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Descent from Paradise: Saul Steinberg’s Italian Years (1933-1941)

Author(s): Mario Tedeschini Lalli

Journal: Quest : Issues in Contemporary Jewish History.
ISSN 2037-741X

Issue: 2;
Date: 2011;
Original page

Keywords: Jews | Saul Steinberg | Milan | Italy | antisemitism | racial laws

The aesthetic persona of Saul Steinberg (1914-1999), who became one of America’s most beloved artists, began to take shape in Milan during the 1930s. Steinberg arrived there in 1933 to study architecture, having left his native Romania and its virulent anti-Semitism. In 1936, while still an architecture student, he started contributing gag cartoons to popular Italian humor newspapers and soon became renowned for his clever visual wit. These first years in Italy, which he would later remember as a “paradise,” turned rapidly into “hell” in 1938, with the institution of racial laws that deprived him of income, a profession, and a legal residence. Forced to live as an unwanted “foreign Jew” and unable to obtain the visas necessary to leave Italy, by late 1940 he was under threat of imminent arrest; a few months later, he spent several weeks in an internment camp before finally managing to flee the country. This crucial period in Steinberg’s biography has until now remained largely unknown because of Steinberg’s own reluctance to discuss it. The present essay, building on an earlier study by the same author and using several unpublished archival sources, sheds light on these fraught years, while also examining Steinberg’s sometimes contradictory attitudes to political events as well as art. The essay is illustrated by photographs, documents, and Steinberg’s drawings, many of them from a journal he kept during his last nine months in Italy. The text of this journal is also published here in English for the first time
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