The world inhabited by Jewish preachers and their congregations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a fundamentally different one from that of their immediate predecessors of the medieval and Renaissance periods. A new oppressive policy instituted by Pope Paul IV and his successors in the middle of the sixteenth century caused a marked deterioration in the legal status and physical state of the Jewish communities of the papal states and in the rest of Italy as well. Jews living in the various city-states of Italy suddenly faced a major offensive against their community and its religious heritage, culminating in the public incineration of the Talmud in 1553 and in restrictive legislation leading to increased impoverishment, ghettoization, and even expulsion. Jews previously had been expelled from the areas under the jurisdiction of Naples in 1541. In 1569, they were removed from most of the papal states, with the exception of the cities of Ancona and Rome. Those who sought refuge in Tuscany, Venice, or Milan faced oppressive conditions as well. The only relatively tolerable havens were in the territories controlled by the Gonzaga of Mantua and the Estensi of Ferrara.
The situation was further aggravated by increasing conversionary pressures, including compulsory appearances at Christian preaching in synagogues and the establishment of transition houses for new converts which were designed to facilitate large-scale conversion to Christianity. Whether motivated primarily by the need to fortify Catholic hegemony against all dissidence, Christian and non-Christian alike, or by a renewed zeal for immediate and mass conversion, spurred in part by apocalyptic frenzy, the papacy acted resolutely to undermine the status of these small Jewish communities in the heart of western Christendom.
These measures stood in contrast to the relatively benign treatment of Jews by the Church and by secular authorities in Italy throughout previous centuries. Jewish loan bankers had initially been attracted to northern and central Italy because of the generous privileges offered them by local governments eager to attract adequate sources of credit for local businesses and, in particular, for small loans to the poor. As a result of the granting of such privileges to individual Jews in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, miniscule Jewish communities grew up throughout the region, consisting of Jews who had migrated from the southern regions of Italy and of other immigants from Provence, from Germany and eventually from Spain. The backbone of these communities was the entrenchment of successful loan bankers who had negotiated legal charters (condotte) for themselves and those dependent upon them, and who also carried the primary burden of paying taxes to the authorities. By the sixteenth century, Jewish merchants and artisans joined these communities, until eventually the moneylenders were no longer in the majority.
In the relatively tolerant conditions of Jewish political and economic life until the mid-sixteenth century, the cultural habits and intellectual tastes of some Italian Jews were stimulated by their proximity to centers of Italian Renaissance culture. A limited but conspicuous number of Jewish intellectuals established close liaisons with their Christian counterparts to a degree unparalleled in earlier centuries. The most significant example of such Jewish-Christian encounter in the Renaissance took place outside of Florence in the home of the Neoplatonic philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Out of a mutually stimulating interaction between Pico and his Jewish associates and a prolonged study of Jewish books emerged one of the most unusual and exotic currents in the intellectual history of the Renaissance, the Christian kabbalah. In an unprecedented manner a select but influential group of Christian scholars actively sought to understand the Jewish religion and its sacred texts in order to penetrate their own spiritual roots more deeply. Such a major reevaluation of contemporary Jewish culture by Christians would leave a noticeable mark on both Christian and Jewish self-understanding in this and later periods.
The new cultural intimacy of intellectuals from communities of both faiths could not, however, dissipate the recurrent animosities between Jews and Christians even in the heyday of the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century, Franciscan preachers such as Bernardino da Siena and Antonino da Firenze openly attacked the Jewish loan bankers and their supposedly cancerous effect upon the local populace. Others, like Bernardino da Feltre, launched the drive to establish monti di pietà, public free-lending associations with the avowed purpose of eliminating Jewish usury in Italy altogether. Such campaigns often led to painful consequences for Jewish victims: riots, physical harassment, even loss of life, as in the case of Bernardino’s most notorious incitement, his charge of Jewish ritual murder in the city of Trent in 1475. If there was a shelter from such disasters, it was the fragmented political nature of the Italian city-states along with the highly diffused and sparsely populated Jewish settlements throughout the region. Aggressive acts against Jews were usually localized and relatively circumscribed; the Jewish victims of persecution often found refuge in neighboring communities and even found ways to return to their original neighborhoods when the hostilities had subsided.
By the middle of the sixteenth century, the new legislative measures affecting the conditions of Jewish life on Italian soil effectively altered this social and cultural climate to which Jews had grown accustomed. The most conspicuous transformation was the erection of the ghettos themselves, those compulsory Jewish quarters in which all Jews were required to live and in which no Christians were allowed to live. The word was probably first used to describe an area in Venice, supposedly because it had once been the site of a foundry (getto-casting), selected as early as 1515 as the compulsory residential quarter for Jews. With the passage of Pope Paul IV’s infamous bill Cum nimis absurdum in 1555, the ghetto of Rome came into being, and similar quarters gradually spread to most Italian cities throughout the next century.
The notion of the ghetto fit well into the overall policy of the new Counter-Reformation papacy. Through enclosure and segregation, the Catholic community would now be shielded from Jewish “contamination.” Since Jews could more easily be identified and controlled within a restricted neighborhood, the mass conversionary program of the papacy could prove to be more effective, and the canon law could be more rigidly applied. The conversionary sermons to which Friar Martin had listened were an obvious manifestation of this new reality of concentrating larger numbers of Jews in cramped and restricted neighborhoods and of constantly harassing them materially and spiritually. Another was the severe economic pressure placed upon many Jewish petty merchants and artisans obliging them to compete fiercely for the diminished revenue available to them within their newly restrictive neighborhoods. Jewish loan banking activities also collapsed, with capital more readily available to Christians from other sources. While pockets of Jewish wealth and power were surely entrenched in ghetto society, a newly emerging class of impoverished Jews was conspicuously present, and a growing polarization of rich and poor became an inevitable consequence of the crowded, urbanized, and intense social settings of the new Jewish settlements.
Yet the ghetto also constituted a kind of paradox in redefining the political, economic, and social status of Jews within Christian society. No doubt Jews confined to a heavily congested area surrounded by a wall shutting them off from the rest of the city, except for entrances bolted at night, were subjected to considerably more misery, impoverishment, and humiliation than before. And clearly the result of ghettoization was the erosion of ongoing liaisons between the two communities, including intellectual ones. Nevertheless, as Benjamin Ravid has pointed out in describing the Venetian ghetto, “the establishment of ghettos did not…lead to the breaking of Jewish contacts with the outside world on all levels from the highest to the lowest, to the consternation of church and state alike.” Moreover, the ghetto provided Jews with a clearly defined place within Christian society. In other words, despite the obvious negative implications of ghetto sequestrations, there was a positive side: the Jews were provided a natural residence within the economy of Christian space. The difference between being expelled and being ghettoized is the difference between having no right to live in Christian society and that of becoming an organic part of that society. In this sense, the ghetto, with all its negative connotations, could also connote a change for the better, an official acknowledgment by Christian society that Jews did belong in some way to their extended community.
The notion of paradox is critical to Robert Bonfil’s understanding of the ghetto experience in his recent writing on the subject. For him, paradox, the mediating element between two opposites, represents a distinct characteristic of transitional periods in history, “a part of the structural transformation instrumental in inverting the medieval world and in creating modern views.” Most paradoxical of all is Bonfil’s contention that the kabbalah, an object of Christian fascination in the Renaissance, became in this later period the most effective mediator between Jewish medievalism and modernity. It became “an anchor in the stormy seas aroused by the collapse of medieval systems of thought” and, simultaneously, “an agent of modernity.” In “conquering” the public sermon, in encouraging revisions in Jewish liturgy, in proposing alternative times and places for Jewish prayer and study, and in stimulating the proliferation of pious confraternities and their extra-synagogal activities, the kabbalah deeply affected the way Italian Jews related to both the religious and secular spheres of their lives. In fact, the growing demarcation of the two spheres, a clear mark of the modern era, constituted the most profound change engendered by the new spirituality.
Along with religious changes went economic and social ones. The concentration and economic impoverishment of the ghetto that engendered an enhanced polarization between rich and poor appeared to facilitate a cultural polarization as well. For the poor, knowledge of Hebrew and traditional sources conspicuously deteriorated. For the rich, elitist cultural activities were paradoxically enhanced. They produced Hebrew essays, sermons, dramas, and poetry using standard baroque literary conventions. They performed polyphonic music reminiscent of that of the Church, entertained themselves with mannerist rhyming riddles at weddings and other public occasions, and lavishly decorated their marriage certificates with baroque allegorical symbols. The seemingly “other-worldly” kabbalist Moses Zacuto was capable of producing “this-worldly” Hebrew drama replete with Christian metaphors, as Bonfil mentions. And ironically, despite the insufferable ghetto, some Jews, undoubtedly the most comfortable and most privileged, seemed to prefer their present status.
In describing the ghetto era in such a manner, Bonfil strongly urges a reconsideration of the importance of the Renaissance era for Jewish cultural history. He claims that the beginning of incipient modernism was not the Renaissance, as earlier historians have thought, but the ghetto age, as late as the end of the sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century. Moreover, Bonfil urges that one should view this later period not as a continuation of the Renaissance, “a mere blossoming [of Renaissance] trends after a long period of germination,” but as a distinct era in itself, that of the baroque, and that this latter term, used primarily in a literary or artistic context, is also a relevant category in periodizing a unique and repercussive era in the Jewish experience.
The full implications of Bonfil’s revisionist position for the study of Jewish history have yet to be explored. Few historians have employed the term “baroque” in describing Jewish culture during the period from the end of the sixteenth century, and most of the contributors below are reticent to use it in this volume as well. Few are yet prepared (as is this writer) to deny any significance altogether to the Renaissance in shaping a novel and even modern Jewish cultural experience. In fact, Bonfil’s emphasis on the sharp rupture and discontinuity engendered by the ghetto might be tempered by a greater emphasis of the lines of continutiy between the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance eras. Be that as it may, Bonfil’s novel emphasis opens the possibility for a fresh assessment of the ghetto experience with respect to Jewish-Christian relations, Jewish cultural developments, and the ultimate emergence of a modern and secularized temperment, with all its complexities, within the Jewish communities of early modern Europe.