Exhibition | Signed in Silk

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on February 26, 2021

From the press release (27 January 2021) for the exhibition:

Signed in Silk: Introducing a Sacred Jewish Textile
Saint Louis Art Museum, 19 March — 3 October 2021

Curated by Genevieve Cortinovis

The Saint Louis Art Museum presents Signed in Silk: Introducing a Sacred Jewish Textile, an exhibition highlighting an extraordinary 2019 acquisition, an 18th-century Italian Torah Ark Curtain, or parokhet. In 1755, in the port city of Ancona on the Adriatic coast, artist Simhah Viterbo (1739–1779) embroidered a dedicatory inscription across the lower edge of this magnificent textile. About 15 at the time, Viterbo was continuing in a long tradition of Italian Jewish women who created sumptuous textiles for their synagogues. Drawing upon the Museum’s rich collection of 17th- and 18th-century sacred and secular textiles, the exhibition considers how Viterbo created an object that reflected not only her Jewish heritage but also her own place and time, at the center of a major trading crossroads during an era of increasing cultural connectivity.

Simhah Viterbo, Torah Ark Curtain (Parokhet), 1755; silk, silk and metallic thread, vellum, metal paillettes, cotton thread, velvet, metallic fringe, linen backing; 87 × 66 inches (Saint Louis Art Museum, The Deane and Paul Shatz Endowment Fund for Judaica 2:2019).

In the 18th century, Ancona was a bustling port, home to many, including a prosperous and cosmopolitan community of Jewish traders. It was also a Papal State that since 1555 systematically had oppressed the Jewish residents, most of whom were forced into a few low-skill trades, and isolated them in ghettos, the term then used for prison neighborhoods. Paradoxically, this segregation of culturally diverse Jewish communities coincided with a flowering of Jewish ceremonial art, and this Torah Ark Curtain exemplifies the lavish sacred textiles made by Italian Jews during this period.

The prevailing decoration of 18th-century Italian Jewish textiles was floral; however, Viterbo’s design is unusual in its oversized, symmetrical central motif and narrow enclosed border. Its metal embroidery—scrolls, shells and diapered baskets—was consistent with the ornate Late Baroque and early Rococo ornament that embellished fashionable European dress, textiles and silver of the same moment. Yet the overall composition of the parokhet has more in common with a group of embroidered curtains made within the vast Ottoman Empire, which at that time included parts of the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East.

Rare Hebrew books, printed in Venice and borrowed from Washington University’s Shimeon Brisman Collection, join with splendid examples of Italian, Greek, Ottoman, and Indian textiles to make Signed in Silk a celebration of Viterbo’s skill in having synthesized a range of decorative motifs, techniques, and forms. The exhibition explores how influences from Baroque garden design, Christian ecclesiastical embroidery, botanical naturalism, Ottoman prayer rugs, and Renaissance pattern books coalesced in the handwork of a young woman confined to a ghetto. Viterbo’s accomplished work nevertheless reveals her connection—through textiles—to networks of trade from London to the Levant.

Signed in Silk is curated by Genevieve Cortinovis, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Assistant Curator of Decorative Arts and Design.


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