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Outline of History of Florentine Jews
When did Jews start to live in Florence?
Some Jew maybe had business in this city already in the late XIII century when, thanking to its flowering textile production and bank business, Florence was the biggest city in Europe. Anyway, the first document about a group of resident Jews dates from 1437, when they were called by the Republic of Florence to set their “banchi” (banks) to substitute the Christian moneylenders in their unpopular activity, prohibited to them by the Church. Since that year the presence of a Jewish community in Florence has continuous despite some very dramatic moments. Its history has been interlacing with the most famous political and cultural events of the Renaissance time, during the time of the Medici family (1434 -1737).
The celebrated ‘Golden Era’ of Lorenzo the Magnificent, patron of Botticelli, Leonardo and the young Michelangelo, was a ‘Golden Era’ also for the Jewish culture, with many intellectual exchanges between Jewish scholars, coming from all over Italy, and the famous philosophers of Lorenzo’s Court.
After Lorenzo’s death (1492) the Medici were exiled twice and the republican governments strongly supported the institution of Municipal public pawnshops. Until the definitive return of the Medici in 1530 the Jewish moneylenders were constantly menaced to be expulsed. It even happened once in early XVI. The glorious time of Michelangelo’s David or Machiavelli was not therefore the most enjoyable for Florentine Jews.
Under the rule of the Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici Jews had again a positive period. Cosimo I was interested to have good relationship with the Levantine Jews (Sephardim) to improve the Tuscan commerce in the Mediterranean area. For several years he did not submitted to the Popes’ request to confine Jews in a ghetto, but he gave up on 1569, to became Grand Duke thanking the Pope himself: one year later the ghetto was instituted in Florence as well as in Siena.
From 1570 to the end of the Medici dynasty (1737) life and work of the Florence Jewish community was very restricted and discriminated. Jews were often submitted to tentative of forced conversions.
With the enlightened government of the Grand Dukes Habsburg Lorraine, who ruled Tuscany after the Medici (1737- 1859), Florentine Jews started to have more citizen rights and from the XIX century they had an active rule in the cultural, economical and political life.
After the unification of Italy of 1861 Jews had all citizen rights and were very involved to the Italian life in all the fields. For Florentine and Tuscan Jews the late XIX - early XX Century was a second ‘Golden Era’, for the great flowering of intellectual, artistic and religious activities, in a good balance between identity and emancipation. In that period in Florence was built the great Synagogue (1882), still in use.
Jewish history in Italy is marked by great accomplishments as well as painful memories (such as the fascist racial laws of 1938 and Nazi deportations). But throughout it all Florentine Jews have remained deeply involved in the city life and they maintain all the social and religious activities of a modern organized Jewish Community.