In the 17th century, there was a Jewish painter named Jona Ostiglio at the court of the Medici.Last week the Uffizi Galleries disclosed the discovery made by the Hebraist Piergabriele Mancuso and the art historian and museum official Maria Sframeli, stating that this represents “a unique case in the history of art”. A skillful and versatile artist, Ostiglio was “able to take important commissions from the ruling dynasty and from other powerful Florentine families such as the Mannelli. He was highly esteemed, to the extent of being able to join the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno (Academy of the Arts of Drawing) in 1680. And “until the past century” he was still “the only Jewish member”.
The director of the Uffizi Eike Schmidt underlined the significance of the discovery: “Despite the limits imposed by the Church and the Inquisition, in the 17th century the Florentine rulers managed to save Galileo’s life and research. And now, we are learning that a Jew was allowed to practice painting, that he was granted the honour of being a member of the Accademia, which was personally sponsored by the gran dukes, and that he received commissions from the most prominent noble families. This is undoubtedly a major historical acquisition”.
The discovery was made during a discussion between Mancuso and Sframeli on the affairs of the local Jewish community. Mancuso declares: “It was Sframeli who directed me towards a series of unknown works and documents attesting the activity of the Jewish painter Jona Ostiglio in the Florence of the gran dukes. The first and brief reference to Ostiglio is in a 1907 article written by the rabbi, biblical scholar and orientalist Umberto Cassuto”.
This was the starting point for the development of a joint research. A research that enabled a deeper study of the history and the identity of the artist, born between 1620 and 1630 and “presumably active between 1660 and 1690, under the Grand Duchy of Ferdinand II and Cosimo III de’ Medici”.
The experts continue: “Thanks to his familiarity with people outside the Ghetto, and to the excellent professional and personal relationships he was able to weave with some of the most important figures in the artistic world of the time, Ostiglio managed not only to obtain commissions from the Medici and influential families of the Florentine nobility, but also to work in the studio of the Florentine painter Onorio Marinari”. Today, the Uffizi Galleries, the Medici Villa of Poggio a Caiano, San Michele in San Salvi church in Florence and Palazzo della Farnesina host some of his artworks. Panels and canvases “imbued with a Caravaggesque atmosphere, still lives with human features, anomalous crabs with hazel-shaped eyes, Tuscan country landscapes”. Paintings that, from today, will no longer be anonymous, “but will carry the name of – and be attributed to – Jona Ostiglio”.
Ruth Dureghello, president of the Jewish community in Rome, commented the event saying: “We are witnessing an extraordinary discovery. An evidence, though rare, of how much Jewish culture has contributed over the centuries in shaping the stories that have made Italy the nation it is now. Even in those periods, such as the one in which Jona Ostiglio lived, that were still far removed from the concepts of integration and dialogue”.
Translated by Margherita Francese, revised by Valentina Megera, students at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.