A sad case of anti-Semitism in the 15th century: exhibition on Simonino da Trento at the Tridentine Diocesan Museum

From Dec. 14, 2019 to April 13, 2020, the Diocesan Museum of Trent hosts the exhibition The Invention of the Guilty

From December 14, 2019 to April 13, 2020, the Tridentine Diocesan Museum of Trent hosts the exhibition The Invention of the Guilty. The “case” of Simonino da Trento, from propaganda to history, an exhibition that, through works of art and documents, recounts a famous case of anti-Semitism in the 15th century, which began with a fake news story that arose around the death of a child from Trent, named Simonino, who disappeared from home on the evening of March 23, 1475 and was found dead three days later near the home of a Jewish family. The Jewish community was accused of kidnapping and killing the child in order to perpetrate ritual murder: the anti-Semitic propaganda of the time, in fact, fed on the belief that Jews, during Holy Week, sacrificed Christian children, after torturing them, in order to reiterate the crucifixion of Christ, using the victim’s blood for magical and religious purposes. The legend of ritual murder condenses numerous anti-Jewish stereotypes codified over the centuries (such as the accusation of deicide and feral nature) and pre-existing mythical elements, the origins of which remain obscure to this day. Thus, exploiting prejudice and blaming the Jewish community, the prince-bishop of Trent, Johannes Hinderbach, had numerous Jews imprisoned, who were tortured, forced to confess to crimes they never committed, and finally executed.

Simoninus, because of his alleged martyrdom, thus became the object of a strong local cult, which Pope Sixtus IV banned under penalty of excommunication. However, the Church was unable to oppose the popular veneration, which spread through images and the press (the latter cleverly manipulated by Hinderbach, who understood the potential of the brand new medium and used it to get his propaganda machine going). The cult of Simoninus then spread to northern Italy and parts of Germany, even being made official in the 16th century: it was not until 1965 that the Church, after careful re-reading of historical documentation and years of debate, abolished the cult of the false “blessed,” thanks in part to the expertise of a German Dominican, Willehad Eckert, and the action of a priest, Monsignor Iginio Rogger, longtime director of the Diocesan Museum of Trent (and to whom the exhibition is dedicated).

The aim of the exhibition, curated by Domenica Primerano with Domizio Cattoi, Lorenza Liandru and Valentina Perini and the collaboration of Emanuele Curzel and Aldo Galli, is to take stock of the case of Simonino da Trento and to spread a wider knowledge of the delicate late medieval affair. In 1965, in fact, the debate around the case involved a small circle of specialists: the need therefore arises to pick up the thread of history in order to tie it back to a present in which anti-Semitic and racist regurgitations are far from dormant. The exhibition also aims to present an important recovery: the relief with the Lamentation over the Dead Body of Simon of Trent attributed to the workshop of Swabian sculptor Daniel Mauch. Datable to the beginning of the 16th century, the work was part of the monumental polyptych with movable doors located on the high altar of the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Trent, a building that for centuries guarded the body of the alleged martyr. The relief left the church under mysterious circumstances before 1882, when it was purchased in Merano, probably on the antiques market. Today, the Tridentine Diocesan Museum is able to present this important work to its public again, in the hope that it will remain in the city for which it was made. For this reason, the relief was chosen as the guiding image for the exhibition.

The exhibition, set up on two different floors of Palazzo Pretorio, the museum’s headquarters, offers an itinerary with more than seventy works arriving from important national and foreign museums and cultural institutes such as the Uffizi Galleries, the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara, the Raccolta delle Stampe Achille Bertarelli in Milan, the Classense Library in Ravenna, the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento, and Wilten Abbey in Innsbruck. The tour begins with an introduction to the exhibition’s themes: the context in which the accusation of ritual murder matured, the mechanisms by which the culprit was invented, the case of Simonino in the 20th century, and the stages that led to the revision of the cult. All enriched by a multimedia room that, through texts taken from historical documents, accompany the visitor on an emotional journey intended to stimulate reflection on the events of 1475. On the second floor, the ways in which the cult of Simonino da Trento was popularized through art are analyzed: thus, a journey between devotion, art, literature and propaganda is proposed. Paintings, engravings and printed texts will highlight the vast “media coverage” that Prince-Bishop Johannes Hinderbach, identified as the occult director of the whole operation and of the powerful communication machine, ensured the case of Simonino, guaranteeing longevity to an “abusive” cult that survived for centuries in collective memory and devotional practice.

“An emblematic case, that of Simoninus, of the ’invention of the enemy,’” commented life senator Liliana Segre in her address of greeting for the exhibition. “Starting from such a tragic event as the death of a child, with specious or rather patently false arguments, resorting to violence and torture, a ’monster’ was created and eventually exterminated. And this is not a horror of the distant 15th century. For in the very modern 20th century exactly the same way was proceeded: every falsehood and pretext was used to make the Jew the Absolute Enemy of mankind, to be denigrated, humiliated, despoiled and ultimately exterminated. May Primo Levi’s warning remain forever in our memory: ’meditate that this was. I command you these words. Carve them in your heart’.”

The invention of the culprit. The “case” of Simonino da Trento, from propaganda to history can be visited during museum opening hours: daily (except Tuesdays, closing day) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Closed Dec. 25, Jan. 1 and 6, and Easter Day. Tickets (including museum visit): 7 euros full, 5 euros reduced. Free for Trentino Guest Card holders, Museum Pass, annual subscription Museo Diocesano Tridentino, for everyone on the first Sunday of the month. The exhibition benefits from the valuable collaboration of the University of Trent (Faculty of Law and Department of Letters and Philosophy), the Tridentine Diocesan Archives and the Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino. The exhibition is supported by the Archdiocese of Trent, the Autonomous Province of Trent and the Municipality of Trent and realized with the contribution of Fondazione Caritro. Also contributing to the realization were Castello del Buonconsiglio. Monumenti e collezioni provinciali and FAI - Fondo Ambiente Italiano. The rich catalog is published by the Museo Diocesano Tridentino. For more info visit www.museodiocesanotridentino.it.

Image: Daniel Mauch’s workshop, Lamentation over the dead body of Simonino da Trento (first-second decade of the 16th century; carved, painted, gilded wood; Private collection)

A sad case of anti-Semitism in the 15th century: exhibition on Simonino da Trento at the Tridentine Diocesan Museum
A sad case of anti-Semitism in the 15th century: exhibition on Simonino da Trento at the Tridentine Diocesan Museum

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