Jewish Florence History
From the Middle Ages to nowadays
When did Jews start to live in Florence? What is the story of the Jewish Community and how its fortunes changed, through the centuries?
It is possible, even if not documented, that a group of Jews lived in Florence in the first centuries from its foundation, occurred in the 1st century B.C.E. The city was an important commercial centre of the Roman Empire, well connected with Rome through the Cassia Way and with Pisa and the Mediterranean Sea through the river Arno.
Since before the Romans founded Florence, a large number of Jews had been living in Rome and Ostia, its port. Trade between these cities was frequent, and this corroborated the hypothesis that some Jews from Rome had moved to Florence.
With the end of the Roman Empire and the barbarian invasions, for Florence began a long period of decadence until the 11th century, when the economic rebirth of the city became unstoppable.
During the late Middle Ages, 13th – 14th centuries, Florence became one of the biggest cities in Italy and Europe, thanks to its expanding textile production and its prosperous banks. At that time some Jewish people were in the city, however, only in 15th century a substantial number of Jews settled in Florence.
In 1437 the Republic of Florence, led by Cosimo de’ Medici, the ‘Elder’, summoned Jewish pawnbrokers to take over from Christian pawnbrokers, who had been prohibited from managing loans by the Church.
Since then, the Jewish presence in Florence has continued, through success and setbacks. Its history interlaces with famous political and cultural events of the Renaissance, especially under the rule of the Medici family (1434 -1737).
The celebrated ‘Golden Era’ of Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of Botticelli, Leonardo and the young Michelangelo, was a ‘Golden Era’ also for Jewish culture, with many intellectual exchanges between Jewish scholars, who came from all over Italy, and Lorenzo’s court philosophers. Christian scholars were particularly interested in Qabbalah and Jewish biblical commentaries, and some of them learned Hebrew with well-known Jewish scholars.
After Lorenzo’s death, in 1492, the Medici were exiled twice, in 1494 and in 1527. During those times, the new republican governments supported the foundation of a municipal pawnshop with very low interests to pay, threatening Jewish moneylenders with expulsion from the city and its commerce.
The glorious time for some, during which Michelangelo created the David and Machiavelli rose to influence, was not such a glorious time for Jews who lived in Florence.
The Medici returned to power in 1530, thanks to the alliance of Pope Medici, Clement VII, with the Emperor Charles V of Habsburg, from whom they obtained the title Ducal.
Under the rule of the second Medici Duke, Cosimo I, whose rule began in 1537, Jews had better times.
Cosimo, ambitious politician and business man, in about 20 years submitted Siena, conquered most of Tuscany territory and founded on the coast the city and port of Livorno. To improve Tuscany’s commercial power and relationships in the larger Mediterranean region, Cosimo wanted to have a good relationship with the Levantine Jews (the Sephardim). As part of building this relationship, Cosimo did not submit to the Pope’s request to confine Jews in a ghetto, such as the Pope did in Rome in 1555. However, in 1569, the Pope gave him the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany, and one year later, the ghetto was officially instituted in Florence as well as in Siena.
From 1571 to the end of the Medici dynasty in 1737 the life and work of the Florence Jewish Community was very restricted and subject to serious discrimination.
With the enlightened government of the Grand Dukes Habsburg Lorraine, from 1737 to 1859, Florentine Jews started to have many more rights as citizens.
In 1750 the Jewish Community of Florence obtained to buy the two synagogues of the ghetto, after 2 years Jews in Florence were allowed to do almost all professions, and in 1779 two Florentine Jews and one from Livorno were allowed to buy the ghetto.
From the beginning of 19th century, Jews started to take active roles in cultural, economic, and political life. With the unification of Italy, in 1861, they had all the rights of citizens and were involved in Italian life, politics, and culture in all fields.
For Florentine and Tuscan Jews, the 19th and early 20th century was a second ‘Golden Era’ with a great flowering of intellectual, artistic, and religious activities, solidly balancing identity and emancipation.
In that period the great Synagogue of Florence was built, from 1874 to 1882, in Morish style and observing the Sephardic rite. It is still in use nowadays.
At the end 19th century, the Italian Rabbinical College was transferred from Rome to Florence for about thirty years, attracting Jewish scholars from all over Italy.
Jewish history in Florence is marked by great accomplishments as well as painful memories. The worst period for the Florentine and Italian Jews began when the Fascist government – which started in 1922 – moved from a non-antisemitic policy to the racial laws in 1938, two years after the alliance between the Fascist Italy and the Nazi Germany. The situation worsened with the German occupation in 1943-44 and the subsequent deportations of the Shoah.
In 1966 the city was flooded by the Arno river and the Synagogue was again seriously damaged.
Despite everything, however, Florentine Jews have remained deeply involved in the city life, maintaining all the social and religious activities of a modern organized Jewish Community.
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