The Jews in the Italian Renaissance

By David Wachtel

“The refined soul yearns to know the truth of everything.” 
                                                         —Azariah de Rossi, Meor ‘Einayim–1574

Detail of lot 55. Photographs by Ardon Bar-Hama.

With the expulsions of the Jews from England in 1290, from France between 1182 and 1394, from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497, and from Navarre in 1498, Western Europe had been emptied of its Jewish population. Exiled Jews sought refuge wherever they could, some fleeing Christendom altogether and alighting in North Africa or in the Ottoman Empire. Other beleaguered Jews made their way to the Italian Peninsula, where they found established Jewish communities, some dating back to antiquity and the height of the ancient Roman Empire. Over the centuries, these Italian Jews had developed their own unique cultural traditions, creating a small but innovative literary corpus of liturgical poetry, lexicography, medicine, science, and mysticism. The ancient and medieval populations of Italian Jewry had been centered in Rome and in the southern part of the Peninsula. Though the city of Rome itself sustained the one continuous site of Jewish settlement in Europe from antiquity to the present, in time the southern communities, especially the once vibrant regions of Sicily and Naples declined under foreign rule, and the locus of Italian Jewry shifted northward.

Abraham Ortelius. Italiae novissima descripto. Antwerp, 1579.

To a great extent, the Jews of Italy flourished during the Renaissance, a period marked by a humanistic revival of classical influences, expressed in a flowering of the arts and literature, and by the beginnings of modern science. The commercial success of Italian Jews in this period was aided by the same factors that had prevailed elsewhere: the systematic exclusion of Jews from certain traditional occupations, coupled with the ecclesiastical approval of Jewish moneylending. Many central and northern Italian city-states found themselves issuing condotte (charters) to wealthy Jewish individuals who could serve as loan-bankers and help finance both public and private undertakings. The necessarily close connections with important and powerful Christian families who oversaw these projects, led to a high degree of integration of these Jewish bankers into Italian society.

The concentration of economic power in a small number of relatively affluent banking families had a lasting impact on the ongoing development of Jewish cultural life in Italy, as many of the Jewish bankers also became patrons of the arts and sciences. Major figures of Jewish culture – including rabbinic scholars, poets, physicians, philosophers, historians, grammarians, and scribes – found themselves aligned with these families. Their intellectual and artistic endeavors were supported by a handful of privileged patrons, not unlike their counterparts in Christian society.
The cultural milieu of the Italian Renaissance led to a broad range of Jewish-Christian social interaction. One conspicuous example was the large number of Jewish physicians. Although Jews had long been drawn to the practice of medicine, most Christian European universities and medical schools barred Jews from attending. Italian universities however, notably those of Padua and Perugia, were among the few that allowed Jews to enter the medical faculties. The Jewish graduates of these schools were highly sought after and Jewish doctors frequently acted as personal physicians to popes, cardinals, bishops, and dukes.

The Jews of Italy were also extremely prolific in the creation of printed books. The invention of the printing press and movable type meant that books could be produced in large quantities. The Jews of Italy eagerly seized upon this new technology, establishing presses in more than a dozen Italian cities and towns. Italian Jewish printers were responsible for producing more than three quarters of all Hebrew books printed during the fifteenth century.

Detail of lot 55. Photographs by Ardon Bar-Hama.

Despite the rise of printing as a means of book production, the most glorious volumes of Hebrew text produced in the Italian Renaissance era were elaborately illuminated and decorated manuscripts. Painstakingly penned on especially fine prepared parchment by trained scribes, these exquisite books were artistically embellished with meticulously prepared pigments, gilded and silvered with precious metals, richly lined in silks and fabrics, and bound in supple leathers. While these works were obviously commissioned by wealthy Jewish patrons, it was not uncommon for experienced Christian illuminators to be called upon to decorate the most important and finest examples of Hebrew manuscripts. Most of these breathtakingly beautiful illuminated manuscripts were religious texts, often biblical or liturgical in nature. The most important works of Jewish jurisprudence, such as Jacob ben Asher’s Arba’ah Turim or Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah were also sometimes singled out for this kind of special treatment, a clear indication of the esteem in which the Jews of the Italian Renaissance held the legal tradition that was so fundamental and essential to their Jewish identity.

Detail of lot 55. Photographs by Ardon Bar-Hama.

The Italian Jewish experience was not however without its drawbacks. There remained sharp reminders that the Jews, though they might in many ways be integrated, were nevertheless distinct from their non-Jewish neighbors. The close degree of integration in Italian society virtually guaranteed that the Jews could not avoid the effects of the intellectual currents that roiled the Christian world and led to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation.  Jews still suffered from false accusations of ritual murder, most infamously in the case of Simon of Trent in 1475. In 1516, the Jews of Venice were forced to relocate to a single segregated neighborhood, the first ghetto; similar separations were soon reprised in many Italian cities. In 1555, Pope Paul IV brutally reversed the fortunes of the Jews in the Papal States and later presided over the execution of Jewish refugees of Spanish descent in the port city of Ancona. Notwithstanding these severe and critical challenges, some existential in nature, the flourishing of the Jews in Italy was unlike anything the Jews of Europe had known since the Golden Age of Iberian Jewry centuries before.  Jewish scholarship and culture thrived unabated, not least of all in the traditional Jewish areas of halakhah (Jewish law) and kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).  In more secular pursuits, including theater, music, literature, and the sciences, the Jews of Italy created a legacy of which they could be proud. The accomplishments of Italian Jewry would serve as a yardstick against which Jews of other lands could measure their own achievements in the coming years.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from the Italian Renaissance included in the sale go to lots 55-60.

Next essay: The Jews in the Age of Mercantilism

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