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Virtual Jewish World: Florence, Italy

Jewish merchants, doctors and bankers began settling in Florence in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. In 1396, the Commune of Florence permitted Jews to practice banking in Florence. An assembly of the Jews of Italy met in Florence in 1428 and gathered funds to give to Pope Martin V in return for his protection. City authorities requested Jewish bankers in 1430 because they believed that they would be easier to control than their Christian counterparts. In 1437, the Jewish community was officially established because of the need for Jewish moneylenders in the city.

The fate of the Jewish community was tied to the fate of the Medici family in Florence. Lorenzo il Magnifico defended the Jewish community from expulsions and from the aftermath of vitriolic sermons given by Bernardino da Feltre. A Catholic theocracy was installed in the 1490's under the Dominican friar Girolama Savonarola, who decreed that both the Jews and the Medici family be expelled from Florence. A loan from the Jewish community to the republic postponed the expulsion for a short period of time. The Medicis returned to power in 1512 and the Jewish ban was lifted, until the next Medici expulsion in 1527. Alessandro de Medici regained influence as a duke, in 1531, and abolished anti-Jewish acts

In 1537 Cosimo de’Medici gained power in the Florentine government. He sought the advice of Jacob Abravanel, a Sephardic Jew living in Ferrara. Abravanel convinced Cosimo to guarantee the rights and privileges of Spanish and Portugese Jews, and other Levantines who settled on his borders. This was the start of the growth of the Sephardic Jewish community in Florence. Refuge was given to Jews from other papal states who left due to Pope Paul IV’s anti-Jewish measures, which were not enacted in Florence. Once Cosimo received the title of grande duke of Tuscany, his policies toward the Jews changed for the worse. He forced Jews to wear badges in 1567, closed the Tuscan border to non-resident Jews in 1569, shut down Jewish banks in 1570 and established a ghetto on July 31, 1570.

Jewish religious, social and cultural life continued to flourish inside the ghetto. Two synagogues were built, an Italian one in 1571, and a Spanish/Levantine one at the end of the 16th century (the ark from this shul can be found today at Kibbutz Yavne in Israel). There were also Jewish schools, a butcher, a bakery, a ritual bathhouse and other social and philanthropic organizations. The Jews were allowed to elect their own council and the rabbinical courts had jurisdiction, recognized by the state authorities, over all legal problems. Jews had a special status in criminal law; they were not tried by common judges, only by the Supreme Court of the Republic. Restrictions were placed on Jewish trade in the ghetto barring them from selling wool or silk or trading in precious objects.

A certain level of tolerance existed for the Jewish community, despite being forced to live in the ghetto. During the rule of Cosimo’s son, Ferdinand I, Jews were allowed to expand their trade to the East. Some of the wealthy Levantine Jews were even permitted to live outside the ghetto; however, the Italian Jews were not allowed to leave the ghetto or join any of the city’s guilds and had to work as second-hand dealers. This unequal treatment led to disagreements between the two communities, which were eventually resolved.

The community decreased in size and, by the 18th century, the community numbered less than a thousand individuals.

The Jews of Florence were emancipated and given civic rights when Napoleon’s army entered the city on March 25, 1799. The grand dukes were restored in 1814 and Jews had to return to the ghettos. In 1848, the ghetto was abolished and a new city center was constructed; Jews also achieved equality in the constitution under Grand Duke Leopold II.

In 1861, Florence became part of the kingdom of Italy and Jews were recognized as citizens. The ghetto was demolished at the end of the 19th century, when the city started a redevelopment program. Plans for the great temple were approved in 1872, but it took eight years to build and was not inaugurated until 1882. The building of the temple far away from the old ghetto marked the beginning of assimilation of Florentine Jews.

The rabbinical college of Padua (Collegio Rabbinco Italiano) was transferred to Florence and placed under the leadership of Samuel Hirsch Margulies in 1899. Samuel Margulies (1858-1922) was not accepted by the community, at first, because of his Zionist views, but he became popular with the young generations. Rabbi Margulies worked at the head of the institution until his death in 1922. His student, Carlo Alberto Viterbo, helped turn Florence into a hub of Jewish culture.

Nearly 3,000 Jews lived in Florence in 1931. The Nazis occupied Florence in the autumn of 1943. Most Jewish families in Florence lost a family member due to the Fascists or the Nazis. The first deportation took place on November 6, 1943, and a second one occurred five days later. Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, physician and spiritual leader of the Florentine Jewish community, was sent with the second group. In a third deportation, on June 6, 1944, sixteen elderly Jews were taken from the old age home to Germany.

The temple was damaged by the Germans in August 1944, when they detonated several mines in the interior. Some of the synagogue’s treasures, which were confiscated by the Nazis, were recovered. A total of 243 Jews were deported from Florence, only 13 returned. After the war, Florence’s Jewish population numbered 1,600.

The Jewish community began the process of rebuilding after the war. The synagogue was restored to its former glory. A home for the elderly was built in 1957 and a new school building was erected in honor of Rabbi Nathan Cassuto in 1964.

A terrible flood broke out in 1966 and damaged the synagogue, including furniture, frescoes, the historical library and 90 torah scrolls. Repair and restoration began immediately and today it is fully restored.

Today the community of 1,000 has two synagogues, the Sephardic temple and a smaller Ashkenazi prayer house, as well as a kindergarten, elementary school, high school, youth club, Jewish cultural center, a sports club, a home for the aged, a museum and chapters of B’nai Brith and ADEI-WIZO.

Jewish Tourist Sites

The Synagogue of Florence

The building, which used a Moorish style, was designed by three architects: Treves, Falcini and Micheli, who were inspired by Constantinople’s Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia. It opened to the public in 1882. The interior is inspiring with wood and bronze carvings, marble floors, mosaics and long stained glass windows. The Nazis used the Temple as a garage for military vehicles. There were two restorations, one after the Second World War and another after a devastating flood in 1966. A plaque commemorating the 248 Jews who were deported by the Nazis from Florence has been placed in the building.

The Jewish Museum

The Florence Jewish Museum was inaugerated in 2007 and is located in a building adjacent to the city's synagogue. The museum provides a history of the Jewish community in Florence from 1437 to the present and houses artifacts dating back to the 16th century. Its collection includes ritual objects, silver ornaments and embroidery.

The Ghetto

Florence’s ghetto no longer exists, but one can find streets or squares that were once within the walls. One inscription on the entrance door to the bathhouse read, "The Jews were separated from the union with Christians but not turned out." Another, above the arch in Piazza della Repubblica, says, "The old centre of the city restored from age-long squalor to a new life."

Sources“Florence.” Encyclopedia Judaica. CD-ROM edition. 1996.
Jews and Synagogues: A practical Guide. EdizioniStorti Venezia. 1999.
The Medici Archive Project: The Jews and the Medicis.
The Synagogue of Florence.
Tuscany Jewish Itineraries: Place, History and Art. Edited by Dora liscia Bemporad and Anna Marcela Tedeschi Falco.Marsilio Publisher 1997.
The Jerusalem Report. (April 30, 2007).

Photo: Florence Synagogue Copyright © Jewish Italy