An inspiring visit to Florence, Pisa and Livorno

In 16th century Florence, the fate of the Jews was closely tied to the fate of the powerful Medici family who had offered Jews protection during their rule.

Italy 311 (photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
Italy 311
(photo credit: Arthur Wolak)
Since the Italian Renaissance, modern Italy’s central region of Tuscany has been famous for its rich and lavish landscapes, artistic and architectural achievements, as well as its important role in the development of modern political thought.
Florence, Pisa, and Livorno are among Tuscany’s most significant cities. Not only are they influential and picturesque capitals of their respective Tuscan provinces, but each has little known but important Jewish sites worthy of the attention of curious tourists.
In Florence, especially in the 16th century, the fate of the Jews was closely tied to the fate of the powerful Medici family who had offered Jews protection during their rule. The Medicis and the Jews had become so close that whenever the Medicis were expelled from Florence by local Catholic rulers, the Jews were also expelled. However, once Cosimo de’Medici emerged as Grand-Duke of Tuscany, the political situation for the Jews, which had been generally positive until then, turned for the worse.
In 1567, Cosimo compelled the Jews to wear identifying badges; in 1570, he shut down Jewish-owned banks; and, in 1571, required the Jews to reside in the newly established Ghetto of Florence (a concession to Pope Pius V for conferring on Cosimo the title of Grand Duke). It was accessible by two gates that were closed each night.
The Florentine Ghetto existed until 1848 when it was destroyed along with its two synagogues (one for the Italian, or Italki, rite; the other Sephardi). Today, the thousand Jews who reside in Florence are served by a couple of synagogues, most notably the massive Tempio Maggiore, the Grand Temple located at Via Farini 4, designed in the awe-inspiring neo-Moorish style.
Built in 1882, the synagogue features an interior with arcades of columns alongside lavish decorations that include golden frescoes and mosaics. On the second floor, a Jewish Museum was opened to the public in 1981, exhibiting a collection depicting Florentine Jewish life.
Florence is rich in history with sites that have unexpected Jewish associations. One obvious example stands in Piazza della Signoria, the square in front of the Palazozo Vecchio – a copy of Michelangelo’s famous statue of David, which was the symbol of the Florentine Republic (the original stands in the Accademia Gallery).
Perhaps less obvious is a Florentine church – not just any church, but the Basilica of Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross). Not only is it the main Franciscan church in Florence but it remains the largest Franciscan church anywhere. It serves as the place of burial for Italy’s most seminal figures, from Michelangelo and Galileo to Machiavelli and Rossini.
Most tourists, both Jews and non-Jews alike, might be surprised to see the large Star of David that adorns the exterior of the church’s upper triangular panel. A 19thcentury renovation is the source of this design. Originally built in the late 13th century, the Basilica hired an Italian- Jewish architect named Niccolò Matas (1798-1872) to design the church’s neo-Gothic facade.
He must have been widely respected as not only was he permitted to include a Star of David in his church design, but when it was learned that his will expressed his desire to be buried in the church among Italy’s greatest figures, a compromise between Catholic and Jewish leaders was reached that granted his wish. However, because he was Jewish he was buried under the porch stairs rather than inside the church.
Besides the Roman Coliseum, perhaps Italy‚s most famous landmark is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The image of the renowned building is no stranger to photo albums.
It is an instantly recognizable landmark that catches the lens of most visitors to Pisa.
Built in the 12th century, the Tower was originally intended to be vertical but tilted due to problems in the ground foundation. It has leaned ever since.
Although most residents of Pisa are Roman Catholics, there was also a Jewish presence in Pisa since the time of the Tower‚s construction, if not centuries earlier. On his way to Jerusalem from Spain, the 12th-century Jewish explorer Benjamin of Tudela arrived to Pisa and wrote about the modest-sized Jewish community he encountered there.
By the 15th century, Pisa’s Jewish community had grown as many Jewish families involved in money lending chose to settle in the city. Unlike Rome, Venice, and Florence, Pisa did not have a ghetto where Jews were forced to reside.
In Pisa, the Jews experienced a more positive reception than in the Florentine Republic, and were able to remain close to the Medici banking family. It is no wonder that the number of Pisan Jews continued to grow, especially following the arrival of exiled Jews from Spain after the 1492 expulsion. But their number in Pisa declined in subsequent centuries.
Today, a synagogue remains among this small but historic community comprised of just over 100 Jews. Constructed in the late 16th century and subsequently remodeled, the Pisa synagogue continues to function on the second floor of Via Palestro 24.
By the onset of the Holocaust, Pisa’s Jewish population consisted of some 500 people of which several dozen perished, including Pisa’s Rabbi Augusto Hasda and the president of the Pisan Jewish community, Giuseppe Pardo Roques, who had served as Pisa’s deputy mayor.
The 17th-century decline of Pisa’s Jewish community mostly reflected the voluntary transfer of many Jewish families to the nearby city of Livorno. The third largest port on Italy‚s west coast, Livorno emerged as a very important city for trade. Ever since the late 1500s, positive commercial laws and lack of official discrimination made Livorno very popular, attracting Jews and other persecuted groups from across Europe. Indeed, Livorno was unique.
There the Jews experienced religious freedom, full citizenship, access to higher education, and the rights to own and transfer property. Credit for these exemplary policies is attributed to the new Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando I de’Medici, Cosimo’s son, who specifically invited the Jews to settle in Livorno by his 1593 “edict of tolerance” offering a haven in Livorno and Pisa.
In these places, especially Livorno, the Jewish experience was in stark contrast to the restrictive life of the Florentine Ghetto.
Ferdinando believed that the presence of Jews in Livorno would help develop his newly established town.
His foresight proved correct. This edict remains one of the most significant documents of Jewish tolerance in early modern Europe for the rights and protections it offered the Jews (among other oppressed groups) who had suffered considerably as a result of the Inquisition and expulsions across Western Europe.
As a result, the proud Jewish community played an important role in Livorno’s economic development, which is what the Medici ruler had hoped would occur through his benevolent policies. Just as in Pisa, the Jews of Livorno were not confined to a ghetto, nor were they compelled to wear badges identifying their Jewish identity.
Livorno’s Jews worked primarily as moneylenders, merchants, book printers, and physicians. They were also major exporters and importers. By the 18th century, the height of their presence, some 5,000 Jews resided in Livorno.
By the outbreak of the Second World War, about 2,000 Jews were still there, but due to the Holocaust and subsequent migration, only about a quarter remain.
Although the Jewish population dramatically declined, the historic religious life of Livornese Jewry is still evident – not in the original buildings that housed the city’s many synagogues (over time, those that had ceased to function were sold, while several were destroyed during World War II), but in the current Jewish infrastructure and the artifacts they managed to preserve.
The ultra-modern building that houses Livorno’s contemporary synagogue (designed by Roman Jewish architect, Angelo Di Castro) was constructed in the early 1960s on the site of the former Grand Synagogue, which had been destroyed by German bombs in 1944.
It is located at Piazza Benamozegh 1 (between Via Grande and Via Cairoli), a plaza renamed in honor of respected 19th-century Livorno scholar, Rabbi Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900).
Another site not to be missed is the Marini Oratory, a former 19th-century synagogue situated nearby on Via Micali. It now houses the Livorno Jewish Museum exhibiting liturgical objects and the original synagogue ark, which was reputedly brought to Livorno by Sephardi Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula. Livorno was also where the Jewish artist and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was born. His birthplace near Piazza Attias is open to the public. Appointments must be made in advance to see these sites.
Tuscany, with its rich history and scenic vistas, is well worth visiting, especially to see the less well-known but meaningful and inspiring Jewish sites.
Arthur Wolak is a freelance writer in Vancouver.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Independent.