Date of this Version
Published in Hidden Stories/Human Lives: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America 17th Biennial Symposium, October 15-17, 2020. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/
Around 1755, Simhah Viterbo (c. 1739-1779) completed a luxurious Torah ark curtain, or parokhet, in Ancona, an important port city on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The base fabric, a bright blue silk satin, is appliqued with gold and silver guipure embroidery, vellum sections covered with metal-wrapped threads, spiral wound wires, and flattened strips of metal. Paillettes punctuate the Hebrew inscription, which runs across the curtain’s lower edge. The central grotesque composition, a series of stacked, diapered cartouches in the vein of Daniel Marot (1661-1752), fans out towards the enclosed borders. Florist flowers—blousy carnations, roses, and campanula—delicately embroidered in blush-colored silk threads, bloom from silver stems.
While the predominant decoration of eighteenth-century Italian Jewish textiles was floral, this curtain stands out for its oversized, architectural approach to the subject. Its composition has much in common with stylish Indian palampores and their European imitations. Its heavy guipure embroidery— scrolls, shells, and baskets—recalls the late baroque and early rococo ornament embellishing fashionable dress, textiles, and silver of the same moment. Contrasting the many Torah ark curtains made from second-hand textiles, it has no sign of patching or creative reuse. It appears to be the work of a professional, although perhaps surprisingly, a young woman, who likely lived and worked in Ancona’s Jewish ghetto.
A collaboration between curatorial and conservation departments, this paper aims to link this Torah ark curtain with examples of eighteenth-century French and Italian guipure embroidery for fashionable dress and the church. Using investigative methods such as XRF and fiber and comparative analysis, it will examine its materials, methods of production, and possible design influences in order to consider this young woman’s role as a maker of sacred, and possibly, also secular luxury textiles.