Propaganda: How Jews were treated in Renaissance Italy

Haven’t we seen this before? Propaganda against the Jewish people was not new in Nazi Germany (duh). It can be traced further back, even during the Renaissance.


Kate Lacivita

10/23/20224 min read

During the Third Reich, Hitler and the Nazi Party forced the Jewish population to wear a symbol to separate them from others in Germany and other Nazi occupied areas/counties in Europe. We tend to think of this as something purely WWII and all Hitler‘s ideas. But, Hitler gained insight on things from the past and used these methods to his advantage in his horrible propaganda against Judaism and the Jewish population. This method of isolation and separation from Christians and Jews can be dated to 1215 and even earlier to the 8th century Muslim, Islamic nations.

As mentioned in my previous post, Michelangelo painted the portrait of Aminadab, prince of the Levites, on the ceiling. Forward facing with a clearly defined yellow circle imprinted into the garment. But why? What makes a yellow circle culturally significant to Michelangelo?

In 1215AD, Pope Innocent III (r.1198-1216) held the 4th Lateran Council. Made up of 400 bishops, 800 abbots and priors, and envoys from European Kings it was considered the greatest reform council to come together before the Council of Trent in 1545. This council came together to solidify and uphold Christian values, ideologies and reform to recover the holy land. In this council it was decided that Jews and Saracens (include definition) were to wear distinctive dress in order to distinguish them from Christians.

Pope Innocent III declared the beginning of the crusaide, but it was his successor Pope Honorius III (r.1216-1227) to see it through. The objective: recapture of the holy land Jerusalem from Muslim control by attacking through the North of Africa through Egypt (then controlled by the Ayyubid Dynasty r.1174-1250). However, the Christian army was defeated at the Nile and returned home unsuccessful.

In the Italian city states (Italy as we know it to be a whole country did not come about until the 1850s) Jewish people lived to flee the oppression of the Islamic prosecutors. However, some city states and their Catholic rulers of these city states would kick them out as well once they came into power. One ruler would be more tolerant than another as it goes, and so the Jewish People would move from one city over to the next and back again. Jewish population was dense within the city borders. Until the late 13th century when the 1215 Lateran Council rules decided to be upheld by the Roman Catholic government. Most Jews fled this persecution, towards the north and Northern Europe.

Manuscripts of the time began propaganda against the Jewish people as well. Depicting the antichrist with typical Jewish features and clothing or God’s breath from a lion crushing the Antichrist (in Jewish paraphernalia) and conquering a Synagogue. He would also typically be shown holding a yellow money bag (showing the sin of avarice and bribery as his means of gaining followers). But, what were these distinctive images that Jewish People had to wear and what did it mean?

The 4th Lateran Council wanted to make sure that good abiding Christians did not intermix with any other religion. Because many people converted to Christianity at the time (wether it was forced or not) meant that a lot of people of various ethnic backgrounds, races and upbringings were Christian. This made it hard to distinguish people from one another. This was to help prevent intermarriages or having intercourse with someone who wasn’t of your faith. The council references the “law of Moses”, or the first 5 books of the Torah, as why this is important.

However, because of the ambiguity of the law itself, it meant that all the local governments could create their own way of identifying Jewish People from others however they wished. For example, German Jews had to wear a yellow coned-shaped hat (this hat was popluar throughout Europe as well but mostly in medieval German nation but was replaced by the Italian Yellow badge in the 16th century). King Louis IX of France in 1269 declared it was a yellow wheel while King Edward I of England in 1275 made it two yellow tablets side by side (“tablet of law”), both nations had to have these worn on the outer most garment at all times.

In Florence, Umbria, Milan and Venice all had to wear a yellow circle badge sewn into their outer garment, typically at the breast or front so that all could easily see.

Most color choice was yellow. But, why is that? Yellow is a fickle color that has come in and out of favor over the centuries.

Yellow had various meanings across all time periods, with ancient Roman’s using the color to signify clothing for women, while medieval society thought of it as a color to signify deceit and treason. Convicted felons, prostitutes and marginalized outcasts of society would be branded with yellow on clothing, ID cards and house paint. It could reference degrading things such as urine, yellow fever or leprosy or a natural signifier of “danger/watch out”.

Popular in Musilm culture as well, yellow typically signified urine or “unclean“ items, foods and peoples.

Interestingly, however, blond or ashen colored hair was a signifying trait of purity, beauty, wealth and power since ancient Roman times.


Strickland, Debra. Studies in Iconography. vol. 32, pp. 1-50. Princeton University. Web. JSTOR.

From “Studies of Iconography”

Pointed hats typical of German/Northern style

Simon of Trent. 1453, (Now Trento) Italy. Shows clear yellow circles sewn into garments