In the early 1990s, a member of the tiny Jewish community of Casale Monferrato in Piedmont, Italy, pondered what could be done to ensure the community’s future.
“Currently there are two Jewish families who reside in our town, plus a few dozen people who identify as members of the community despite living somewhere else; 20 years ago the situation was not much better,” says designer Elio Carmi.
In the context of such unpromising demographics, plus “an economic recession that is certainly not inviting for the young,” he asked himself how the community could “build a vision for the future,” Carmi says in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.
The area has a rich Jewish history. Jews have lived in Casale since at least the 16th century, and the synagogue is considered among the most beautiful in Europe.
“We didn’t want to just say, ‘OK, it is time to shut down.’ We needed an idea, a plan that would allow us to maximize the results with limited resources,” explains Carmi, who is the current vice president of the community of Casale and sits on the council of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.
The idea turned out to be the launch of an artistic and cultural initiative inspired by the festival of Hanukkah.
Carmi and his friend artist Antonio Recalcati each designed a piece of artwork inspired by the eight-branched candelabra Jews light to celebrate the liberation from Greek rule in Jerusalem in the second century BCE. Then, they started to ask fellow artists to do the same.
Today the collection features over 185 pieces. About 40 of them are permanently on display in Casale Monferrato’s Museo dei Lumi (Museum of Lights), located in a room in the synagogue’s basement that once housed the community’s ancient matza oven.
“It is important to underline that we are not talking about Hanukkah menorahs in the traditional sense, kosher and fit to be lit for the festival,” Carmi points out, “but rather about designed objects inspired by them and by the history of Hanukkah.”
In order to be kosher, a hanukiah needs to feature eight candle or oil holders, arranged in a straight line and at the same height, plus one more holder, somewhat separate from the rest, for the shamash, the attendant candle.
Selections from the collection have been exhibited in Jewish museums in Paris, Amsterdam and Girona and in a few locations around Italy over the last few years. Today, some pieces are on view in Milan.
One of the most prestigious Italian institutions for design and modern art — the Triennale in Milan — is currently showing in its central entrance hall, “Luci di Chanukkah Tra storia, arte e design” (“Hanukkah Lights: History, Art and Design.”)
According to Silvana Annicchiarico, the Triennale’s director, the exhibition is part of “a reflection on the relationship between the world of art projects and the theme of the sacred in the main monotheistic faiths.”
“The Casale Monferrato collection is unique in the world,” says Annicchiarico.
Opening the Milan display are three traditional menorahs, followed by candelabra and objets d’art of every size, color and material — a vibrant mixture of ceramic pottery, marble, bronze, brass casting, glass, wood, plastic, paint, cloth, paper, clay, silver.
Indeed, the artists — Italian and international, among them Jews but also Christians, atheists and Muslims — have interpreted the task of creating a menorah by employing a wide variety of tools, artistic techniques and themes such as the light itself, the joy of the festival and the relationship between man and God. Some artists even created works connected to the Holocaust.
“If we think about it, also back in the Hanukkah story someone wanted to wipe out the Jews, so it is not such a random idea,” says Carmi.
Year after year, more artists have accepted requests to produce something for the Casale Monferrato collection — which is owned by the Jewish Art, History and Culture Foundation of Casale Monferrato and Eastern Piedmont — or submitted their work voluntarily. All pieces are donated by the artists.
“This aims at being a collective project, therefore we accept anything offered that isn’t of such low quality that it could be perceived as offensive. Sometimes, we receive pieces from young artists who then become well-known,” says Carmi.
Among them, Carmi recalls, is Davide Nido. Nido offered his artwork, a colorful mosaic of round resin buttons, in 2006, and was later invited to exhibit at the prestigious Venice Art Biennale.
Some artists take a while to fulfill the request. Arnaldo Pomodoro, a major Italian contemporary artist, submitted his piece, a meter-long patinated bronze and iron lamp, 10 years after being initially contacted.
“Another interesting story is the one of the menorah by Roland Topor,” recalls Carni. His friend, artist Recalcati ran into Topor in Paris and invited him to join the exhibit. “When Topor tried to decline, Recalcati insisted that he could create something on the spot and offered him a pencil and the back of his checkbook to outline the lamp, which he ended up doing right away.”
The result is a menorah about 75 centimeters long and high, “in the shape of two big hands with the fingers held wide apart, but which are joined together by a single thumb that acts as the shamash. The tips of the nine fingers extend upwards like small stylized flames, becoming the supports for the traditional candles,” reads the exhibition’s catalogue.
The exhibit at the Triennale will run until January 8, 2017. Among the artists featured are Emilio Isgrò, Emanuele Luzzati, Paul Renner, Roger Selden and Alì Hassoun.
“We chose a menorah, and not another Judaica object,” says Carmi, “because we felt that Hanukkah celebrates many universal values, such as freedom, independence, spirituality, continuity, hope, and this would allow any artist to find a personal way to connect with it. The response has been incredible.”