Bibliophile testimonies of Jewish life in Italy

Ketouboth. Italie. © BnF, dpt. des Manuscripts.

translated by Julia Fischer

16 illuminated Hebrew manuscripts from Italy, which are part of the collection of the National Library of France, will be presented until 22 September 2019 in an exceptional exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Art and History (mahJ) in Paris. They are being exhibited together with a number of impressive pieces of the mahJ. These manuscripts – masterpieces of Italian book illustration – are testimonies of a special period in the history of the Italian Jewish community, which, for the record, is the oldest one in Europe: a period of intense intellectual, literary and artistic activity in medieval and Renaissance Italy.

The exhibition

The illuminated manuscripts stem from four centuries and from different Jewish communities. They reflect the life of this religious community, which has been firmly rooted in the history of the peninsula since ancient times and whose manifestations have changed with the arrival of new groups that had fled from the medieval expulsions in the North and the Mediterranean.

Bibles, prayer books, philosophical works translated from Arabic by Jewish and Muslim authors, scientific and medical treatises, marriage contracts, etc. – these documents show, on the one hand, the extraordinary diversity of the activity and the intellectual life in this period in Italy and, on the other hand, demonstrate the lively exchange that existed between the various communities of this period. As a result of the resurgence of enthusiasm for ancient times and, in particular, for the study of the Greek and Hebrew languages, many Jewish and Christian scholars devoted themselves to the transmission of the biblical text and to the study of the Kabbalah. During the Medici period, Jews attended universities and participated actively in the literary and scientific life of the Renaissance.

The design of the oldest Hebrew manuscripts is mainly influenced by the medieval tradition: There are hardly any pictures, the first words and letters are decorated, the arrangement of the paragraphs is played with, there are micrographic illustrations etc. But the development of the illustrations – from miniature illustrations to those covering entire cover pages – testifies to the economic and cultural integration of the Italian Jews, who did not hesitate to make use of the artistic ideas of the epoch while illustrating their manuscripts.

Collection of medical lectures. © BnF, dpt. des Manuscripts.

The collections of Hebrew works of the Department of Manuscripts of the BnF

The collection was started in the 14th century by King Charles V (1338-1380), who possessed several Hebrew manuscripts in his library in the Louvre. Over the time, it was significantly enlarged: in the 17th century because of the collections of the Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and because of the consequences of the Revolution (the secularisation of property made the collections more than double in size); in the 19th century through various commissions and acquisitions. Today, they comprise about 1,495 remarkable pieces: Bibles and Talmuds, commentaries, manuscripts on civil and religious law, theology, Kabbalah, philosophy, science and medicine, grammar, history, poetry, documentary files, etc. from Yemen, the Orient, Byzantium, Italy, North Africa, Italy, England, Germany and Central Europe. Essentially, this collection reflects the text production of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance.

From the collections of the National Library of France (BnF)

Every year, the BnF presents selected pieces of its collections in various cultural institutions in Paris and the surrounding area, thus allowing the broad public to access the rich cultural heritage.

On the basis of their symbolic value, their link to an event or to a local collection, the works are selected for the programme “From the collections of the National Library of France” (fr). The programme aims to develop sustainable partnerships with other scientific and educational institutions. The exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Art and History enables the BnF to open its rich collections to the public and, at the same time, to present the digitised online corpora of the electronic library “Gallica”, which contains 1,320 Hebrew manuscripts thanks to a partnership with the National Library of Israel.

Hebrew Bible Psalm. © BnF, dpt. des Manuscripts.

The Museum of Jewish Art and History (Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme)

The Museum of Jewish Art and History is located in a 17th century building in the Marais district of Paris. It has an impressive collection of objects on Judaism in Europe, mainly from Italy and the Mediterranean, covering the period from ancient to present times. In addition to archaeological artefacts from the Middle Ages and a collection of Jewish cult objects, which is one of the most significant in the world, the museum also has an extensive collection of ethnographic and historical documents and objects, such as the files of the Dreyfus affair. The Jewish presence in the art scene of the 20th century is a. o. exemplified by Chagall, Modigliani, Soutine and Kikoïne.


Further information can be found on the websites of the French National Library (BnF) and the Museum of Jewish Art and History. Unfortunately, large parts of the websites are only available in French.

Gallica, the digital library of the BnF, is well worth seeing.