The Jews in Genoa in 17th Century.

Contribute by: Andrea Zappia, Ph.D., Discipline Expertise and Member of the NAVLab University of Genoa.

In the years from the constitutional reform of 1576 to the aftermath of the devastating plague of 1656-1657, the Republic of Genoa was a state in turmoil, having to reorient its international position in light of the gradual loosening of the symbiotic bond that had bound it to the Habsburg Spain since the early sixteenth century. Genoa was at the center of a “broad” Ligurian Sea that housed the main sea outlets of three other states – Marseille for the Kingdom of France, Nizza-Villafranca for the Duchy of Savoy, and Livorno for the Grand Duchy of Tuscany – markedly different from each other in terms of institutional arrangement and international relevance but involved in a system of constant interchange and mutual influence. 

In particular, the exponential growth of Livorno, a de facto freeport since 1591, brought a fearsome new antagonist to the fore that promised to divert a substantial portion of the maritime traffic destined for Genoa. On the internal political front, the rise of the navalist party in the 1730s and 1740s had resulted in many new projects aimed at placing Genoa into an international and global perspective. In this conjuncture, the longings for a return to the eastern Mediterranean, the unforgettable Levant of medieval possessions, grew. To achieve this goal, acting on several fronts was deemed indispensable: first, on the diplomatic point stage, by obtaining from the Sultan exclusive capitulations regulating the Genoese presence in Istanbul and other Ottoman ports. Likewise, the authorities of the Republic and the Banco di San Giorgio responded to the need to increase the attractiveness of the city’s port by improving its infrastructural suitability and duty regime. In 1654, at a time of severe diplomatic tension with Spain and having Livorno’s impressive development acting as a goad and a model, the first general freeport was born; it was at that time that, for the first time after decades of distrust and indifference, Jews were officially invited to move to the city. The edict of 1654 thus marked a turning point from the past in the relationship between Genoa and the Jews because it was addressed to all those who had intended to transfer their domicile and economic activities to the city – except for that relating to money lending – whereas, until then, the Republic had only allowed them transit or a few short stays in the capital through the issuance of individual permits. 

Numerous difficulties marked the arrival of Jews in the city. Among the first to move to the city as early as 1654 were several business people interested in obtaining monopoly contracts, above all those of tobacco and spirits. The response of the city authorities, marked by excessive prudence, penalized Jewish entrepreneurs by not allowing them access to the most remunerative contracts; these did not yet include the selling of coffee, a little-known drink at that time, which the Jews introduced in Genoa, having obtained the institution of such contract. 

The plague that struck Genoa in 1656-57 had catastrophic effects demographically and economically, effectively blocking Jewish immigration for a couple of years. In 1658, having overcome the epidemic, the Capitoli per la nazione ebrea – a body of rules designed to regulate in detail every aspect of life for newcomers – was published. The main concessions concerned the broad safe conduct that would cover any crimes committed and debts contracted in the past outside the State’s borders, the right to be able to perform their rites in a synagogue and to own slaves – obviously non-Christian – as well as autonomy in handling civil disputes involving only Jewish contractors. In addition, the 1658 Chapters provided for the creation of a new figure, the Protettore della nazione ebrea, two patricians deputed to exercise a role of protection and control over the community and to connect it with the Republic’s governing bodies. 

Despite the constant comparison with Livorno, the models from which the Genoese legislators drew inspiration in thinking about the accommodation of a Jewish minority in the city were Venice and Rome. In Genoa, too, they opted for separating the Jews from the rest of the population by adopting two measures then in vogue in the ancient Italian States, namely enclosing them in a ghetto and forcing them to wear the yellow sign. For the first twenty years after their arrival, the Jews in Genoa lived in the so-called ghetto di Santa Sabina, consisting of a complex of buildings of medieval origin located close to the port area; like any ghetto, it was both a place of segregation and discrimination par excellence but also a matrix of identity and belonging. Ten years after their enactment, the Chapters of 1658 expired, and the Jews had to overcome the resistance of some of the city’s trade guilds that were pushing for their expulsion; with mostly specious arguments, the Jews were accused by the guilds of haberdashers and second-hand dealers of taking market niches away from local traders, an attitude that unfortunately brings us back to all too current and familiar dynamics. Interminable bargaining led in the following years to the granting of new Chapters, albeit more restrictive and penalizing; dismantled in 1674 the old ghetto di Santa Sabina, the Jews were forced to relocate to a group of tenements facing Piazza dei Tessitori: under the loggia of this square, now disappeared, the new synagogue was set up, while an adjoining apartment was renovated to house the community’s mikveh, or ritual bath.

The early revocation of the Chapters in 1679 – a decision influenced by escalating tensions with France – brought Jewish immigration to a sudden stop, as most of those already residing in the city moved elsewhere. Jews resumed being able to reside freely in Genoa after the granting in 1711 of new Chapters reserved for them, a measure that was part of the Republic’s renewed drive toward the eastern Mediterranean. The sudden cessation of relations between Genoa and Istanbul (1715) that matured in the context of the Second Morean War decreed the end of the Levantine ambitions of the Genoese and the abandonment of the claim to use Jews as mediators.

Andrea Zappia, Il miraggio del Levante. Genova e gli ebrei nel Seicento (Carocci, Roma 2021, 195 pp.)