One of the most sumptuous Hebrew manuscripts ever made, the Rothschild Miscellany was commissioned by Moses ben Yekuthiel Hakohen in 1479. It was a time when the Jews in Italy came into contact with all sectors of society and many adopted the way of life of the gentile aristocracy, and also a period of unprecedented cultural activity amongst Italian Jewry, producing scholars, artists, poets, and physicians.
Eight Hundred Pages of Sumptuous Decoration
From its inception, the Rothschild Miscellany was planned as a sumptuous work to encompass, in minute detail, almost every custom of religious and secular Jewish life. It consists of more than thirty-seven religious and secular works. Among the religious books are Psalms, Proverbs and Job and a yearly prayer book including the Passover Haggadah. All have textual illustrations for each festival and prayers for special occasions. The secular books include philosophical, moralistic, and scientific treatises.
The text throughout the manuscript is accompanied by marginal notes and commentaries of the sages. This large collection of miscellaneous yet connected texts became the framework for an unprecedented program of illumination. It contains a wealth of material illustrating almost every custom of daily life in a Jewish Renaissance household. Of 948 pages, 816 are decorated in minute detail in vibrant colors, gold, and silver.
The figure drawings and border decorations of the miniatures mirror the rich Italian Renaissance influence and were probably made in a workshop in the Ferrara region. Fanciful landscapes, spatial perspective settings and the precision of human and animal representations echo the style of the best artists who worked for the court of the Este in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. They may have been connected with the workshop of the artists who illuminated the famous Latin Bible of Borso d'Este.
A Mysterious History
The complete history of the Miscellany is somewhat of a mystery. From 1832 to 1855 the manuscript was in the Solomon de Parente collection in Trieste. It was later sold to the Rothschild family in Paris and remained there until it was stolen during the Nazi occupation and reappeared after the war in New York when, in May 1950, the Berlin bookseller Hugo Streisand offered it for $5,000 to the Jewish Theological Seminary. Alexander Marx, the Seminary's librarian, recognized it as stolen from the Rothschilds and returned it to them in London.
James de Rothschild was persuaded by Mordechai Narkiss, director of the Bezalel Museum in Israel, that a manuscript of such importance was a national treasure and therefore belonged in Israel. In 1957, on hearing of Narkiss' illness, James de Rothschild sent it as a gift to Jerusalem.