Jewish Heritage in the Medici Granducal Archives
Because of the global nature of the Medici Granducal Archive, the documents within the Medici Archive Project database also help us to map the migration of Jews within Europe as well as to record the flourishing and withering of Jewish communities outside of Florence (Siena, Livorno, Ancona, Pesaro, Ferrara, Mantua and Genoa), as well as beyond the Italian Peninsula in such far-flung locations asThessalonica, Constantinople, Dubrovnik, and Oran.
A sample of locations outside of Italy that reveal Jewish presence, as documented in the Medici Archives
For instance, letters from Florentine ambassadors posted in Venice were especially rich with news of Jews, since this city served as clearinghouse for all sorts of information arriving from Europe and Asia. Though the majority of documents bring to life the vicissitudes of lesser known Jews, there is also substantial information on more prominent figures such as Benvenida Abravanel (intellectual, philanthropist, and tutor of Duchess Eleonora de’ Toledo), Samuel Pallache (Moroccan pirate and diplomat), Shabbetai Zevi (founder of the Sabbatean Movement and self-proclaimed Messiah), Benedetto Blanis (alchemist and cabbalist), Jacobiglio Ebreo (ancient medals dealer in Florence, Venice, and Constantinople).
Anonymous Mantuan painter c. 1510 Madonna and Child, Basilica of Sant'Andrea, Mantua. At the bottom of the painting are represented members of the Norsa family, Jewish bankers, who are wearing yellow badges.
Unlike elsewhere in Europe, members of the Jewish community in Renaissance Florence experienced periods of comfortable living conditions and relative tolerance, alternating with periods of tension. Home to a thriving Jewish community, after the fall of the Republic, when Florence became a principality ruled by the Medici family, Cosimo I (Duke from 1537, then Grand Duke in 1570) made it a policy to protect his Jewish subjects. Though in the early 1570s, under papal pressure, the Grand Duke enclosed the Jews of Florence in a ghetto, where they were subject to precise regulations, the Florentine Jewish population grew.
Located in the very center of town, the Florentine Ghetto at the end of the sixteenth century was emerging as one of Florence’s busiest commercial centers, along with the shops in the nearby Ponte Vecchio, the Mercato Vecchio, and the Mercato Nuovo. A crossroads for scholars of Jewish backgrounds, doctors, (al)chemists, as well as merchants, Florence, and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany as a whole, became a haven for Southern European Jewry. The Medici Granducal Archive is an impressive historical reservoir for Jewish history. Its content bears witness to the crucial role (often unspoken) played by Jews in the construction of the Italian Renaissance, especially in the artistic and cultural spheres.
Though substantial effort has been directed towards this endeavor, the surface has barely been scratched. The history of the Jews of Tuscany is still largely unwritten and unknown. Although over the years some good books have been written on the subject, the larger amount of the primary sources on this subject contained in the Medici Archive in Florence remains unexplored. Up until now the strategy of the Medici Archive Project has been to create a database of all documents relating to Tuscan Jewry that were discovered by chance in the course of other investigations. Totaling some 700 historical documents, to which new ones are added continually, this database features material utterly unknown to the academic community. But so far we are only scratching the surface. In order to create a credible and efficient source for the study of Jewish life under the Medici two things need to happen: The current database of Jewish documents must be vetted, tagged, the documents must be summarized and excerpted, and, most importantly, the database must be placed online so that it can be visible for free to anyone anywhere in the world interested in the subject; We must start an in-depth exploration to bring to light all or most Jewish-related documents still hidden in the Archive. One or more Medici Archive Fellows specializing in Jewish history must conduct this exploration.
Fellowship in Jewish Studies at the Medici Archive Project
The Research Director of the Medici Archive Project in Florence receives frequent queries and requests for assistance from individuals conducting their own research on Jewish history. While he tries to help as much as he can, the growth of interest in Jewish history is making it practically impossible to satisfy all applicants. A more systematic approach to this issue is called for, one that will make it easier for researchers to find they way through the maze of documentation at the Archive. In order to achieve this goal the Medici Archive Project is currently trying to establish, with the support of interested institutions, two three-year Fellowships in Jewish Studies to be awarded to promising scholars who will concentrate exclusively on the Jewish aspect of the Archive. Past experience teaches us that when research is concentrated in one specific area of the Archive important findings are bound to surface; some of them are so crucial that they change previously held historical assumptions. The Medici Archive Project is committed to reclaiming this important lost history.