The “other Modigliani,” Giuseppe Emanuele (Mene) Modigliani, was one of Italy’s earliest socialist and union leaders to be elected to Parliament. He was the younger brother of the legendary modernist painter, Amedeo Modigliani.
An exhibit organized by Centro Primo Levi and the Italian National Archives at the Center for Jewish History highlights Modigliani’s activities and correspondence with prominent thinkers, and examines the contributions of Jewish intellectuals whose influence from 1860 to 1920 were especially pivotal to the formation of the State of Italy.
Born in Livorno, a town with a predominantly Jewish population, the Modigliani family were well-to-do Jews of Sephardic descent. Graduating with a law degree, Mene became an advocate of education and welfare reform for the advancement of society, a director of a reformist newspaper, and was subsequently appointed president of the Glassworkers Union. He secured the first national union contract in the history of Italy, and in 1913 was elected to the Italian Parliament, where he was to serve for many years.
Sophisticated, with international connections to world political leaders, Mene and his wife Vera were chief among a group of Italian intellectuals whose views and writings were later incorporated into the constitution of 1948. A writer and lecturer of anti-war manifestos and a radical pacifist, Mene, with the advent of World War I, joined other European intellectuals and political figures in the Zimmerwald Conference, to voice their strong and vehement opposition to the horrors of war and openly articulated diplomatic alternatives.
In 1926, Mene, seeing the injustices and restrictions on civil liberties imposed by Mussolini, and being prescient of what was becoming a fierce and rapid rise of fascism, fled with his wife Vera to Vienna, then on to Paris. When the German occupation of the city forced them to flee again, Mene’s spoke his now-famous words to the authorities: “I have the honor, the honor, if not the pleasure — to belong to the Jewish race… four fourths of Jewish blood.” Seeking a safe haven, the Modiglianis retreated to the neutrality of Switzerland.
Mene was asked by Luigi Antonini and David Dubinsky, the brilliant labor leader and president of the Ladies Garment Workers Union (Local 89) to visit and lecture in the United States on the extreme dangers of Nazi and Fascist policies. Mene’s staunch views and insights as well as his accomplishments in labor negotiations were such that between 1928 and 1938, he was a regular contributor to the American socialist magazine The New Leader. In the 1930s he became a great admirer of Roosevelt and firmly advocated social reform within the boundaries of the law.
In 1947, the couple moved back to Italy where Mene died shortly thereafter. Vera Funaro Modigliani carried on the legacy of her husband and created the Modigliani Foundation, with the objective of documenting the history of this post-unification political circle, and of studying the contribution of Italian Jews to the history of socialism, labor unionism and democracy.
Three-Day Weekend of Lectures, Exhibits, and Concerts Co-sponsored by the American Sephardi Federation and Centro Primo Levi.
The Italian Experience Weekend focuses on the rich history, culture, art scholarship of the Italian-Jewish community, one of the oldest groups of Jews to emigrate from ancient Palestine to Europe.
Amos Luzzatto, a physician and noted Talmud scholar and President of the Federation of Italian Jewish Communities will discuss “Jewish Studies in Today’s Italy.”
Dario Calimani from the University of Venice and President of the Jewish Community of Venice, will examine “Italian Jewish Communities: from Past to Future.”
At Congregation Shearith Israel, 8 West 70 Street with a concert of baroque, operatic, choral, and folk music from the 17th,18th, and 19th centuries. Organized by renowned musicologist Francesco Spagnolo, the concert will be led by choirmaster Leon Hyman.
The final event takes place at the Center for Jewish History, 15 West 16th Street, and will offer a special preview of the exhibit “Giuseppe Emanuele Modigliani: A Life for Peace and Democracy.”
The brother of the world-renowned painter Amedeo Modigliani, he was one of Italy’s foremost vocal anti-war activists and a proponent of the unification of Europe at the dawn of World War I. A union leader in his early years, he later delivered more than 100 lectures in the U.S. under the auspices of Local 89 (the Local Garment Union) to raise awareness of the dangers of the Nazi and Fascist regimes. Modigliani’s life and work will be examined through an exhibit of his correspondence, political writings, posters, and photographs from the Italian National Archives.
In conjunction with the preview on May 16, a panel discussion on “Giuseppe Emanuele Modigliani and the Italian Jewish Intellectuals from the Unification to the Rise of Fascism (1860-1924), will feature Vittorio Dan Segre, Director of the Institute for Mediterranean Studies at University of Lugano, who will open the program with a historical overview. The noted Italian journalist Andrea Fiano, will serve as moderator, and will be joined by Viviana Simonelli and Luisa Montevecchi, co-curators of the exhibition.