Homosexuality and Jewish Apostasy in Renaissance Italy

Paola Tartakoff on Tamar Herzig

Jewish converts to Christianity have long evoked visceral responses from Christians and Jews. Many Christians have viewed converts as representing the truth and triumph of Christianity. Many Jews, by contrast, have regarded converts as worthless, if not nefarious, traitors. Converts have also been a sensitive topic for historians, who often identify as Christians or Jews themselves. Until recently, historians rarely portrayed converts, especially pre-modern European converts, as three-dimensional individuals with unique stories of their own. Instead, historians long depicted converts either as undifferentiated victims of Christian violence or as lone male villains who went on to malign their former coreligionists.

Cover: A Convert’s Tale in HARDCOVER
Tamar Herzig, A Convert’s Tale: Art, Crime, and Jewish Apostasy in Renaissance Italy. Harvard University Press, 2019. $52.00 (hardback)

In the last two decades, scholars have begun to recognize the diversity of pre-modern converts’ experiences. It is increasingly widely known that many pre-modern converts were neither victims of sword-wielding Christians nor lone intellectuals with an axe to grind against their former coreligionists. To be sure, converts’ motivations and spiritual dispositions are elusive in the historical record. Extant evidence is unequivocal, however, that in northern and southern Europe, many pre-modern converts had been in dire straits prior to their conversions as they sought to escape financial, marital, and legal predicaments. Scholars have shown also that many converts fared poorly after baptism. Although Catholic theology maintained that these men and women had been born anew in Christ and were to be exalted, in practice, converts encountered barriers to assimilation. These important findings have emerged from work on medieval England (whence Jews were expelled in 1290) and medieval and early modern Iberia and German lands. Jewish converts to Christianity in Counter-Reformation Italy have received attention, too.

Tamar Herzig’s new book, A Convert’s Tale: Art, Crime, and Apostasy in Renaissance Italy, breaks new ground by illuminating these dynamics in Renaissance Italy. Herzig elucidates the contested and evolving meanings of conversion by re-examining the turbulent life of the virtuoso Jewish goldsmith Salomone da Sesso (c. 1452/57-after 1521) in light of his October 1491 baptism as “Ercole de’ Fedeli.” Herzig’s engaging tome illustrates how deeply the fates of individual converts could depend on their immediate circumstances. In the case of Ercole, these circumstances pertained foremost to Ercole’s role as the creator of exquisite luxury goods for specific elite patrons. In fact, A Convert’s Tale compellingly reconstructs so many facets of Ercole’s personal and professional life that it becomes impossible to disentangle Ercole’s conversion from many of the other factors that shaped his trajectory. True to the revelations and limitations of historical sources, and true to life, this book unfurls the complexity of human experience.

By foregrounding Ercole’s conversion—as opposed to his artistic accomplishments, emphasized in earlier scholarship—A Convert’s Tale significantly deepens understandings of Ercole’s life and milieu. One way it does so is by revealing how the societal Jewish-Christian divide shaped Ercole’s early life. For instance, Herzig investigates the significance of the discovery in Mantua of the mutilated corpse of a baby girl, which occurred only months before Ercole’s’ baptism. Around this same time, the Jews of Mantua accused Ercole of gravely threatening their security, and Herzig notes that Ercole later attributed his conversion to a miracle involving a child. Stitching these observations together, Herzig suggests that, shortly before his baptism, Ercole denounced Mantuan Jews to Christian authorities on charges of having ritually murdered this infant, possibly in an effort to rid himself of certain Jewish creditors. Grounded in the foundational anti-Jewish charge that the Jews killed Christ, this familiar anti-Jewish libel would have been especially potent in late fifteenth-century northern Italy in the wake of the 1475 case of Simon of Trent, whom Jews were accused of having ritually murdered. In suggesting that Ercole had denounced Mantuan Jews to Christian authorities on charges of ritual murder, Herzig posits dynamics that were common among pre-modern converts. Prior to baptism, converts often had been at odds with fellow Jews. Moreover, denouncing Jews to Christian authorities was a classic way to try to gain the upper hand over one’s Jewish adversaries. Herzig shows further that Mantuan Jews retaliated against Ercole in kind: After he likely charged them with ritual murder, they denounced him to Christian authorities for sodomy. This felony landed Ercole in prison, where Ercole—who was already a celebrated goldsmith as well as a married, thirty-four-year-old father of four—agreed to accept baptism in exchange for a pardon.

The prominent role of the accusation of sodomy in Ercole’s life leads Herzig to expose not only the jagged edges of the Jewish-Christian divide, but also Jewish-Christian connections and shared mores. For example, in exploring male homoerotic currents among Christians and Jews in Renaissance Italy, especially among artists, Herzig uncovers same-sex relationships between Christians and Jews, as well as similar patterns of policing sex among Christians and Jews. For that matter, Herzig does not shy away from pointing out that, like their Christian counterparts, Ercole’s male relatives had extra-marital affairs, and that some of the women with whom they consorted were Christian. Herzig also details Jewish-Christian professional collaborations in the realms of finance and art. All of these interfaith bonds, Herzig shows, were as integral to Ercole’s world as Jewish-Christian tensions.

In addition to casting new light on the contours of Jewish-Christian relations, Herzig’s focus on Ercole’s conversion illuminates the significance of Jewish conversion to members of the Christian ruling elite in northern Italy, decades before the Counter Reformation invigorated missionary efforts. For Ercole’s patrons, Eleonora of Aragon Duchess of Ferrara and Ercole d’Este Duke of Ferrara—as for earlier Christian monarchs and noble men and women—sponsoring baptisms of Jews was a way to display Christian piety. Herzig sensitively parses the symbolism of Ercole’s solemn baptismal ceremony in the Cathedral of Ferrara. She also demonstrates how Ercole’s patrons made sure that baptism not only saved their goldsmith’s (now new godson’s) life but that it also continued to benefit him and his family. Ercole’s wife and children were also baptized, and as a Christian, Ercole assumed the honorific title “master.”  Moreover, Ercole received commissions for prestigious ecclesiastical vessels, became a famous sword engraver for key figures of the Italian Wars, and was able to foster the professional formation of his sons. Notably, baptism also enabled Ercole’s eldest daughters to embark on successful paths that were closed to Jewish women.

Herzig’s treatments of the experiences of Ercole’s daughters are a highlight of A Convert’s Tale. Anna became a lady in waiting for Lucrezia Borgia and married well. Theodora became a high-ranking tertiary at the convent of Santa Caterina da Siena. Female converts—and religious women and female attendants at court—are less visible in the historical record than their male counterparts. Overall, Herzig’s findings are consonant with what scholars have ascertained about other pre-modern female converts. For instance, women often converted together with male relatives; men were more likely than women to convert alone. However, Herzig is able to recover unprecedented detail about the new social worlds of these two young women. In addition, she discerns Anna’s personal reluctance to convert, and she movingly considers how Theodora and her family may have felt during Theodora’s vestition ceremony. Herzig notes that while Ercole “may have regarded the rite as a sign of his family’s successful assimilation into Christian society,” Theodora’s mother might have been more ambivalent regarding her daughter’s entry into the cloister since she acceded to baptism in order not to lose custody of her children when Ercole converted. “[As for Theodora,] we are left to imagine her feelings at this momentous occasion,” Herzig writes. “It is worth keeping in mind that, like her mother, [Theodora] had not converted of her own initiative” (155-56). Herzig’s analyses of the experiences of Anna and Theodora expand the import of Herzig’s contributions to the study of conversion well beyond the case of Ercole.

For all of the revelations wrought by Herzig’s focus on conversion, much remains unknowable. For instance, although it is tempting to read into the absence of Catholic allusions in Ercole’s personal letters, we do not know what baptism meant to Ercole religiously. Also intriguing is the constancy of three central elements in Ercole’s life, pre- and post-baptism. First, Ercole enjoyed widespread recognition of his extraordinary artistry for decades before and after his conversion. Second, in spite of his professional triumphs, Ercole never ceased to amass debts and contend with the envy and ill-will of peers. Third, before his baptism as after, Ercole relied on specific elite patrons for commissions, income, and aid. These continuities indicate that, in spite of the significance of Ercole’s baptism to select Christian authorities, his baptism did not radically transform his life. Pointing further to the limited impact of baptism, the main factors that led to the decline of Ercole’s fortunes were unrelated to conversion: Duchess Eleonora and Duke Ercole passed away, warfare and epidemics reduced the demand for Ercole’s glittering creations, and the health hazards of decades metallurgy took their toll on Ercole’s body. Perhaps most strikingly, late in life, Ercole became the object once again of the same bitter treatment by Jews that created the conditions for his baptism in the first place: In 1521, Jews denounced Ercole to Christian authorities a second time, this time for pledging the valuables of the daughter of his deceased patrons, Isabella d’Este, to Jewish pawnbrokers. Ercole could not be located, and he disappeared thereafter from the historical record.

Herzig’s masterful portrait of Ercole reveals much about Ercole’s life and world, and it shows that this acclaimed goldsmith embodied important trends common to many premodern converts. He converted in the midst of a personal predicament, never found secure footing in Christian society, and remained in lifelong conflict with his former coreligionists. Crucially, however, A Convert’s Tale suggests that Ercole’s conversion did not fully define Ercole, nor did it determine his fate. This insight is significant beyond this particular case. It is a salutary reminder of the inscrutable confluence of determinants in the lives of all historical subjects.

Paola Tartakoff is professor of History and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of Conversion, Circumcision, and Ritual Murder in Medieval Europe(Penn Press, 2020) and Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250–1391 (Penn Press, 2012).