Tamar Herzig. A Convert’s Tale: Art, Crime, and Jewish Apostasy in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019. 400 pp. ISBN 9780674237537.
In a story told with all the elegance of Renaissance goldsmithery, the single most elegant moment in Tamar Herzig’s A Convert’s Tale comes with a glancing reference on page 96. Here Herzig notes the stereotype of “the beautiful and exotic Jewish woman, which found its best-known literary expression in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.” Shylock, the most famous (albeit fictional) early-modern Jew, is allowed only this half-mention in a narrative whose parallels with the troubling Shakespeare comedy verge on the uncanny. A storied Italian city of the High Renaissance. A once-prosperous Jew fallen victim to a sudden reversal of fortunes. An unwilling conversion as the price of a prince’s pardon. A daughter married to a Christian husband. Fabulously wealthy noblewomen of questionable virtue. A constant traffic in gold, jewels, finery, and rumor, even as chasms of debt yawn beneath. Hints, but nothing more, of a love between two men. An early modern drama indeed.
“Never so rich a gem / Was set in worse than gold” (II.vii.54–55)
Herzig’s titular convert is Salomone da Sesso, a Jewish-born goldsmith who plied his trade in Mantua and Ferrara: a craftsman of extraordinary skill and unreliable luck, who was also a forced convert to Christianity. Da Sesso served the greatest princes of Italy before he died in penury. At his height, he gloried in the special favor of Eleonora of Aragon, duchess of Ferrara, who referred to him as “our goldsmith” (59), and in the patronage of various Estes, Gonzagas, and Borgias.
A Convert’s Tale is told less through those precious few pieces of craftsmanship that survive than through the fraught processes of building a reputation, securing commissions, and meeting (or failing to meet) deadlines, all of which have left considerable traces in the archive. We follow Salomone to the heights of his profession—confidently criticizing the work of competitors, suggesting his efforts be shown to the great Andrea Mantegna—and to its nadirs—imprisonment in 1505 after wearing out Isabella d’Este’s patience with endless delays in producing a pair of bracelets, the premature death of his daughter Caterina, ill health, and finally fraud, when he pawned a ruby of Isabella’s to meet his own spiraling debts.
The vast majority of Salomone’s creations are lost to us, long since melted-down, disassembled, or reworked. What survive are a number of engraved and ornamented swords, notably several cinquedeas, a sort of short dagger that seems to have been his specialty, engraving classical scenes upon the wide base of the blades. It seems a shame that the physicality of these objects do not play more of a role in A Convert’s Tale; the black-and-white photographs do not do justice to their exquisite artistry. Herzig intriguingly suggests that Salomone’s status as “a quintessential outsider” contributed to his stylistic verve, for he owed nothing to the established traditions of goldsmithing (31).
“that for this favour / He presently become a Christian” (IV.i.382–83)
Like many converts to Christianity in early modern Europe, Salomone was more or less forced to the baptismal font. In 1491, the goldsmith was arrested in Ferrara for “sodomy,” an amorphous term that might encompass “various nonprocreative sexual practices ‘against nature,’” though its most likely meaning here is sex between men (60). The loss of the trial records means that we cannot say which of these offenses Salomone was convicted of, nor draw any conclusions about his sex life. Condemned to death, the goldsmith possessed a single means of escape: conversion. A keen princely interest in converting Jews permitted Salomone to win a pardon by agreeing to apostatize, which he did in a solemn ceremony on October 9, 1491.
Salomone and his son Graziadio were joined in Ferrara’s cathedral that day by a young Jewish woman, the daughter of Stella and Elia Caio, whose birth-name we do not know but who was baptized as Anna Antonia. A Christian man, hoping to marry her, had arranged for her to run away from home and convert. Distraught, Stella and Elia pleaded first with the Christians sheltering their daughter and then with the rulers of Ferrara for even a few minutes’ conversation, but were met with violence from the former and silence from the latter. Herzig narrates these stories with a powerful simplicity, at once breathing life into the human drama and drawing out its historical significance (identifying in Stella and Elia’s wrenching letters to the duke and duchess, for example, “an impressive awareness of the theological understanding of Christian conversion” ).
So Salomone da Sesso became Ercole de’ Fedeli, the Christian goldsmith, who could now receive the title of “master” denied to even the most skillful Jewish artisan. Herzig never assumes either that her protagonist remained a Jew at heart or that he genuinely embraced Christianity, emphasizing instead “his enduring religious ambivalence” (192). She neatly replicates this ambiguity, as much a problem for the historian as for the goldsmith, by freely mingling “Master Ercole” with “Salomone / Ercole” (e.g., 217). Salomone’s relations with both communities were not without tension. Even before his conversion, he was accused of “upsetting all the Jews” of Mantua, one of the reasons he was banished from that city (43), while his new co-religionists never forgot his origins (thus a document of 1501 referring to “Catherina, the former Jew, daughter of Master Ercole, the former Jew” ).
The tale of a convert rather than of a conversion, the book follows Salomone, now Ercole, over three decades, until the archival trail runs cold in 1521, after the aged goldsmith left Ferrara in search of some way to make up for his last misstep in pawning the jewel. Ercole fashioned an identity for himself as a Christian master goldsmith, an artist whose disegno contributed to the nexus of beauty, wealth, and power that defined Renaissance courtly life.
“For suff’rance is the badge of all our tribe” (I.iii.105)
Pages 3–5 of A Convert’s Tale are genealogical tables: one each for the paternal and maternal branches of Salomone’s family, followed by another for the House of Este. Readerly convenience—keeping track of the dramatis personae can indeed prove difficult—doubles as symbolic vindication: the clan of Jewish artisans and moneylenders receives not only the dignity of a genealogy, but a far more detailed one than the celebrated dynasty.
Readers come to know four of Salomone / Ercole’s children best: Caterina, who entered the convent of Santa Caterina da Siena, where she died as Sister Theodora; Alfonso and Ferrante, goldsmiths like their father; Anna, chosen as a lady-in-waiting to Lucrezia Borgia, who provided the dowry for her marriage. Their fates, along with those of their mother, sisters, and children were bound up with that of Salomone—his skill as a goldsmith and as a winner of patronage, his alleged and actual misdeeds, and his movement between cities and faiths. Alfonso was twice imprisoned, first in 1504 to compel his father to finish Isabella’s bracelets, and again in 1521, as punishment for his embezzlement, leaving the family destitute. The immense importance of the Renaissance household had visceral human consequences.
“Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath” (II.vii.16)
Fifteenth-century Italians knew that Fortune might spin her wheel at any moment, in any direction. A Convert’s Tale thrums with the anxieties of a world of precarity and instability. Of Jews becoming Christians. Of debtors unable to outrun their debts. Of alliances and marriages foundering. Of clients simply changing their minds.
In the doubled figure of Salomone / Ercole, Herzig finds an admirable vehicle for exploring the vicissitudes of fortune in the world of the Renaissance. Even his princely masters waged a constant struggle to maintain their position—some, like Cesare Borgia, by force of arms, others, like Isabella or Lucrezia, by fame, learning, and taste. Herzig argues that the convert’s tale “bears witness to the willingness of Italian rulers to enable their Jewish subjects to contribute to the cultural creativity for which their courts became so famous” (243). So it does, but opportunity came with tremendous risk.
“I think the / best grace of wit will shortly turn into silence” (III.v.40–41)
A Convert’s Tale derives its contours from an array of archival silences, lacunae, and ambiguities. Salomone’s trial records have disappeared, as has any mention of the man himself after 1521. The lion’s share of his oeuvre is gone, and the business of discerning his hand in what remains is tentative at best. We cannot even give names to his three youngest daughters, his grandchildren, or his son-in-law.
Herzig’s narration moves in tandem with the tasks of archival exploration and art-historical recovery, never claiming to know more than can be known, without presuming that the archive has yielded up all its secrets. These very silences speak to the fragility of Renaissance life, even one lived with all the drama of Salomone da Sesso / Ercole de’ Fedeli.
Spencer J. Weinreich is PhD candidate in history at Princeton University, working on the history of the prison and the history of the Reformation. He received his B.A. in history from Yale University, and his M.Phil. in theology from the University of Oxford, where he was an Ertegun Scholar. His dissertation, “Slow Tampering: A History of Solitary Confinement,” examines theories and practices of penal isolation and unchosen solitude from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. His work has been published in Early Science and Medicine, Names: A Journal of Onomastics, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Gothic Studies, Social History of Medicine, the Journal of the History of Ideas, and History Workshop Journal, and is forthcoming in Renaissance Quarterly and Church History. His annotated translation of the Spanish Jesuit Pedro de Ribadeneyra’s history of the English Reformation was published in 2017 by Brill. He tweets at @spenceweinreich.