00.02.18, Urbani and Zazzu, eds., The Jews in Genoa: Volume One, 507-1681

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Giacomo Todeschini

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.018


Urbani, Rossana and Guido Nathan Zazzu, eds.. The Jews in Genoa: Volume One, 507-1681. Studia Post-Biblica, Volume 48, 4. David Katz, General Editor.. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. clxxxix, 486. ISBN: 9-004-11325-8.

Reviewed by:
Giacomo Todeschini
University of Trieste

The book is the fourth volume of the "Documentary History of the Jews in Italy" edited by Shlomo Simonsohn for the Diaspora Research Institute of Tel Aviv University. Like the other volumes of the series, this one also consists of an introduction, a bibliography and a selection of documents, often reduced to brief regesta. The reader will immediately note the disproportion between the small number of documents regarding the medieval period (items 1-196, from the sixth to the beginning of the sixteenth century) and the abundance of papers on the modern era (items 197-957, from 1500 until 1681). Likewise, we can note that the documents of the medieval period are mostly incidental, scarcely connected, difficult to read as textual moments of a well organized history of the Jews in Genoa during the Middle Ages. The most relevant proof of the accidental nature of this medieval documentation is the absence of any example of "condotta" or similar pact allowing Jewish family groups to settle in Genoa and declaring their economic, civic and religious rights, such as in other Italian instances like those illustrated by Ariel Toaff for the Jewish settlements in the Umbrian region between fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (Diaspora Research Institute, Leiden, Brill, 1993-1995). In Genoa, we only find some examples of safe-conducts for single Jews, allowing them to stay in Genoa a few months (document 69), to conclude their money matters, or indirect testimonies of their presence in isolated commercial transactions. Only in the case of the immigration of Sephardi Jews from Spain, in the years after 1478, and in coincidence with the anti-Jewish preaching of the famous Franciscan Friars Angelo da Chivasso and Bernardino da Feltre (for the founding of the Monte di Pieta in Genoa), can we find in the documentation a first clear signal of the attitude of the city government. This attitude culminates in the decrees of expulsion of the Jews, "even those converted", on 29 January and 25 February 1493 (documents 146-153). Before these years, the documents seem to contain only ambiguous statements, such as the reply of the Genoese government to Pope Pius II, on 18 January 1460, on the absence of Jews in Genoa ("E non si possono tassare le comunita di forestieri e in particolare quella de li Zudei molto menore, perche zudei non habitano qui", document 87), obviously intended to avoid the papal exaction in view of the Crusade against the Turks, but not substantiating the presence or the absence of a Jewish community in the city, with its self-legislation, religious and cultural life.

In view of this scant evidence of an organized Jewish presence in medieval Genoa, the reader is astonished by the categorical claims of Urbani and Zazzu on "the absence of any anti-Jewish controversy" in Genoa between thirteenth and fourteenth century. This was a century, Urbani and Zazzu say, "which saw the rest of the Christian world actively working against the Jews as part of a precise plan to exclude them from the social context" (p. xxiii). The thesis of Urbani and Zazzu clearly is that Genoese "traditional economic pragmatism" (p. xxviii) prevailed over religious or ethnic prejudice, and that the Jews in Genoa, until the end of the fifteenth century, "were treated as people with whom commercial relations could be maintained" (p. xxiii). On the other hand, Urbani and Zazzu attempt to explain the growth of anti-Jewish intolerance after 1480, and especially after 1492, as the accidental and unexpected consequence of the arrival in Genoa of the Sephardi exiles, of the fear for the plague that they were supposed to cause, and, finally, of the preaching of the Franciscans Angelo da Chivasso and Bernardino da Feltre (pp. xxxii ff., xl ff.) on the founding of the Monte di Pieta and the expulsion of the Jews. So, even though in Genoa "anti-Jewish propaganda aimed at accusing the Jews of usury had had no effect" and though "there had never been any signs of popular fanaticism before", in 1493 the Genoese Senate decided that all the Jews and especially the exiles should be forced to "andar fuori de lo distrecto de Zenoa" and that they were "portati fora da questo nostro paese in alchuno altro loco...piu remoto da commercio de gente quanto sia possibile" (documents 146 and 149). As in other historical interpretations of the second half of the fifteenth century as a crucial turning-point in Jewish history, Urbani and Zazzu's Genoese Jewish history also seems to reflect a misunderstanding of the depth and complexity of relations between Christians and Jews in Italy, and appears as an over-interpretation of the edited documents. On the other hand, here as in the other volumes of the "Documentary History of the Jews in Italy", the documents included are exclusively official and/or authorized by public notaries, that is by Christian officials. There is an unfounded assumption, so typical in Italian historiography about the Italian Jews, that, in the absence of local documents clearly describing Christian intolerance and explicit Church offensives against the Jews, the pronouncements of ecclesiastical politics and Christian doctrine, from the fourth Lateran Council to the preaching of the Observant Friars in the whole Peninsula, did not influence the religious, economic and civic choices of the Italian city governments. This assumption has traditionally led scholars to overlook the doctrinal and juridical relations between Italian Christians and Italian Jews. Likewise an historiographical glance which concentrates on the tolerance / intolerance problem, can hardly observe the specific cultural identity of a minority. In any case, and in the case of Urbani and Zazzu too, the fortuitousness of the medieval documentation cannot be indicative of inter-ethnic relations but, probably, speaks for the lack of more careful investigations on the legal dynamics and on the theological, economic and political reasons which at the end of the Middle Ages made the Italian Jews a separate population, not to deport, but to close in ghettos.

The desire to affirm the methodological coherence of an interpretation emphasizing the integration of the Jews in a Christian context, in the absence of reliable testimonies of intolerance against them but of their cultural identity too, induces the authors to other analogous contradictions when they come to explain Jewish Genoese history between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, it is hard to see the logical connection between description of the quiet lives of the Abendavid and the Hacohen families, their supposed friendly relations with their Christian neighbours (p. lxi ff.) in the years 1540-48 (documents 250 ff.), and the reality of the new expulsions of Jews (including the Hacohen family) from Genoa in 1550, proposed by the Dominican Friar Bonifazio da Casale (documents 294 ff.). The "increasing number of expulsions and the obligation to wear the yellow badge ordered by the Republic of Genoa from 1550 to 1598" (p. lxvi), well documented by the sources, can appear an event totally conditioned by exterior and foreign powers ("enforced by the most rigid and intolerant Popes of the Reform", ibidem), only when the historian on the basis of the silence of the Christian civic sources regarding daily religious, juridical, political relations between the two communities wholly accepts the stereotype of a Jewish local presence tacitly tolerated by the Christian local majority. From this point of view "the first official admission of Jews in Genoa", supported by the "Capitoli di tolleranza per la nazione ebrea" promulgated in 1658 by the Genoese government on request and guaranteed by the Banco di San Giorgio (p. lxxvii ff.; documents 591-622), according to the authors, establishes a sort of coincidence between a sort of readmission of the Jews in the city for reasons of economic utility and the creation of the ghetto. Overlooking non Christian and unofficial civil documents hinders the reading of "Capitoli di tolleranza" as proof not only of a general economic functionality of the Jews in Christian Genoa, but above all as the textual evidence of the intimate contradiction of Christian civic culture compared to a community, the Jewish one, which the majority power, for ancient reasons not investigated by Urbani and Zazzu, can neither accept nor totally proscribe.

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Giacomo Todeschini

University of Trieste