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Virtual Jewish World: Livorno, Italy

Located on the westernmost edge of Tuscany, with its harbor opening onto the Ligurian Sea, the Italian city of Livorno - also known as Leghorn - was one of the main trading centers in Europe. Becoming a major port during the rule of the Medici family in the 16th century, Livorno received the status of a free port in 1675 and was an important connecting point between the Mediterranean, North Sea ports and the Near East. For hundreds of years, the Jewish community of Livorno was one of the city's most distinguished and distinctive and though the numbers have dwindled since World War II, there remains a deep Jewish culture within the city.

- History
- Jewish Traders
- Printing Press
- Religiou Life & Institutions
- Culture
- World War II-Present
- Tourist Sites


In the middle of the 16th century, when Livorno was a miserable, malaria-infested village, its rulers, the Medici family, decided to turn it into an important port and attract foreigners to settle. In 1548, Cosimo I issued an invitation to foreigners, including fugitive Marranos, to come to the new port. His project, however, met with little success.

Years later, in 1587, the Grand Duke invited merchants of all nations to come to settle in Livorno and Pisa. A further invitation was issued by Ferdinand I on June 10, 1593, offering asylum to all Levantines, Spanish, Portugese, Germans and Italians. The majority of Ferdinand's invitation articles were directed to the Jews who had lived as Christians in Spain and Portugal. The charter – referred to as "Livornina" – guaranteed full religious liberty, amnesty for crimes previously committed, the opportunity for "Marranos" to return to Judaism unmolested, a large exemption from taxation, and commercial freedom.

Jews and other nationalities were given many rights and privileges. Ferdinand I’s charter offered the Jews religious freedom, amnesty from previous crimes, full Tuscan citizenship and special courts with civil and criminal jurisdictions. Safe passage of goods and persons was guaranteed to all Jews who moved to Livorno. Jews could own houses, inherit property, carry arms at any hour, open shops in all parts of the city, have Christian servants and nursemaids, study at the university, work as doctors and did not have to wear the Jewish badge. Finally, unlike many other cities in Tuscany, Jews did not have to live in a ghetto.

These conditions proved attractive to Marranos and Levantines and the Jewish population grew from 114, in 1601 to 3,000 by 1689. Jews came to be the most important nation living in Livorno. Spanish and Portugese became the official language of Jewish merchants in Livorno and remained so until the late 18th century.

S.A. Hart, Festa della Legge [in Livorno's Antica Sinagoga], 1850

Jewish Traders

Jews were involved in a variety of industries, besides moneylending. One of the specialized industries was the coral industry; Jews exported products to Russia and India and used coral to make ritual objects. The soap, paper, sugar-refining and wine distillation industries were also run by Jews. In 1632, the Jews imported the first coffee into Italy and opened coffeehouses in Livorno. Besides manufacturing, Jews were also involved in the slave trade, providing ransom money for Christians imprisoned in North Africa and handling the return of ransomed Moors.

One well-known Jewish merchant, Maggino di Gabriele left Pisa to set up a textile and glass manufacturing industry in Livorno. Jewish merchants had contacts throughout the Mediterranean and many Jewish families sent relatives to Tripoli, Tunis and Smyrna. These trade networks existed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1765, more than one-third of Livorno’s 150 commercial houses were owned by Jews. The Jews’ fame and fortune were well-known throughout Europe and inspired an offer by Louis XIV, King of France, to resettle the whole community in Marseilles.

The sovereignty of Tuscany changed to the house of Lorraine in 1737, however, conditions for the Jews remained the same. Leopold I (1745-1790) offered more privileges to the Jews, including the right to representation on the Municipal Council. By the end of the 18th century, nearly 5,000 Jews lived in Livorno in an open quarter.

After Napoleon invaded Livorno in 1796, the situation deteriorated for the Jews. Many Jews supported the French occupation and paid for French military costs. Special privileges given to Jews over the past couple centuries were taken away. Livorno declined in importance when Tuscany was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1859 and met with stiff competition from other port cities. By the end of the 19th century the Jewish population had decreased to 2,500.

Printing Press

Livorno also became a center of Hebrew printing in Italy. Jedidiah Gabbai setup the first Hebrew press in 1659 and published a midrash on the Torah.

About 80 years later, Abraham ben Raphael Medola and his son opened another active Hebrew press. Between 1763 and 1870, sixteen other Hebrew printing presses were active in Livorno. The printing press of Soloman Belforte (established in 1838) was also significant. Livorno’s printing press supplied liturgical books throughout North Africa and to the other Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire until the outbreak of World War II.

From 1600 to 1899, almost 1,300 Hebrew books were printed in the typographies of Livorno, which was second in Italy only to Venice.

Religious Life and Institutions

Antica Sinagoga,1603 [destroyed]

Livorno served as a center for Jewish study and mysticism led by Rabbi Joseh ben Emanuel Ergas (1685-1732) and other Kabbalists. A special talmudic court opened and the elders of the community (Massari) presided over the cases. Because of the existence of the Talmud Torah school in Livorno, illiteracy among Jewish males was unknown from the 17th century on.

Livorno’s first synagogue was located in the room of one of the Jewish residents living in the Fortress of Livorno in the period before the patented letters sent by the Medici family in 1548. Another synagogue, documented in 1593, was located in the house of Maggino di Gabriele, a mediator between the Jews and the Medici grand dukes. This synagogue was used until 1607 when it was rgue located in between the Duomo and Royal Moat. The larger synagogue, constructed in the late 16th century, was enlarged and embellished numerous times until 1789. It was admired throughout Italy and was visited by grand Dukes of Tuscany and foreign leaders. In 1927, the synagogue housed Italy’s first Museum of Hebrew Art. Bombings during World War II damaged the synagogue was damaged by a bomb and the community decided to build a new synagogue after the war, rather than restore it.

One of the important Jewish scholars in Livorno was Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900). Benamozegh wrote in Italian, Hebrew and French and called upon Jews to take an active part in Italian life. He promoted dialogue between Jews and Christians. Benamozegh wrote analyses of the Kabbalah and the Zohar, as well as commentaries on the Psalms.


Distinct customs, dress and language were found among the Jews of Livorno. The dialect, Baggito, developed from Spanish, Hebrew and a Livornese dialect. Bagitto did not become a literary language. One famous Jewish writer from Livorno, Guido Bedarida (1900-1962), wrote in the Livornese dialect.

Due to the large number of immigrant communities in Livorno, a special type of cuisine developed. Many Jewish recipes are currently part of mainstream Livornese dishes, including a special doughnut, roschette, made with flour, water and olive oil.

World War II to the Present

Prior to World War II, Livorno’s Jewish population numbered approximately 2,235. It is estimated that 60 to 90 percent of Livorno was destroyed in World War II, since its port was subject to attack from both sides. Livorno’s famous synagogue was bombed by the Allies and partially destroyed during the war.

During the Holocaust, at least 119 Jews were sent to Auschwitz and other death camps from Livorno; only 11 survived. Others were killed in the surrounding mountains, where the German army was very active. At the end of the war, 1,000 Jews ld of the war, 1,000 Jews lived in Livorno.

Owing to emigration and rapid demographic decline, the Jewish population was reduced to about 600 out of a total of 170,000 inhabitants in 1965. In 1962, a new synagogue was dedicated, financed by the Italian state; it was erected in the same place as the old one but in modern style, thus symbolizing continuity and hope for the future. In 1967, following the Israeli Six-Day War , a few hundred Jews from Libya and other Arab countries arrived in Livorno, partly attracted by the presence of a number of Jews from Tripoli. The community had an elementary Hebrew school until 1983.

Currently, Livorno’s Jewish community numbers around 700, however very few are of Portuguese or Spanish descent. The community has a chief rabbi - Yair Didi, cantor, kindergarten and an elementary Hebrew school. Religious services are held regularly Livorno’s Jewish community also sponsors concerts, lectures, exhibits and conferences.

Tourist Sites

The Livorno Synagogue
Located on the site of the former synagogue, in the plaza named after Elijah Benamozegh, the synagogue opened in 1962 and became well known for its architecture. The synagogue houses the Jewish archives and the offices of various Jewish organizations.

Rabbinical College
The building of the former Rabbinical college and Istituto delle pie scuole israelitche, set up in 1825, can be found near the Livorno synagogue.

Jewish Museum/Marini Oratory
Immediately following the post-war period, this building, owned by the Marini family until 1867, was used as a synagogue. Currently it houses the Jewish community’s kindergarten and museum. The museum has an ark from the old synagogue, which was said to be brought to Livorno by refugees from the Iberian peninsula. The museum also has a roll of Lyon’s fabric embroidered by Livornese Jews and an 18th century Ketubah.

Jewish Cemeteries
There are three Jewish cemeteries in Livorno. The first Jews of Livorno buried their dead at the Milinacci beach. In 1648 Jews were given permission to use an open field near Via Pompilia, known as campaccio, for a cemetery. A second cemetery was opened in 1738 at Via Corallo. These two cemeteries were expropriated in 1939 and the gravestones were moved to the new cemetery in the Stagno area, which was opened in 1837. This third cemetery is still in use and contains plaques commemorating those who died in World War I and those who perished in the Holocaust.

City Archives in the Palazzo della Prefettura
The city archives contain a lot of information about the Jewish community of Livorno.

Piazza Attias
Named after the prominent Jewish family, this piazza is located on the area where the Attias mansion spanned. The Attias tomb is located in Livorno’s third Jewish cemetery. Located near the piazza is a gray building with green shutters, which contains a plaque commemorating Amedeo Modigliani, a famous 19th century Jewish, Livornese painter.

Monumento dei Quattro Morri
Located on the waterfront, this statue commemorates Ferdinand who invited Jewish refugees to Livorno in 1590.

Sources: Funke, Phyllis Ellen. "Livorno and Pisa." Hadassah Magazine - The Jewish Traveler.
Heller, Marvin J. "Hebrew printing in Livorno."
"The Jews and the Medici." Medici Archive Project.
"Leghorn." Encyclopedia Judaica. CD-ROM Edition. 1995
Tuscany Jewish Itineraries: Place, History and Art. Edited by Dora liscia Bemporad and Anna Marcela Tedeschi Falco.Marsilio Publisher 1997.
Zeldis, Leon. "Some Sephardic Jews in Freemasonry." Freemasonry in Israel.
Elin Schoen Brockman, "Livorno," Hadassah Magazine (June/July 2013).

Photo credits: Antica Synagogue photos Copyright © Jewish Italy, map Copyright © Traveleurope Italy, Modern synagogue interior and exterior Copyright © Jews and Synagogues. EdizioniStorti Venezia. 1999, photos of the city of Livorno Copyright © Associazione LinguaNova