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Modern Jewish History: The Jews and the Medici

The fate of Tuscan Jewry in the early modern period was inextricably linked to the favor and the fortune of the House of Medici. Though a Jewish presence was registered in Lucca as early as the ninth century and a network of Jewish banks had spread throughout the region by the mid-fifteenth, the organized Jewish communities of Florence, Siena, Pisa and Livorno were political creations of the Medici rulers. And like the Medici Grand Dukedom itself, these communities took shape in the course of the sixteenth century.

In the 1490s, under the Catholic theocracy of Fra Girolamo Savonarola, both the Medici and the Jews were expelled from Florentine territory. When the Medici returned to power in 1512, the Jewish ban fell into abeyance, until the next expulsion of the Medici in 1527. In 1537 Cosimo de'Medici seized definitive control of the Florentine government and reorganized it as a princely state--the Dukedom (later Grand Dukedom) of Tuscany. This state flourished for two hundred years, under seven successive Medici rulers: Cosimo I, 1537-1574; Francesco I, 1574-1587; Ferdinando I, 1587-1609; Cosimo II, 1609-1621; Ferdinando II, 1621-1670; Cosimo III, 1670-1723; Gian Gastone, 1723-1737.

As a sovereign prince, Cosimo I was free to dictate new terms of Jewish resettlement according to his own best interests and those of his regime. Coming from a merchant family himself, Cosimo I recognized the vast potential of Jewish capital and Jewish entrepreneurship, dispersed by the Iberian expulsion of the 1490s. By the mid-1540s, less than ten years after he gained the throne, Cosimo I began recruiting affluent Spanish and Portuguese Jews for resettlement in his capital city of Florence and his chief port city of Pisa. At the same time, many displaced Italian Jews who were neither bankers nor wealthy merchants came to Tuscany as well, particularly after the final expulsion of the Neapolitan community in 1540 and the creation of ghettos in the Papal cities of Rome and Ancona in 1555.

Cosimo I's liberalism was limited in scope and pragmatic in principle. During the lifetime of his wife Eleonora di Toledo (married 1539, died 1562), it was probably also influenced by her strong relationship with Benvegnita Abravanel, whom the Duchess had known in Naples before her marriage and whose family eventually settled in Tuscany. In the first decades of Cosimo's rule, Jews thrived particularly in Pisa, where there developed an influential Jewish banking elite. This entrepreneurial class also produced famous rabbinical scholars, including Vitale (Yehiel) Nissim da Pisa, and his son Simone, who graduated as a Doctor of Medicine from the University of Pisa in 1554. There were also scattered settlements of Jewish men and women throughout Tuscany who enrolled in artisan guilds, owned houses and orchards, produced wool and other marketable goods and led generally stable lives.

After actively courting the Jews in the 1540's and 1550's and granting them many privileges, Cosimo I began retrenching in the late 1560's and 1570's as political relations with Spain and the Papal State became paramount. In 1567 he reimposed badges of identification for Jews, in 1570 shut the Jewish banks, and in 1570-71 restricted legal Jewish settlement to two new ghettos in Florence and Siena.

In practice, Medici rule was characterized by a shifting balance of privileges and concessions, and for Jews in Tuscany the door was never as open nor as closed as it might seem. For example, some returned to live in Pisa only a few years after their expulsion and a Jewish community was permitted, even encouraged, to thrive in that great "special case"--the city of Livorno. In 1591 and 1593, less than a quarter century after Cosimo I ghettoized his Jewish subjects, his son Ferdinando I invited Jewish merchants to to settle in Livorno, granting them free residence, unlimited access to trade and extensive self-government in this new Medicean free-port on the Mediterranean.

The Livorno experiment was a triumph of enlightened self-interest for both the Jews and the Medici. Indeed, this thriving commercial hub became so essential to the Tuscan economy that even Cosimo III (1671-1723), the most bigoted of the Medici Grand Dukes, had little choice but to respect Jewish rights there. Vast fortunes were made by an Iberian merchant aristocracy that gave Livorno Jewry its particular culture and character. However, the Livorno community also included "levantini" from Turkey and North Africa, "ashkenaziti" from Northern Europe and Italian Jews of various origins.

In addition to banking and trade, especially with the East, the Jews of Livorno developed diverse manufacturing enterprises. In the late sixteenth century, Maggino di Gabriele moved his glass and silk factories there from Pisa, in order to take advantage of the new freedoms. The Jews of Livorno established a monopoly on the Italian production of coral, which they frequently used to ornament their own liturgical objects. In 1632, they imported the first coffee into Italy and then opened the first coffee-houses. In 1650, Jedidiah Gabbai founded a Hebrew press in Livorno, giving rise to a major Jewish printing industry that supplied the Sephardic communities of North Africa and the Near East.

Livorno was a major center of Jewish commerce, second in Europe only to Amsterdam. It was also a leading center of Jewish study and mysticism, particularly under the influence of Rabbi Joseph ben Emanuel Ergas (1685-1732) and other proponents of the Kaballah. Indeed, business, religion, medicine and science could be complementary enterprises. The medical doctor Mose Cordovero was among the pioneers of banking in Livorno around the year 1600. Elia Montalto di Luna, in the early seventeenth century, practiced medicine at the Medici Court while writing treatises on ophthalmology, astronomy and comparative religion.

These fleeting references to people, places and events provide only a glimpse of the extraordinary richness of Jewish history and culture during the two centuries of Medici rule (1537-1743.) Although much historical research has already been done, scholars have only begun to mine the vast resources of the Florentine State Archive. Every day THE MEDICI ARCHIVE PROJECT is making exciting discoveries regarding Jewish affairs, not only in Tuscany but throughout Europe and the Mediterranean world--discoveries that continually reshape our understanding of the past and lead the way to future scholarship.

Sources: The Medici Archive Project;
Siegmund, Stefanie.  The Medici State and the Jews: The Construction of an Early Modern Jewish Community. Stanford University Press, 2006.