1547: Jewish Villagers Massacred – in Italy

We do not know what set off this slaughter some 500 years after Jews first appeared in Asolo, but at least some of its perpetrators were brought to justice.

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A view of the hillside town of Asolo on a rather foggy day. The town was mentioned as Acelum in the works of Pliny, nearly 2000 years ago. In the year 1547. dozens of people rose up against the town's 37 Jews, murdering a number of them and robbing the rest.
The town of Asolo, today. Credit: Joshp, Wikimedia Commons

On November 22, 1547, the tiny Jewish community of Asolo, in northern Italy, was the victim of a devastating massacre, which left 10 of the 37 Jewish residents of the town dead, and another eight wounded.

The incident was a rare example of a murderous attack on Jews in Italy – in contrast to the history of Jews in most other European lands, who suffered from time immemorial from every kind of persecution -- and one whose spark remains obscure.

Asolo is a mountain town in the Treviso province, which was annexed to the Venetian Republic in 1339. The town is first mentioned in historical sources as early as 588 C.E., and the first time that Jews appear in a reference to Asolo is in 905.

Most of the Jews living in Asolo in the 16th century arrived there after being expelled from nearby Treviso. That town had been conquered by the armies of the League of Cambrai in 1509, and the Jews were suspected by the local population of assisting the invaders.

By 1547, Asolo had a Jewish population of 37, living in six residences in a tiny ghetto, and a Jewish cemetery. The home of Marco Coen, one of four Jewish pawnbrokers, also served as the local synagogue.

Dozens of attackers

According to the 1875 account of the atrocity written by Marco Osimo, those who attacked Asolo's Jews numbered 30, all from the region surrounding the town. Led by one Antonio Parisotto, they entered Asolo on November 22, during the day, armed with cudgels, axes, clubs, and knives.

By the time their assault was complete, 10 Jewish residents were dead, and another eight lay wounded.

Before they fled, the marauders ransacked their victims' homes. As a consequence, according to Osimo, those who survived were left destitute.
Some accounts say that the aforementioned Marco (or Mordecai) Coen was among the dead, while others say that he survived.

What they agree upon is that he was the forebear of the Cantarini family, which later went on to great distinction among Italian Jewry, mostly in Padua. The clan took on the name "Cantarini" after one member served as a synagogue cantor. Several other descendants of Marco Coen were both physicians and rabbis. They include Hayim Moses Cantarini (1660-1731), whose occupations also included poet.

In his 1558 history of Jewish suffering, “Emek Habacha” (Vale of Tears), historian Joseph Hakohen described what, at the time, were still the recent events in Asolo. According to him, the tiny Jewish population was “much hated,” because it “did not flatter the inhabitants of that place.”

Hakohen reports that the attackers numbered some 50 “miserable creatures,” who invaded the Jewish homes while their residents were eating, and killed 12 people. He also wrote that their assault also included the looting of their possessions.

According to his version, in the 1971 translation by Harry S. May, when the “city overseer” heard about crime, he ordered the arrest of the attackers, but they had already “defiantly escaped.” Later, four were captured, and sent to Treviso, “where they were dismembered as one cuts up a little goat,” while another seven were sent as punishment into service in the emperor’s fleet.

The 1547 was not the end of Asolo's Jewish community. Some of the survivors remained, though others did move to what they thought would be more secure venues.