In 17th-century Italy, 14 enslaved Jewish girls and women were raped - study

A new Tel Aviv University study unveils the phenomenon of female Jewish slavery and uncovers gang rape in a 17th century Italian slave prison.

 Der Hafen von Livorno II by Jakob Philipp Hackert. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Der Hafen von Livorno II by Jakob Philipp Hackert.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

If only there had been a Me-Too Movement in 17th-century Italy, a group of 14 enslaved Jewish women would have probably have been saved from gang rape and even suicide.

And the prison doctor responsible, who later became mayor of Livorno, would not have been honored as one of the city’s founding fathers and having with a street named for him.

Historyian Prof. Tamar Herzig, vice dean for research at Tel Aviv University's the Entin Faculty of Humanities, has exposed previously unknown evidence of the organized gang rape of a group of enslaved Moroccan Jewish girls and women in Livorno – a port city on the Ligurian Sea – at the beginning of the 17th century.

The rape was organized by Dr. Bernardetto Buonromei, a high-ranking state official at Livorno’s slave prison. He deftly silenced any complaints and effectively erased the memory of the victims’ suffering.

Last year, Herzig was awarded the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies’ Michael Bruno Memorial Award for groundbreaking research – for her contribution to the study of pre-modern history and especially of the Italian Renaissance.

According to the documents studied by Herzig, in the summer of 1610, Buonromei ordered the assignment of a group of enslaved female Jews newly arrived from North Africa to the men’s quarters in the slave prison.

 Prof. Tamar Herzig (credit: Noga Shahar) Prof. Tamar Herzig (credit: Noga Shahar)

This was contrary to the customary separation of women and men in different sections. This order resulted in the enslaved Jews being raped by Muslim slaves and Christian forced laborers. One report notes that one of the victims lost her sanity and tried to throw her young daughters out of the prison’s window – even attempting suicide herself.

REPRESENTATIVES OF Livorno’s influential Jewish community sent protests denouncing the unprecedented sexual abuse of their fellow Jews to the Tuscan authorities. Sadly, all complaints and testimonies were soon silenced with the help of the grand duke of Tuscany, who supported Buonromei.

The grand duke accepted the doctor’s claims that he would increase the Tuscan state’s profits by ensuring that Livorno’s Jewish community would ransom their enslaved brethren. Buonromei kept his job as the physician in charge of the slave prison, and, when he died a few years later, the grand duke paid for his tombstone at Livorno’s main church.

In the 17th century, Livorno’s Jewish community was one of the richest and most influential among the country’s Jewish communities; its relationship with the rulers of the Tuscan state was usually positive.

According to the documents that Herzig uncovered, the wealthy and well-connected members of the city’s Jewish community were nonetheless extorted by government officials like Buonromei. Herzig discovered that the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany employed the gang rape incident as a grand spectacle of violence, using it to pressure the Jewish community into paying exorbitant ransom fees for the enslaved Jews.

Buonromei, who had served as the city’s first mayor before his appointment at the slave prison, is still honored today as one of the city’s founding fathers. A street in Livorno is named after him, and a figure commemorating him is paraded in the annual processions celebrating Livorno’s elevation to the status of a city.

HERZIG’S MONUMENTAL study, titled “Slavery and Interethnic Sexual Violence: A Multiple Perpetrator Rape in Seventeenth-Century Livorno,” was published in the prestigious journal American Historical Review, with 175 references backing up her claim. She hopes that exposure of her findings in the Italian media will lead to a change in the commemoration of Buonromei – a man who made his fortune from the slave trade and was personally responsible for the horrendous abuse of enslaved Jewish women and girls.

Most studies on slavery in 17th century Italy focused on male galley slaves who supposedly suffered from harsher treatment than enslaved women. Scholarship has also focused on Muslim-Christian rivalry in this period, citing it as the main motivator for the respective groups’ engagement in enslaving one another.

So far, very little research has addressed the place of Jews as victims of the slave trade in 16th and 17th century Italy. Herzig’s study is the first to reveal the attitude of representatives of the Italian regime toward Jewish women from North Africa, as they were captured by Italian forces and brought to Italian ports as slaves. The Italian representatives’ attitude significantly impacted the relations between local Jews and Christians in Italian cities at the time.

“In the pre-modern Jewish world, the sexual violation of female captives epitomized the humiliation of the Jewish men who had failed to protect them,” Herzog wrote. “Striving to counter such humiliation, the Jewish nation’s leaders relentlessly sought to secure the punishment of Buonromei... Their failure to achieve this goal and regain their communal honor thus discloses the limits of tolerance in the regulation of daily life in 17th century Livorno, which historians often uphold for its remarkable religious pluralism and ethnic diversity.”

Much feminist research, she continued, “has focused on rape as a form of violence produced by ‘gendered social structures and discourses through which such violence may be rendered meaningful and legitimate.’ American journalist, author and feminist activist Susan Brownmiller has pointed to the universal use of rape as a tool of women’s subjugation by male conquerors and captors. More recently, rape under captivity and enslavement has been recognized as a kind of ‘slow murder.’”

Unveiling the female and Jewish aspects of the Italian slave trade is “very important,” commented Herzig, “because these topics have largely been neglected in historical scholarship on the 16th and 17th centuries. I hope that by raising awareness about the phenomenon of Jewish women’s enslavement, my research will lead to a reconsideration of the current commemoration of slavers such as Bernardetto Buonromei, thereby attaining some historical justice for the victims.”