The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Lost and Partially Found: Decorated Hebrew Manuscripts in the National Library of Turin

Thousands of manuscripts and printed books were destroyed in the devastating fire of 1904 at the National Library of Turin. After this catastrophic event, study of these precious works came to a standstill for the remainder of the twentieth century. Although many books were obliterated, others have been restored — as much as possible — in the last decades. Among the decorated Hebrew manuscripts in the collection, some are destroyed beyond recognition, while others are only partially damaged; miraculously some survived intact. Without visiting the library it is impossible to gauge the extent to which the surviving manuscripts have sufficient remains to be useful for study.

In my lecture I plan to focus on five manuscripts that are damaged to varying degrees. In the case of one fifteenth-century haggadah, although little remains, enough is extant to reveal exceptional pigments and unusual iconography. The four other examples are mahzorim datable from the fourteenth to the fifteenth century. In some cases the name of scribe and original owner are still visible. Although most are no longer complete, they display inventive imagery. Probably the earliest of these escaped virtually unscathed and presents strikingly original imagery for many piyyutim. The purpose of this lecture is not only to present material that is relatively unknown, but to encourage others to consider traveling to the library to explore what has survived. Much remains to be done there.