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The Jewish Genealogy Association 

Jews in Italy

by Lionel Lévy

Jewish communities settled in Italy after the communities had started in Spain and before they started in Gaul. The Roman Judaism was the matrix of German Ashkenazi, then Slavic. Jews immigrated to Italy during the first centuries of the Christian era, in order to flee persecutions.

Near them the Sicilians, formed a distinct group both in numbers and because they were independent for a long time. Thus, when French Jews ask their Italian co-religionists: "Are you Sephardic or Ashkenazi?" to their surprise the answer is neither of the two.

To complete the picture, the Maghrebian Jewish emigration towards the port of Leghorn in the second half of the XVIII century was important, the movement back and forth in the XIX and XX centuries in anticipation of the modernisation of the Algerian elite, Tunisia and Tripoli, and the independence of Libya after the Second World War caused the general exodus of Jews mainly towards Italy. This immigration to Italy from North Africa considerably modified the composition of Italian Judaism, although the Italianization of those from Tripoli and Lybia happened quickly.

Jews in Rome

The first historical bonds noted between Palestine and Rome are in the middle of the II century before JC. The Diaspora had already started towards other regions of the East, Africa and Spain, extended to Rome. The wars of independence by Maccabees against Syria made them seek, on several occasions, Roman alliance, by a treaty guaranteeing the independence of the Hebrew state and the possession, without trouble, of its territory.

Thus, at this time, the fate of the Jews, compared to other foreign minorities in Rome, was privileged. Religious tolerance was general and their establishment throughout the empire was seen as positive therefore overcoming the problem of their refusal to accept the emperor as divine. From 313 AD the introduction of Christianity as the country’s religion put an end to the tolerance, especially with official doctrines making the Jews murderers of Jesus.

The history of the Italian Jews from this point on was that of periodic expulsions depending on the area and the disposition of local authorities. Rome preserved a particular statute; the Jews were tolerated there but in a situation of humiliation and economic and legal oppression which ended in 1870, when the defeat of Napoleon III in Sedan created the opportunity of seizing the last pontifical territories. Thus the capital applied the statute of emancipation of the Kingdom of Sardinia, preached by the great minds of Risorgimento, and in particular Massimo d' Azeglio(1).

Doctors, theologians and bankers

Apart from Rome, and before the great Sephardic centres of XVIe and XVIIe centuries, there were very few true communities in Italy. Some Jews were authorized to settle in a city because they were doctors and the communities were attracted by the fact that they cost less than Christian doctors or because they were bankers. These establishments remained precarious. The route of these families can be traced by the evolution of the patronyms, town names were used often recalling their last residence, and thus destined for periodic modifications. These are one of the onomastic traps of the Jews of Italy because the researcher can be tempted to assume the family’s origin from the name of a city rather than seeing it as their previous residence or immediate origin.

Therefore there was a mixture of people within the Jewish community the small Roman community many poor uncultivated people and at the other end of the scale the doctors and bankers also the intellectual elite often related to theologians, branches whose dynasties would lead directly to scientists, writers and artists and would illustrate modern Italy. In Rome, with new Italy, freedom would allow a cultural and social blooming.

Spain & Portugal

Italy did not await the expulsion of 1492 to discover the Jews of Spain and Portugal. From the XII century, at least the commercial republics of Italy ensured the commercial sea links between the East and the Moslem Occident. Venice had made a speciality of it but Genoa and Florence were her tough competitors. Florence, in spite of the handicap of a non-maritime power (until the annexation of Pisa in 1476) was the Tunisian preference thanks to the commercial honesty of its merchants and the value of its currency. These bonds were to make Italian ports of the Mediterranean trade where the Jewish hispano-Portugueses families of the international trade were mainly involved before the reconquista. The Portuguese cemetery of Pisa, surprises one with its splendid tombs of XIV century.(2)


Des liens étroits semblent avoir existé entre grandes familles juives espagnoles et italiennes. Close links seem to have existed between great Spanish and Italian Jewish families. In particular when Isaac Abravanel undertook the release of Moroccan Jews captured and reduced to slavery by the Portuguese at Arzila in 1471, it brought together the Jews of Italy in order to gather the ransom. When Côme de Medicis, of 1547, started to accommodate the levantini as well as the cristiani nuovi in Pisa, it was not only a simple act of humanity, it put in action a realistic policy dictated by his knowledge of the old economic history of Pisa: these exiled Spaniards and Portuguese held from now on the commercial links to the Maghreb (and beyond central Africa) and the East. The Venetians had experience of it: only merchant present on the spot, in a colony could guarantee the regularity of trade with the Islamic ports. Neither Venice, nor its competitors, were able to ensure their presence there. However the Portuguese Jews were already present everywhere. Having lost two thirds of its population and all her commercial activity in the Italian wars, Pisa was eager to revive this port and found a very close successor in Leghorn, modest village of 700 inhabitants, who had already programmed exemplary construction, would make it by the end of the century the admiration of Europe. The L’œuvre de Côme was to be completed by the second son of Charles Quint, Ferdinand with the plans of 1591 and 1593, the latter called Livornina, and control of the gigantic work started by his father.

Venice and Leghorn

Venice had already preceded this policy. The Senate, with a narrow majority, defied the will of the Popes by accommodating Portuguese Marranos after the Levantines of Turkey. Being very liberal the Senate admitted that Conversos and their descendants had the right to return to the Judaism(3).

But the essential difference of statute between the Jews of Venice and those of Leghorn was due to this incredible innovation in Europe: in Leghorn, the Jews would not be forced into a ghetto. They could settle in any district appropriate to them and would profit from any freedom of movement. They would not have to wear a distinctive sign. All studies would be open to them and all professions. They could acquire buildings freely. Their goods would go to their heirs and the community would collect any estates without an heir. They could employ Christian personnel. They would freely admit other Jews into the city. They would enjoy legal autonomy for litigations between Jews, and would profit from the arbitration of an independent person approved by them in the event of litigation with Christians. They would profit moreover from special fiscal advantages.

The legal and economic conditions were thus set for the success of the Portuguese communities of Venice and Leghorn. The latter, in the XVIII century became the second port of the Mediterranean, grouping around its Tunis, Alexandria, Alep, Smyrna, Salonique, Istanbul, of the well organized local leghorn communities of which some, in the XIX century, would exceed in importance and would contribute to the rise of the Italian cultural influence. The international opening of the Venetian Jews and leghorn was ensured by their worldwide family network, Dutch, English, American, Indian, and their apprehension of several cultures. Finally the existence of these overseas communities would contribute to the progressive evolution of the Jewish populations.

Lights, Risorgimento and clerical reaction

Clerical hatred against the French revolution targeted, at the time of the restoration, all those who had benefited from the revolution and initially the Jews. The Italian Jews were shown to have made a pact with them. Thus the departure of the French Armies in 1814 was followed by popular anti-Semitic movements and legislation abolishing the advantages of the French statutes, in particular in Rome, worsening the old situation: re-establishment of the ghettos, professional and civic restrictions, heavy taxation, exclusion from universities, ceremonial humiliation at the time of certain festivals and at the time of the traditional visit of the sovereign pontiff. In addition to all this there were many cases of forced conversion with children torn from their families. Such a situation could only awake in Italian Jews the influence of the Lights and their sympathy to those which propagated them, the men of Risorgimento.

The middle-class catholic clerics remained far from the nationalist movement due to their fidelity with the popes, the Kings of new Italy were based all the more readily on the cultivated and liberal Jewish elites. Many Jews of France and elsewhere were astonished by the patriotism shown by the Jews by Italy, including at the time of the Franco-Italian colonial competitions in the XIX century. Whereas the French nationalism of 1880 often took a reactionary form, readily accompanied by anti-Semitism, Italian nationalism, until Fascism, introduced a progressive face and even anticlerical, including the Court and highest levels of power. The eminent place held by Jews in the university, the army, the magistrature(4) made the Jewish elite an invaluable force for the monarchy of Savoy. The number of Jews credited for their merits was astonishing. On the other hand the anti-Semitism of a notable part of the catholic hierarchy festered. In 1938 the Jesuits and Civilta Cattolica circles were very influential in the Vatican, and did not hide their approval of the anti-Semitic laws of Duce(5).

Facism and dishounor

Italian Fascism could create an illusion for a few years thanks to the alibi of the order and nationalism. Many liberal intellectuals were easily deceived. The descendants of Giuseppe Garibaldi went with the majority. The war of Ethiopia and the sanctions which followed helped the nationalists make a stance against the liberal democracies, France and England, and principal colonial powers which had just divided the German colonies and the remainders of the Turkish empire were opposed to the birth of new empires. The joining together with Hitler was soon to open their eyes. German alliance could not leave the Italian Jews indifferent, even those which had joined Fascism. The hostility against the Jews in Nazi Germany and thereafter in Rome-Berlin gave the Duce the desired alibi to pursue the racial policies of the Führer. The right wing and clerics of the catholic party were ready to follow the new racial doctrines of Fascism. The anti-Semitism of the state cemented by the legislation of 1938 copied the Hitler laws preceded an insidious semi-official campaign of 1934 encouraged by and caused by Mussolini.

Honour saved

The Italian people, resisted from the very start all demonstrations of support for the racist policy. By thousands of small daily gestures they brought assistance to the Jews in their painful adaptation to the new life(6). That did not prevent the new legislation from being applied with rigour contrary to certain persistent stereotypes. For the honour of Italy and its army it was senior officers who firmly opposed the anti-Semite policy of Vichy in their zone of occupation and the diplomats who protected Italian Jews abroad. In Rhodes, Italian soldiers were massacred by the Germans because they had tried to oppose the deportation of all the Jews of the island. Whatever was the cruel attitude of the fascists of the Republic of Sal? and the assistance they brought to the Germans in the raids and the deportations, it remains that as a whole, the Italian people, including certain elite who in the beginning joined Fascism, were made indignant by the policy of extermination and fought it with all possible means.

Jewish families of Italy

The onomastics of the Jews of Italy reflects their diversity of origin but with subtleties which can mislead researchers. One can at first sight deduce from the names of city a purely Italian origin. It should however be checked that it is not a question of borrowed names.

In XVI century when the Roman Enquiry made for hunting the old conversos established in the area of Ancône and return to Judaism, there were two reactions. Sometimes they passed for Levantini, thus gaining the protection of the Turks, either with the favour of an old establishment in the Othoman possessions, or thanks to the complicity of parents and friends previously immigrant to Turkey. In other cases by adopting Italian names, generally names of a city. Thus, Ancona, Rimini, etc are families of hispano-portugaise (7). stock. Modigliano or Modigliani if one judges some by the case of a Brace Da Fano come from Ancône with Modigliana, a small city in the North of Florence in XVI century, adopted their new name only after having left this city. It is wrong to bring this name Da Fano or Fano closer to the town of Fano in the area of Ancône. It is an old name carried for a long time to Spain in the forms of Affano or Fano.

Many Iberian names were Italianized thus dissimulating their true origin. By example Parente, Italianization of the Spanish Pariente. Curious destiny for this Pariente which was only the hispanisation of Portuguese Parente and thus returned to its first form but in a third Latin language. The translations are frequent, ie Castel or Castillo to Castelli, recognizable but sometimes unrecognizable, such Hebrew Coen became Sacerdote. Hispano-Arabic Aboulafia becomes Bolaffi, in Tunisia, Boulakia. The Catalan name Ardut, Bonardut or Ardit (dynasty of doctors of X in XV century) was Italianized in Venice to Arditti or Arditi, the name spread in Salonique, Istanbul and Smyrna in its Italian form. Spanish Gallego(8) becomes Gallico or Gallichi. It is extremely possible that the name Astrologo or Dello Strologo very widespread in Leghorn and Venice, came from Portuguese communities, and passing for Italian, is only the deformation of Astrugono (or Astorga). Indeed the deformations are often the result of the instinctive search for a direction in the local language. It is sofor hispano-Arabic Abudiente transformed into Obediente (obeying); and Hebrew Uziel giving Uccelli (birds).

The coming and going, to and from between Italy and Comtat Venaissin explained in Vaucluse the Sacerdote and in Italy Cremisi for Crémieux. The Carcassone are present in Leghorn, but it is in Marseilles in the new Portuguese community of 1780 containing Livournais co-opting Tunisian and Comtadins that, the Spanish language having been adopted as the Community language, they become "Carcassona". The Cassin, came from Italy, passed through Vaucluse but certain branches return to Italy. The Provenzal came from Spain to Italy, expelled of France, they took refuge in Spain in XV century.

The deformation hits Ashkenazi patronyms too. Thus Dreyfus Latinized to Treves, name of a large publisher, made a noble family by Napoleon the first in 1812 then by Ferdinand the first of Austria in 1835. Morpurgo, a family of prestigious intellectuals, whose members also became nobles, were also of old Ashkenazi stock (Marburg), but were for a long time Sephardic in Venice, Trieste and Leghorn.

Intellectuals more than Bankers

Contrary to other areas of Europe, the Jews in Italy had little effect on world business. Admittedly there is the case of Benedetti (Baruch), recent fortune. Olivetti’s career as captain of industry owes less to financial know-how than to engineering. Even the elite of the communities of Leghorn and Venice, according to the Italian example, moved little by little towards the liberal professions and the scientific and artistic activities. The restrictions weighing on the activity of the Jews until the modern time had confined them to the crowned studies more then profane. The historian novelist Arnaldo Momigliano showed how the Italian Jewish intellectual elite, including himself, took their roots in the compost of their theologian ancestors of XVII and XVIII centuries. The commercial activity of the Jews was in small trade, particularly in Rome.

Integration into the Christian world

The national identity of the Italian Jews is the oldest in Europe. Their general participation in the movement of Risorgimento and their passion for the humanism of XVIII and XIX centuries could only encourage this identity. Admittedly the fascist tragedy from 1938 resounded causing many departures to Israel or America. But the framework of democratic Italy supported the alarm clock if not of nationalism, at least of the attachment to the Italian nation.

The de-Christianization of many young Christians weakened the old sociological barriers. Mixed marriages, already frequent before the war, exceeded the threshold of 80 %. Many choose conversion to Judaism. The phenomenon existed to a lesser extent before the war, but, especially in Leghorn, it was often the practise for non-Jewish wives. Nevertheless the Jewish identity remains long-lived.

Pisa, whose community totals fifty people, is the seat of a university where research on Judaism is animated by eminent scientists, Jewish and non-Jewish. Rassegna mensile di Israel, universally known reviews, are of a great quality and touch a number of readers more than those of the Revue des Etudes Juives. It is said that without the contribution of the Lybianz and Tripolitains the Jewish community would be extinct. But didn't one say that, not without exaggeration, of the Jewish community of France and its contributions in addition to the Mediterranean?


(1) Massimo Taparelli, Marquis d’Azeglio, 1798-1866. Gendre du grand écrivain Manzoni, il fut l’auteur de Sulla emancipazione civile degli israeliti, Turin 1847, ouvrage considéré par Attilio Milano comme à l’un des écrits les plus généreux, les plus émouvants et de majeur retentissement de ce champion d’un libéralisme modéré mais de grand souffle.

(2) Symétriquement la présence de Juifs italiens en Espagne est attestée aux XIVe siècle, telles la famille de banquiers Da Pisa et les Cal—.

(3) L’influent Maimonide ne fut sans doute pas étranger à cette politique libérale.

(4) En 1938 les Juifs, au nombre de 40.000, formaient 0,08% de la population italienne et comptaient 8% des professeurs de faculté. 13 officiers généraux dans l’armée ou la marine étaient juifs. Deux Juifs, Sonnino et Luzzati, avaient été présidents du conseil avant la guerre de 1914-1918. Jusqu’à ce jour, malgré l’émigration vers Israël après la guerre, le nombre des Juifs parmi les grands écrivains est impressionnant (Svevo, Moravia, Ginzburg, Carlo Levi, Bassani, etc., sans oublier le grand Primo Levi). De même dans les diverses sciences.

(5) Au crédit de Pie XI il faut évoquer sa bulle du 14 mars 1937 condamnant les doctrines racistes propagées par l’Allemagne. Après avoir, en un geste significatif, ratifié la nomination à l’Académie pontificale des sciences des mathématiciens Vito Volterra et Tullio Levi-Civita, il mit un bémol à son hostilité à l’idéologie raciste.

(6) Attilio Milano, Storia degli Ebrei in Italia, Turin, 1963-1992, éd. Einaudi, "tascabili" (de poche), p.398ss. Voir aussi Renzo De Felice, Storia degli Ebrei Italiani sotto il fascismo, Turin, 1961, 1972, 1988 et 1993, éd. Einaudi, "tascabili", pp. 402ss; L. Poliakov, La condition des juifs en France sous l’occupation italienne, pp 18, 42-43.

(7) Alessandro d’Ancona, illustre exégète de Dante, maire de Pise, est enseveli au cimetière portugais de cette ville. Son prestige explique que lors de son exclusion de l’Université en 1938, même un dignitaire fasciste comme Giovanni Gentile, philosophe et membre du conseil fasciste, ait tenté de prendre sa défense. Gentile fut par la suite exécuté par la Résistance.

(8) Ce nom Gallego (Galicien) était donné par les Portugais aux Juifs pauvres immigrés d’Espagne et devenait synonyme d’Espagnol ouvrier journalier.