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Modern Jewish History: The Prehistory Of The Florentine Ghetto - Magistrato Supremo 4449 And 4450

In 1570-71, Grand Duke Cosimo I de'Medici created the first Ghetto in Florence. For many years, he had withstood heavy political and moral pressure from Pope Pius V and King Philip II of Spain to limit the freedom of his Jewish subjects. Cosimo's decision to ghettoize but not expel them was in fact a gesture of pragmatic liberalism.

The Jews in Tuscany numbered only 795, according to the official Jewish census of 1570 (in Magistrato Supremo 4450, pp.179-80.) Living in small scattered communities, they had long enjoyed cordial relations with the Medici family and the Medici state. Most of these Jews were directly or indirectly involved in banking and their financial network was essential to the Tuscan economy.

To resolve the Jewish question in an orderly manner, Cosimo I de'Medici turned to the Magistrato Supremo, a five-man executive council under direct granducal control. He authorized Carlo Pitti, his agent on this council, to prepare a full report on the Jews in Tuscany and then issue an official recommendation regarding their fate. Magistrato Supremo 4449 and 4450, two volumes of documents in the Florentine State Archive, chronicle this process with almost clinical precision.

Magistrato Supremo 4449 is titled DEI CAPITOLI D' EBREI ("The Charters of the Jews") and contains 245 pages of documents, mostly in Latin. The council's first task was to determine the current state of Jewish settlement and Jewish business activity in Tuscany, in order to determine the legal and practical ramifications of any eventual decision. In this volume, they assembled all the "charters" of commercial privileges granted to Jews since 1547, forming a detailed record of Jewish financial practice throughout the mid-sixteenth century. After the institution of the Florentine Ghetto in 1570-71, the council continued to file such charters for another thirty years, fully documenting the reorganization of Jewish businesses in the early Ghetto period.

Magistrato Supremo 4450 is titled PROCESSO CONTRA LI EBREI CHE NEL DOMINIO DI SUA ALTEZZA STAVANO ET HABITVANO DICONO CHE HOGI E STATO LORO PROHIBITO, 1570. ("Proceedings Against the Jews Who in the Past Stayed and Lived in His Highness's Dominion, Which Is Now Forbidden to Them, 1570.") These 270 pages of documents, largely in Italian, record another phase of the information-gathering process. Under Carlo Pitti's direction, the council sent agents throughout Tuscany to gather complaints against the Jews from their neighbors and Christian business associates. These complaints focus almost exclusively on the moral and practical implications of usury in Christian society, offering many insights into the evolution of state-sponsored anti-Semitisim in early modern Europe.

THE MEDICI ARCHIVE PROJECT is now preparing complete transcriptions of both Magistrato Supremo 4449 and 4450. These documents will be published in a definitive critical edition, including scholarly essays, English summaries and full indices.

Sources: The Medici Archive Project