Beginning on this day, July 31, 1571, the Jews of Tuscany were restricted to residing within a ghetto, and were to stay there for 277 years. Their confinement persisted until the abolishment of the ghetto in 1848.
The history of the Jewish community of Florence, today the capital city of Tuscany, goes back to the end of the 14th century, when Jewish bankers from the south of Italy were first given permission to settle in the city. By 1428, a group of Jewish financiers had met there and organized a loan to Pope Martin V, in return for a promise of protection. Nine years later marked the official founding of the city’s Jewish community, with the establishment of several Jewish banks.
As was the case in most of Christian Europe, the conditions of Florence’s Jews oscillated, depending on external political conditions, and the particular needs of the ruler in whose hands their fate lay. In the case of the Republic of Florence, the Medici family ruled for most of the time from the 15th century through the early decades of the 18th century, with a wide variety of different attitudes toward the Jews.
Cosimo I de’ Medici, founder of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, ruled from 1537 to 1569. At the advice of Jacob Abravanel, son of the financier Samuel Abravanel – a refugee from Portugal who resettled in Ferrara – Cosimo agreed to allow a number of Spanish and Portuguese Jews to make their homes in Florence. At the same time, more Italian Jews from the papal states began to gravitate to Florence, in response to growing restrictions.
Yet, once Cosimo had consolidated his power – specifically, once Pope Pius V named him grand duke, in 1569 – he instituted increasingly harsh restrictions on his city’s Jews.
Already in 1567, Jews were ordered to wear a uniform mark on their clothes to make them distinguishable – for men it was a yellow circle; for women, a yellow sleeve or cuff on their right arm.
By 1571, as the edict of ghettoization explained, there was still an “abominable confusion” that supposedly caused Christians to unintentionally fraternize with Jews. To rectify that, the segno (sign) worn by Jewish men was made more explicit – now they were required to wear a yellow cap or beret. Women were to continue with the yellow sleeve, but, more significantly, they were restricted to a ghetto.
Jewish banks were shut down, and Jews could not trade in wool, silk or precious objects. Yet in practice, distinctions were made between Italian Jews and those who came from Iberia or the Levant: In some cases, they were even permitted to reside outside the ghetto.
Still, by the beginning of the 18th century, the ghetto had some 1,000 residents.
Relative to other ghettos, conditions were good in Florence. The Jewish residents had a reasonable amount of autonomy. Their rabbinical courts had authority over almost all aspects of life, with the only outside court having jurisdiction in the ghetto being the Supreme Court of the Republic. Two synagogues were built – an Italian one, in 1571, and, a little later in the century, a Spanish-Levantine one.
Italy’s Jews were emancipated in 1799 and, in 1848, given equal rights under the Italian constitution, at which point the ghetto was formally abolished. In the 1860s, as the center of Florence underwent redevelopment, the ghetto was razed and the Piazza della Repubblica established in its place.
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