Renaissance and Reformation Jews in Florence
by
Francesca Bregoli
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0439

Introduction

The first sporadic Jewish presence in Florence is attested from the 1320s. In 1437, Jewish bankers were formally granted the license to lend money at interest in Florence, an act that stimulated the establishment of a small but permanent Jewish community composed of families from central Italy and their entourages (100–300 people). The fate of the community was closely connected to its elite’s banking specialization and to the Medici patrons who protected them. Threatened with expulsion on multiple occasions, Florentine Jews managed at times to stave off exile thanks to the economic services they offered the state. The presence of wealthy patrons, most notable among them Yehiel da Pisa, also benefited Jewish intellectual life, as evidenced by both Hebrew manuscript production and cultural flourishing in the last decades of the 15th century. Figures such as Elijah del Medigo, Abraham Farissol, and Yohanan Alemanno were all active in Renaissance Florence, while Christian interest in Hebrew and kabbalistic traditions led humanists such as Giannozzo Manetti, Marsilio Ficino, and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola to associate with Jewish scholars. Around the time of the Florentine Republic (1527–1532), the city saw an initial influx of Sephardic Jews, whose traditions and economic focus were different from the established local Jewish community. After the Medicis returned to Florence, they granted generous freedoms to these “Levantine Jews” (1551), hoping to attract them to the capital and benefit from their mercantile networks. This initial experiment failed, and only with the Livornina of 1591 was a growing Sephardic presence drawn to the Medici state—not to Florence, but to coastal Livorno. In 1570, the Jews of Florence and the surrounding countryside were ordered to resettle in a segregated enclosure, the third ghetto to be established on Italian soil after Venice and Rome; the community grew to 600–700 individuals due to the destruction of rural communities and their confluence into Florence. In the 17th century, the economic activities of Florentine Jews dwindled significantly as a result of the forced closure of Jewish banks and new limitations imposed by the Medicis. Despite these restrictions, Jewish life endured. Current research is increasingly shedding light on the opportunities and challenges Florentine Jews experienced during the ghetto period, a previously understudied topic.

General Overviews

Early scholarship on the Jews in Florence primarily focused on the 15th century, considering Jewish banking activities and Jewish-Christian intellectual exchanges at the time of the Renaissance. A pioneering work, Cassuto 1918 focuses on the 15th and early 16th centuries as the golden age of the Jewish community, coinciding with the maximum splendor of Renaissance Florence. The author dismissively depicts life in the ghetto as “obscure and miserable,” and stops his narrative in 1570. Florentine Jews feature prominently in Roth 1984 as an example of Jewish “participation in” and “reflection of” a captivating Renaissance culture; Roth’s depiction is countered in Bonfil 1994. Other recent histories have moved away from an emphasis on the Renaissance, however. The field has been changing in recent years thanks to Siegmund 2006, the ghetto mapping endeavor of the Ghetto Mapping Project/The Medici Archive Project (both cited under the Ghetto of Florence), and a broader scholarly interest in Italian Jewry during the ghetto period. It should be noted that scholarship on Florentine Jews in the Early Modern period has tended to be male-centric (the few exceptions are cited under Jewish Women). For a general overview that addresses the entirety of the community’s life, see Salvadori 2000.

  • Bonfil, Robert. Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy. Translated by Anthony Oldcorn. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

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    An incisive retort to Roth’s depiction of Jewish “assimilation” into Italian Renaissance culture, concerned with ideas of “Self” and “Other” and the formation of a uniquely Jewish cultural identity. While Bonfil stresses an inherent difference between Jews and non-Jews, he also relies on the case of Florence-based intellectuals such as Alemanno and del Medigo to claim that these Jewish humanists were men of their times and just as representative of Renaissance culture as better-known Christian scholars such as Ficino or Pico.

  • Cassuto, Umberto. Gli ebrei a Firenze nell’età del Rinascimento. Florence: Tip. Galletti e Cocci, 1918.

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    A seminal and still indispensable study of the 15th and 16th centuries, which explores Jewish-government ties, social and economic relations, and literary and scientific production. Cassuto celebrates Jewish life in Florence during the Renaissance as rich and cultured before its enclosure in the ghetto. The book includes a documentary appendix with transcriptions of Italian, Latin, and Hebrew sources. The volume was published in Hebrew in 1967 as Ha-Yehudim be-Firentse bi-teḳufat ha-Renesans (Jerusalem: Mekhon Ben-Tsevi). Available online.

  • Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1984.

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    Originally published in 1959. Roth’s classic, optimistic statement of the notion that Jewish culture flourished in Renaissance Italy thanks to the allegedly open and tolerant spirit of the time. The encounter between Jewish culture and Florentine humanism, on the one hand, and Tuscan Christian interest in Hebrew and kabbalah, on the other, were of special interest to Roth, who viewed them as proof of Jewish scholars participating in and contributing to “the ferment of intellectual activity” of the Renaissance.

  • Salvadori, Roberto G. Gli ebrei di Firenze: Dalle origini ai giorni nostri. Florence: La Giuntina, 2000.

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    A slim survey that covers basic aspects of Florentine Jewish life from the community’s establishment to the 20th century, geared toward the larger public. Four chapters address Jewish bankers in 15th-century Florence, the community at the time of the Renaissance, the establishment of the ghetto, and that of the house of neophytes.

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