughout the delicate and complex dynamics between Jews and a hostile society. The painting, from the Quirinale collection, is for the first time on display at MEIS – National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah of Ferrara in the exhibition Beyond the Ghetto. Inside & Out, open until May 15.

“This gorgeous oil on canvas was depicted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1733. It represents Queen Esther before Ahasuerus. It is a masterpiece, and it is now on show for the first time in Ferrara in an exhibition on the ghettoization. Even though it is out of our chronological borders, it enlightens interesting clues about the classical way to represent and understand the relationship between a Jewish group and its political counterpart in a hostile society: in name of her people, Esther is pledging mercy from the King.
Two maids are supporting her, and a huge crowd is carefully observing the scene. The crowd will do what the king wants: it will be with Esther or with Haman, depending on Ahasuerus’ decisions. For the pleading queen, this armed crowd represents both an immediate danger and a possible support. The king touches her, and she is finally allowed to speak in front of her husband.
The audience knows what happens next: Esther speaks, explains, reveals, illustrates and fate is reversed, the Jews are saved and their enemies, Aman and family, are sentenced to death. From the vantage point of this very classical Purim narrative, Ester embodies the vertical alliance between the rulers and their Jewish community.
She takes advantage from her unique position as the Queen, and she directly represents the petition of the Jewish people in that harsh moment. She has agency for many different reasons, she knows how to play a dangerous game, she acts, and she wins.
From Ahasuerus’ point of view, the story unfolds in another way: the king is at the center of a court plot; the faithful courtiers – who are also Jews – reveal the plot and the king swiftly stops it. His contacts with the group of Jews are limited to two people belonging to the Jewish leading class, who live in the court and who can intercede for their co-religionists.
Ahasuerus is worried about Haman’s betrayal and has no specific interests in the Jews fate, who he would have had killed anyway without any remorse had he not been informed of the political background of Aman’s genocide goals.
Paradoxically, in 16th and 17th centuries Christian political treatises perfectly grasped this point. In Spanish political literature, the parable of Haman is the parable of a courtier who is too self-confident and for this reason is unable to recognize the political mechanisms around the king. As Giuseppe Mrozek has shown, that world reads the events of Aman and Mordechai in parallel to reason on the precariousness and equilibrium of politics and, in doing so, frees the entire story of Esther from its own religious meanings.
If for Jewish society, Esther is the story of the unavoidable returning of Amalek and of the saving force of the Jewish people who defeat him, for Christians that story is the epitome of the politics of the long Renaissance. If we tried, however, to restore a Jewish tone to this narrative, then, perhaps, we would find ourselves facing something different also from the Christian point of view.
This narrative tells the story as is comprehensible by the Christian public. Esther is a Jewish heroine and is celebrated by the Jews for this (think to Leon da Modena!). But she is also the only and one spokesperson for the persecuted group in front of the authorities. In turn, the external authorities – Ahasuerus or a Christian prince in Renaissance Italy – negotiate with the Jewish communities through the Esther and Mordecai they have at their disposal.
It is the external authorities who weave the special relationship with the Jewish world through the most suitable representatives: the Jewish politicians, who approach the button rooms but cannot enter them, speak on behalf of the group, which remains far away. What happens inside the Jewish society, what tensions, what debates, what rules, what reasonings, what internal negotiations are behind its representatives, is not known and it is not interesting.
Daniel da Pisa and his Chapters in Rome in 1524 are a concrete example of this process. Tired of decades of conflicts among Roman Jews, Clemens VII instructs a reliable man, with whom he has previous and personal relationships, to resolve them definitively. As a result, the Statute is published in short time as pontifical brief: what Daniel had to do to achieve this goal, after all, is a problem of the Jews, of which neither the pope nor others want to be apprised. Simone Luzzatto is another example – and we have here Giuseppe Veltri! – and many others could be cited. On the one hand, the “Serenissima” Jewish society, as it is functional for governments, even more so in the years of the ghetto. On the other hand, a Jewish sphere where is strong the role of individuals, families, paths, and institutions and has a huge political aspect, which has still to be investigated”.

*University La Sapienza, Rome