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Una tesina in inglese

The decadence of Italy under spanish sominion and its reflection on the excluded minority of the jews

The stiffening of seventeenth-century Italian society into layers increasingly impermeable to any exchange can be observed through a phenomenon somehow marginal but nonetheless telling: the process of exclusion of those elements such as the Jews which did not appear liable to pure and simple assimilation.

During the Spanish dominion over Italy which can be roughly located between the peace of Cateau-Cambrsis (1559) and the peace of Utrecht (1713) several changes occurred by which Italy would emerge as a changed and unquestionably backward territory. As Cipolla has pointed out, still at the beginning of the seventeenth century Italy [] was one of the economically most developed areas of western Europe, with living standards exceptionally high for the time. At the end of that very century, however, [] Italy would become a backward and depressed area (my translation) (1) . Especially towards the end of the sixteenth century the whole of Italy and not just the territories under Spanish rule would start to experience deep economic unbalances and increasing social inequality exacerbated by a revival of feudal practices and norms. If on the one hand the latter can be considered as the origin of the process of moral decadence which would affect agricultural serfdom in particular and, more generally, the population of the countryside, where brigandage was on the increase on the other hand feudal practices and norms constituted a severe limitation and almost a challenge to absolutistic tendencies (2).
Where and when the Spanish rulers or the Italian princes (the dukes of Savoy and the grand-dukes of Tuscany in particular) were trying to achieve state structures similar to those of the great European monarchies, the implementation of such administrative constructions was hindered by the persistence of traditional forces which were able to impose at least at local level the recognition of their own privileges. The various oligarchies of the Italian states were thus able to strengthen themselves through the alliance, and often permeation, between traditional aristocracy and a new stratum of state administrators those patricians who had succeeded in dominating city councils and magistracies. These local bodies were, in one respect, the tools used by the ruler to impose his sovereignty, and in another the stronghold of power-fractioning the basis of a neo-feudalism through which the nobility would be able to exercise full domination over society.
Neo-feudalism, or re-feudalisation, does not command the analysis of such a phenomenon in terms of a mere restoration of ancient institutions only, as the process actually implied the establishment of a link to the detriment of the central authority between the economic and social power of the great landowners and their presence and influence in the newly-created or renewed administrative institutions. The consequence of this process would be extremely important: the central authoritys need of sufficient income in order to fund the increase and enlargement of political and administrative structures led all the states to that alienation of revenue and to that sale of appointments so detrimental to the life and survival of the state itself. Indeed, this gravely affected the public life of the small Italian principalities where the deeply-rooted citizen institutions were the core of local privilege. Therefore, the hegemony of the nobility in a period of deep economic decadence responsible for the loss of vitality of cities, which would become mere centres of administration and ground-rent consumption intensely disintegrated Italian society and ruled out any chance for renewal and regeneration (3).

After the destruction in the early 1490s of Spanish and Portuguese Judaism, both of which for centuries had constituted Judaisms strongest and most articulated cores being profoundly bound to the realities of their own countries and expressing an original culture of extremely high level the Italian Jewish communities remained the richest and most open to influences and relations with the outside world (4). The expulsion decree from the territories under the Catholic sovereigns (5) also resulted in the sweeping away of important Sicilian communities a process that, it has been suggested, amounted to the dislocation of around forty thousand people (6). As a consequence of the Spanish conquest, the same fate would soon be sealed for the communities of the Kingdom of Naples, which thus far had been a place of refuge, or at least a stopping place, for the important Apulian Jewish communities, for those on the Albanian coast, and for the centres in the Aegean Sea subject to Turkish dominion.
The majority of the Jews was forced to abandon the Kingdom between 1410 and 1514. Thereafter, the Levant became a great gathering point for the Jews of southern Italy as it had been before for the Spanish and Portuguese Jews and the marrani (7). Communities named Italy, Sicily, Apulia, Calabria, Otranto in Salonika; Sicily, Messina, Apulia and Calabria in Constantinople and Adrianople; the dialects and names of substantial Jewish Levantine groups of Italian origin attested in Corfu and Rhodes still existing four centuries after the expulsion all reveal the importance of this diaspora and the strength of the links with the countries of origin (8).
This series of expulsions should however be analysed in the light of Spanish intolerance that is, of the peculiar situation of that Kingdom rather than local conditions. The very spreading of messianic hopes and eschatological expectations among the Jewish-Italian communities at the beginning of the sixteenth century should be seen in the context of a renewed interest in the cabala in general which, it should be underlined, was also being experienced by contemporary Italian Humanism (9) and as a consequence of the dramatic Spanish events, as well as in relation to the belief that such devastating a persecution was only a prelude to a miraculous redemption. Some decades later, in the changed cultural and political climate in which Italian Judaism would find itself, mystical currents and messianic expectations would begin to take root also in this environment.
As for the rest of sixteenth-century Italy, the situation of the Jews was liable to change, although generally remaining essentially favourable of course if one does not take into account the complex problem of the marrani, the converted Jews suspected of giudaicisation and considered, in criminal law terms, as heretics. The situation of the Jews was particularly promising in the Papal States, especially under the Medici popes (10) , and in the small principalities of central Italy; in Tuscany, in the Duchies of Mantua and Ferrara, in the north eastern cities along the river Po, and in the Duchy of Milan (except for the capital, where the Jews were not allowed to take residence). In the Republic of Venice, the Jews found favourable conditions, while their position was more difficult in Genoa and in the Piedmont as the latter regions were, until the late 1550s, subject to the French 11).

For all the generally positive information about the relationship between the Jews and the Christian population and with the political powers, it would however be out of place to think of a possibility of integration for the Jews in Italian society. Even when relations were at their most intense, any attitude towards them appears to have always been tinged with a sense of extraneousness and differentiation a fact that can easily explain all sudden reversals and the precariousness of the Jews situation. Conversely, the very provisional nature of their situation resident permits were generally never definitive and, all the same, events in Spain, Sicily and Naples had demonstrated the ease with which centuries-old communities could be suddenly uprooted could not be without a consequence for the relationship between the two worlds. If the Jews, on the one hand, showed surprising adaptability to this chronic instability, on the other hand they developed a fundamental solidarity, which helped them to be circumscribed as well as to preserve customs and particular practices. Their position somehow matched a society in which old norms were current norms which considered as normal the presence of nations, as it happened in large trading and university centres, while corporations, which were responsible for the autonomous organisation of their existence and their associates activities, presented characteristics which were not too dissimilar from those of a universitas iudeorum. However, towards the middle of the sixteenth century as it has been pointed out above the formation of an aristocratic block increasingly identified with the ranks of administration changed the situation in Italy by generally eliminating any remainder of the old communal regulations within which the Jewish communities could have carved out some room for themselves. At the same time, the progressive transfer of mercantile capital towards landed investment, which damaged small and often indebted landowners, was jeopardising the Jews traditional field of action lending on usury.

The whole of the Jewish question can clearly not be reduced to a mere economic issue: indeed, during the second half of the sixteenth century the focus would shift to political institutions and to religion. On the one hand, the Jews appeared as that part of the population, however small, which tended to shun some obligations and prohibitions in the context of increasingly rigid state structures which were allowing exceptions, if any, in terms of privilege and to the superior strata of society only, and certainly not to communities often openly tolerated only because they served the purpose of demonstrating, through their own miseries, the truth of the Christian faith. On the other hand, the fight against heresy was delivering fatal blows to the beliefs, activities and behaviours of these minorities practising a different faith perceived as hostile. It should not be forgotten that the Jews main activity lending on usury was loudly condemned by the Church (12).
Therefore, in the second half of the sixteenth century, a new series of regulations was adopted by the various governments of the Italian peninsula so as to practically exclude the Jews from society. The examination of contemporary decrees and edicts explains how, especially where important and wealthy communities existed, the relations between the followers of the two faiths could be friendly as for example in the frequent case of Christians chairing Jewish banquets or holydays (13). However, in juridical terms, much evidence has been found which highlights the risks of such mingling: any familiarity and prolonged conversation with Jews was in fact prohibited, and society or partaking activities with Jews had to be of a very limited nature (14) . In order to fulfil these requirements, regulatory measures became increasingly severe, especially under the influence of extremely strict popes such as Paul IV and Pius V (15).
It is difficult to imagine what kind of result was hoped for by the condemnation of the Talmd (16). Julius IIIs 1553 bull imposed the destruction of the Talmd and prohibited indiscriminately its possession and reading. The bull explained the profanity of the Talmd in the light of its insulting comments on the origins of Christianity and on the very person of Christ. Undoubtedly, for clerics committed to the war against any kind of heterodoxy, there was plenty of scope for the finding and the unveiling of such scandals. It is a fact, however, that the destructive violence against the Talmd which was publicly burnt in Rome in 1553 and, successively, in other cities of the Italian peninsula where Jewish typographies and important rabbinical schools existed (17) - could contribute to the uprooting of Judaism from experiences of social life less remote than biblical experiences and able to give a sense of concreteness to the precarious and isolated Italian communities by means of a corpus of norms and lived customs. Thus, the Jews of the Duchy of Milan, when complaining to Phillip II about the seizure and destruction of the Talmd declared themselves ready to have some of its passages censored when reasons for impiousness would effectively be found, although they pleaded not to be deprived of the work, because for [the Jews] the Talmd [was] the equivalent of civil law books for Christians, thus the measure would be equivalent to depriving them from their civil law (my translation) (18) .

The process of persecution would inexorably find its way through a whole series of measures devised to remove the Jews from their towns of residence or to segregate them. When the Senate of Milan advised Philip II to promulgate a decree prohibiting the Jews to exercise lending on usury, it expressly declared that it hoped that the ban would drive the Jews to voluntarily leave the Duchy, thereby sparing the government from expulsion measures which would be difficult to carry out, especially because of the complicated network of interests that had and for such a long time been linking the Jews residing in the Duchy (but outside the city of Milan) to the activity both of private citizens and of the public administration (19). The expulsion of the Jews from Spanish Lombardy would finally be achieved in 1597, although seven years would have to pass between the decree and its execution, for the very reason that those above-mentioned links would be so difficult to severe, even though other oppressive measures had already excluded the Jews from numerous activities. As it has been already pointed out above, the decree should not be seen only in connection to Spanish, thus religious, intolerance: on the contrary, it was the very economic and social issue that prompted the expulsion, as Segre has explained by looking at the example of the city of Cremona: there, the city council where merchants of noble extraction exercised hegemonic powers spared no expense in order to win and achieve the expulsions (my translation) (20). The quick decadence of Cremona which, from the crossroads of Lombardys commercial flows would become a lazy centre of provincial nobility is most clear during the years following the expulsions, although it is difficult to establish an exact relationship between the driving away of the Jews and the transformation of Lombard society at large.
In the last century of Spanish dominion, the confinement of the Jews in ghettos became compulsory. In areas such as those ruled by the Dukes of Gonzaga or the Venetian dominions, the existence of Jewish communities continued as before. But, although they were often threatened by very serious forms of civil oppression, dramatic persecutions were never an occurrence, thereby demonstrating that a more general phenomenon of decadence was wide-ranging and involving the whole of the Italian peninsula. Moreover, the vicissitudes of the Jews should be seen as a reflection of a more general socio-economic situation. Expulsion tout-court would occur only in minor centres of the Papal States and of the Grand-Duchy of Tuscany although in 1571, after the victory at Lepanto, Venice issued a decree of expulsion for all the Jews, which remained virtually dead letter thanks to the intervention of the Turks in their favour (21) . However, the imposition of a distinguishing mark not so as to render the Jews more recognisable, as they were already distinguishable by other characteristics in terms of clothing and appearance, than to underline their inferior condition, which would also serve the purpose of preventing any society with them and their confinement within ghettos allowed a rigid separation from these groups perceived as ethnically as well as religiously different.

During the two-and-a-half centuries of Spanish dominion in Italy the quantitative increase in the nobility, the ability of this stratum to diffuse and spread its rule down to the last thread of the social fabric and at the same time the halting of the development of all those forces and element that could have countered feudalism, are all factors which enabled the slowing down and even the prevention of the establishment of an absolutist system. The Jewish presence on the Italian peninsula which had been, throughout most of the fifteenth century, widespread and relatively free was, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reduced to the two major communities of Rome and Ancona in the Papal States, to Florence and Pisa in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (22), and to the myriad of minor centres of the plane along the Po river in the north east especially between Mantua, Modena and Ferrara, with some bigger communities in the above-mentioned major cities and in Venice, Padua and Verona as well as in the major towns of the Duchy of Savoy and the Monferrato. The segregation into ghettos would by then be always strictly imposed, with its corollary of degrading conditions as illustrated later by enlightened and liberal critics who in those ignominious exclusions saw an essential component of a more general and widespread process of Italian decadence (23) .


(1) C. M. Cipolla, Il Declino Economico dellItalia, in Storia dellEconomia Italiana. Saggi di Storia Economica, vol.I, Edizioni Scientifiche Einaudi, Turin, 1959-, p.605.
(2) Such as those which the Spanish rulers wanted to impose on their Italian dominions.
(3) Here Villaris the recount of the Kingdom of Naples in the late sixteenth century is relevant and exemplary for the rest of contemporary Italy: aristocratic dominion consolidated and expanded itself, and the new [administrative] cores to the extent to which they were unable to integrate into feudal structures were either marginalized or eliminated. The crisis was not only apparent as an increase in the shifting of capitals and enterprises from manufacturing and commerce to agriculture or as situations of privileged lives on private incomes, but also as a century-long stagnation involving human, economic and political dimensions; as a triumph of a social mechanism which excluded the formation and rise of forces tendentially independent from feudal structures (my translation). R. Villari, The Revolt of Naples, Polity Press, Cambridge Mass., 1993, p.5.
(4) I. E. Barzilay, Between Reason and Faith. Antirationalism in Italian Jewish Thought (1250-1650), Mouton, Paris and The Hague, 1967, p.5. For a general overview of the above-mentioned issues see A. Milano, Storia degli Ebrei in Italia, Turin, 1963.
(5) In 1479 Isabel of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon inaugurated a personal unification of their kingdoms, both of which retained their own individual political order. In 1481 following a strengthening of the relationship between the Spanish sovereigns and the papacy the Inquisition movement regained its momentum in Spain, which became the land of Catholic fanaticism par excellence. After the conquest of Grenada in 1492, Jews and Moriscos were expelled from Spain: this implied expulsion from all Spanish dominions, including the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily.
(6) Atlante Storico Garzanti, Garzanti, Milan, 1994, p.193.
(7) Marrano is an interesting Italian and Spanish word signifying Christian convert, be it a convert from Judaism or from Islam. As opposed to the word convert, which has a positive connotation, marrano has a negative connotation, because it conceives conversion as a betrayal of ones religion for so-to-say practical reasons, rather than as a committed and true adoption of the Christian faith.
(8) See A. Milano, Storia degli Ebrei Italiani nel Levante, Florence, 1949. The vast majority of these communities, which have continued their development to date, was exterminated during the Nazi occupation in Greece and the Aegean Sea.
(9) Especially in the critical literature linked to the interpretation of the Council of Trent, which, in the mid-sixteenth century, marked the beginning of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Italy and in Catholic kingdoms such as Spain and France. More specifically, and less in the mainstream of Italian culture, the Zohr was and has been, to date considered as a holy book by Jewish mystics as well as by non-Jewish thinkers: in the context of this paper I am referring to the Christian cabbalists of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries in particular. Considered as the greatest Jewish mystical work (probably written at the end of the fourteenth century in Spain), the Zohr develops cabbalistic doctrines on God, its names, on cosmology, on the mystics of numbers and of alphabetical letters.
(10) See L. Poliakov, Jewish Bankers and the Holy See from the Thirteenth to the Seventeenth Century, Routledge & K. Paul, London and Boston, 1977.
(11) One has to take into consideration that during the second half of the sixteenth century France as many other European and Catholic states underwent a dramatic period of religious conflict. Although the latter was focused on the repression, by the monarchy, of the Huguenots (French Protestants), it is evident that all other non-Catholic minorities would undergo the same level of scrutiny and persecution.
(12) For example, Segre has observed that in 1566, a Milanese senator condemned lending on usury a crime against natural and divine rights, a crime that no Catholic prince would have the power to tolerate on his territory, if not in exceptional cases which would have to be recognised as such with a special repeal personally promulgated by the pope (my translation). R. Segre, Gli Ebrei Lombardi in Eta Spagnola. Storia di unEspulsione, Accademia delle Scienze, Turin, 1973, p.43
(13) ibid., p.60.
(14) See, as a general guide, C. Roth, The Jews in the Renaissance, Harper & Row, New York, 1959.
(15) In 1542 the Inquisition was reintroduced in Italy. Pope Paul IV, elected in 1555, became the first pope pursuing an active reforming policy a policy formally established by the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The latter included internal bureaucratic and political as well as external the repression of all non-Catholic religious groups reform of the Catholic Church. In 1566 Pius VI succeeded Paul IV and continued the process of reform initiated by his predecessor.
(16) The monumental work compiled between the third and the sixth century to gather the whole of the Jewish tradition in the fields of religion, philosophy, law and general folklore (popular wisdom, legends etc.).
(17) As, for example happened in Cremona. R. Segre, op. cit., pp.33-35
(18) R. Segre, op. cit., p.34. Barzilay indicates a direct correlation between the deterioration of the situation of the Jews in Italy tragically illustrated by the stake of marrani commanded by pope Paul IV in Ancona in 1556, and by the increase in persecutory enforcements and the development of mystical and messianic currents, as well as between the burning of the Talmd and the printing of the Zohr. I. E. Barzilay, op. cit., pp.64-65
(19) ibid., p.44
(20) ibid., p.127
(21) As Roth has explained, it seems plausible that among the terms of the peace imposed by the Turks in 1573 there was the readmission of the Jews in Venice. C. Roth, C. Roth, The House of Nasi: The Duke of Naxos, Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1948, pp.150-160.
(22) The Tuscan city of Livorno would host an important community only after its becoming a free port in the late 1590s.
(23) See, for example, C. Cattaneos Ricerche Economiche sulle Interdizioni Imposte dalla Legge Civile agli Israeliti (1836), in Edoardo Albinati (ed.), C. Cattaneo. Interdizioni Israelitiche, Fazi, Roma, 1995, p.51


E. Albinati (ed.) C. Cattaneo. Interdizioni Israelitiche
Fazi, Roma, 1995

I. E. Barzilay, Between Reason and Faith. Antirationalism in Italian Jewish Thought (1250-1650) Mouton, Paris and The Hague, 1967

C. M. Cipolla (ed.) Storia dellEconomia Italiana. Saggi di Storia Economica
vol.I, Edizioni Scientifiche Einaudi, Turin, 1959-

A. Milano Storia degli Ebrei in Italia
Turin, 1963

A. Milano Storia degli Ebrei Italiani nel Levante
Florence, 1949

L. Poliakov Jewish Bankers and the Holy See from the Thirteenth to the Seventeenth Century Routledge & K. Paul, London and Boston, 1977

C. Roth The Jews in the Renaissance
Harper & Row, New York, 1959

C. Roth The House of Nasi: The Duke of Naxos
Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1948

C. Roth The History of the Jews in Italy
Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1946

B. Segre Gli Ebrei in Italia
Fenice, Milan, 2000

R. Segre Gli Ebrei Lombardi in Eta Spagnola. Storia di unEspulsione
Accademia delle Scienze, Turin, 1973

R. Villari The Revolt of Naples
Polity Press, Cambridge Mass., 1993