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Nazi Deception Leads to Rediscovery of Venetian Jewish Artifacts

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As Germany's Nazi soldiers invaded countries throughout Europe during their height of their powers, they would - like armies throughout the centuries - also plunder. So it was not uncommon for families or institutions to frantically try to hide items of financial or sentimental value, in the hopes that they could be reclaimed one day.

Now, thanks to the foresight and clever deception of two elderly Jewish worshippers as the Nazis invaded Italy in 1943, a trove of ornate silver and bronze objects from the 17th through 20th centuries will be on view in the exhibit Lost Treasure of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice/ Restored by Venetian Heritage Inc. Hidden away for more than 60 years, the items were discovered by accident.

Among the primarily liturgical works are silver Torah crowns, lamps, plates used during ceremonial functions, Torah cases, finials, and other pieces of incredible craftsmanship and beauty, restored by a company called Venetian Heritage.

"The men who had hidden the objects passed away, presumably without telling anyone where the [items] were hidden," says exhibit curator Cindi Strauss.

"Then a few years ago, other men at the synagogue were rearranging objects and books and discovered the hiding place. And, as the Nazis were known to destroy objects associated with Jewish religion and culture, it would have been paramount to hide these objects and preserve their history."

Interestingly, while Jewish residents played a crucial role in the economy of Venice from time of the Renaissance, the Venetian senate in 1516 segregated Jews into a six-area area which housed several thousand people and five synagogues, at the site of a former foundry, or geto.

Most of the exhibit items were donated to the synagogue over the years, and Strauss adds that they are exuberant in design and highly decorated with a lot of chasing and repoussé. And the mixing of several different types of meal adds dimension to their design.

Also on display in Lost Treasure of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice are a series of paintings of Venice from several sources, including the MFAH's own collection. They add a visual aspect and historical perspective.

"View paintings provided beautiful records of visits to 18th century Italy, and Venetian masters were unsurpassed in their production," says James Clifton, Director of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation and curator of this exhibit's paintings. Those on display includes works by masters Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, and Michele Marischi.

These paintings were hot souvenir items for those Americans well off enough to make the "Grand Tour" of Europe, and often hung prominently in their homes, letting friends and family see on canvas places like the Church of Santa Marie della Salute, the Rialto Bridge, and the Doge's Palace, all well-known Venetian landmarks.

"The paintings and text provided a context for understanding the Jewish Ghetto. And while Jews were restricted to there at night, they did move about the city during the day," Clifton adds while extolling the city's beauty. "After all, the medieval Italian poet Petrach called [Venice] simply "another world."

Lost Treasure of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice opens February 21 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300 or www.mfah.org

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