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Overview: Jews of Italy

In the early modern period, Italian Jewry comprised of three major groups- the Italianate, the Ashkenazic, and the Sephardic Jews. These Jews lived in several major cities, including Rome, Venice, Padua, Mantua, Florence, and somewhat later in Livorno (Leghorn). The Italianate community dated its origins as far back as during the Roman Empire. In the late fourteenth and in the fifteenth centuries, many Jews, along with Christian artisans and merchants, migrated to the Italian peninsula from German lands, encouraged by Italian dukes and Renaissance popes, and motivated by hopes for more prosperous lives. After the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, many Sephardic Jews began to move to Italian cities, whether from the Ottoman Empire or directly from the Iberian Peninsula (see above). In the seventeenth century, another wave of Ashkenazic migrants arrived from eastern Europe following the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-9.

Jewish life in early modern Italy can be roughly divided into two periods. In the first period, the Renaissance, Jews were encouraged to settle in Italian cities (including towns in the Papal States, like Ancona) because they were able to offer valuable financial services. These affluent Jewish bankers also became patrons of the arts and sciences. The second period, roughly that of the Counter-Reformation, brought a new phenomenon, the Jewish ghetto, as well as other restrictive measures, including book censorship.

The term “ghetto” is often misunderstood and deserves brief comment. It comes from the name of the island Ghetto Nuovo, on which the first enclosed Jewish quarter in Venice was established in 1516. This original “ghetto” was created as a measure to allow Ashkenazi moneylenders to live in the city. Later, in 1541, as Sephardic Jewish merchants from the Ottoman Empire became an increasingly active presence in the city, the Venetian government granted these “Levantine” Jews their own segregated area of the city, the adjoining Ghetto Vecchio, which was connected to the Ghetto Nuovo by a wooden footbridge over a canal. There is no consensus on the meaning of the word, but some scholars argue that it derives from an old Italian word for “foundry,” because a foundry had existed in the Ghetto Nuovo.

It was only in the decades after Pope Paul IV issued the 1555 papal bull Cum Nimis Absurdum that the establishment of Jewish ghettos became accepted policy throughout Italy. (It was not until the 1590s that the term “ghetto” was adopted by contemporaries to refer to the many enclosed Jewish quarters that by then had been established.) The creation of an enclosed Jewish quarter where all Jews were required to live sometimes actually led to the creation of a formal Jewish community. This was the case for the Jews of Tuscany, who were forced to move to a newly created Jewish quarter in Florence in 1571. Until that time, Jews in Tuscany had not been viewed by Tuscan authorities (or by themselves) as a collective “Jewish community.” These Jews, numbering 712 persons altogether according to a census taken prior to the establishment of the ghetto, had lived scattered in 21 Tuscan towns. They had been regarded by town and Tuscan officials as individuals or individual families, rather than a Jewish community.

While the ghetto in Rome was created shortly after the issuance of Cum Nimis Absurdum, the ghettoization of Italian Jewry was a rather lengthy process. Some were only created in the seventeenth century- Verona in 1600, Mirandola in 1602, Padua in 1603, Mantua in 1612, Rovigo in 1613, Ferrara in 1624. The last ghetto was established in Corregio in 1779. Sometimes difficulties in establishing the ghetto arose because Christians did not want to give up their properties and transfer them to Jews, as happened in Regio Emilia where the process of establishing a ghetto started in 1611 but was not completed till 1670.

Despite the hardships that ghettoization brought to the Jewish community, such as being forced to rent apartments from Christian landlords at high prices, overcrowding, and the imposition of a nightly curfew, Jewish scholarship and culture flourished. Naturally, ghettoization did not inhibit creativity in the traditional Jewish areas of halakhah and kabbalah. Although physically separated from Christians in their dwellings, Jews did not in fact live in cultural isolation from their Italian Christian neighbors. Evidence from Christian courts further suggests that Jews and Christians studied together and socialized in pasticerias and grecolaias (pastry shops and wine shops often run by Greeks), eating and drinking together. An early sixteenth-century translation into Italian of a Yiddish manual for Jewish women on women’s commandments indicates that Jewish women read Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Boccaccio’s Decameron, among other works. Theater, music, literature, and the sciences were cultivated by Jews in Hebrew, Ladino, and Italian (see the relevant sections below), leaving a treasure trove of evidence indicating a high level of Jewish acculturation and extensive Jewish-Christian interaction, at least at the elite level. Leone Modena, a seventeenth-century rabbi and intellectual, tells us in his memoirs of Christian dignitaries visiting synagogues to listen to sermons delivered by Jewish rabbis, including those of Modena himself. Modena, for his part, wrote poetry and panegyrics in Italian for his Christian patrons.

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