Short History of Italian Jews

Italy is located centrally in the Mediterranean sea and served as an important crossroad and an intersection between North and South, East and West, Sephardic and Ashkenazi culture. That's why Italy has a very important role in Jewish history and genealogy.

Italy contains some of the oldest Jewish Communities in Europe. Jews arrived in South Italy after the distruction of the First Temple and latter thousands of Jews lived in Rome already before the Christian era. At Roman  time there were ten-fifteen synagogues in Roma (Rome).

In 160 B.C. Simon Maccabeus sent an embassy to Rome to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Syrians. The ambassadors received a cordial welcome from the Senate and form the Jews who were already established in town.

Besides Roma, other Jewish communities were in Genova, Milano, Bologna, Ravenna, Napoli, Pompei, Siracusa. Messina and in other in forty places. 

Under the rule of the Emperor Claudius, a census was taken, which estimated the Jewish population of the empire the 7 or 9 percent of the total population.

Inscription of the 13th century


With the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine I in 313, the position of Jews in Italy and throughout the empire declined rapidly.
From that time the oppression grew considerably. Until the fall of the Roman empire periods of persecution were followed by periods of quiescence.
During the first Dark Ages there were flourishing communities of Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Palermo, Messina, Agrigentum, and in Sardinia.
When Italy came into the possession of the Lombards Jews lived in peace in the territories under their rule. Even after the Lombards embraced Catholicism Jews were not persecuted. Pope Gregory I treated them with much consideration. Under succeeding popes the condition of the Jews did not grow worse; and the same was the case in the several smaller states into which Italy was divided.
There was an expulsion of Jews from Bologna in 1172; but they were soon allowed to return.
Under Norman rule the Jews of southern Italy and of Sicily enjoyed a great freedom.

When Benjamin of Tudela visited the country between 1160 and 1165 he found large communities "old of centuries" on his route. First he visited Genoa, Pisa and Lucca.
From other sources we know that at that time  Jews lived also in other towns of the North (Aquileia, Ferrara, Mantua, Padua).

Tudelap.jpg (11112 byte)
The travels of Benjamin of Tudela

By the end of the Middle Ages, Italy had been divided into fifteen different states. Each state had different influence of the Catholic Church, administrative structure and different restrictive laws on the Jews. After wars and annexations the number of these states was reduced to ten.

The position of Jews in Italy worsened considerably under Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). This pope first ordered that every Jew must always wear a special badge. In 1235 Pope Gregory IX published the first bull against the ritual murder accusation. Other popes followed his example.

Large towns such as Venice, Florence, Genoa, and Pisa, realized that their commercial interests were of more importance than politics of the Church and accordingly the Jews found their condition better than ever before. Jews became bankers and merchants, and obtained permissions to establish banks and to engage in monetary transactions.

When in 1492 Jews were expelled from Spain a great number of them took refuge in Italy. In the same year Jews were expelled from from Sicily. The Spanish Jews arrived in Tuscany, Naples, Ferrara and in some other towns. In Rome and Genoa they experienced hunger, plague, and poverty and in many cases were forced to accept baptism in order to escape starvation.
The Jewish communities of Naples and of Rome received the greatest number of accessions and  in some few cases the immigrants exceeded in number the Jews already domiciled.
Arriving from Spain many Conversos returned to Judaism, thus fallig under the jurisdiction of the Inquisition.
In 1516 the first Ghetto was estabilished in Venezia (Venice).  Later other ghettos were established.
The Church, deeply involved into the fight against Reformation, began a fanatic hunt of forbidden books and in 1553 in the principal cities of Italy were burned all the found copies of the Talmud.
In 1541 Jews were expelled from South Italy (Kingdom of Naples).

The Italian Jewish community, with its 2,000 years of history, was formed also by the merger of several Jewish groups that arrived in Italy since Middle Ages:
- 14th century from France and Germany;
- 15th centuries from Spain and Portugal because of the expulsion;
- 16th century because of internal migrations;
- 17th century from East Europe;

Nardo Bonomi

Pius V brought into force all the anti-Jewish bulls of his predecessors. He decided to banish the Jews from all his dominions and in in 1555 the Jews were expelled from all the Papal States excepting Rome and Ancona.In these two towns Ghettos were established.The Church, deeply involved into the fight against Reformation, began a fanatic hunt of forbidden books and in 1553 in the principal cities of Italy were burned all the found copies of the Talmud.
Thus in three phases the Jews were forced to moved 1) from Sicily, 2) from South peninsular Italy, 3) from the State of the Church
An important exception to these restrictions and persecution was the freedom given to Jews who moved to Livorno (Leghorn).
Under the influence of the liberal religious policy of Napoleon the Jews of Italy were emancipated. The new political ideas broke the power of the Church. After the Revolution of 1848 begun a political movement that lead to the political Unification of Italy (1860-1870). Jewish volunteers died in the cause of Italian liberty and the ghettos were opened. After the Unification, in the Italian Kingdom Italian Jews had full civil and political rights.

Italian Jews adopted family names since the 11th century, usually, they either translated their Hebrew names or adopted the name of their place of origin : that's why  family names are a good resource for genealogy.

Back to homepage