The Apulian ‘Cristiani novelli’ community in Venice in the Middle Ages.

Contribute by: dr. Nicolò Villanti, Ph.D. Post-Doc Medieval History, Universität Duisburg-Essen.

The Apulian Cristiani novelli were descendants of Jews who had been forcibly baptized in the late 13th century following the Angevin conquest of the kingdom of Sicily. According to some estimates between 6,000 and 8,000 Jews were involved in the largest mass conversion outside the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.

This community of converts lived mainly along the coastal towns of Apulia, with the city of Trani standing out among them with 310 households of neophytes recorded in 1294. About a century after their conversion, some individuals from the cities of Trani and Manfredonia started travelling to Venice and Dalmatia. They were mainly merchants, specialized in exporting agricultural products from Apulia.

 The growth of their wealth was paired with a rising prestige within the society in their hometowns: the King of Naples Ladislaus granted the community a representation within the city council of Trani in the early fifteenth century (1413). These households were thus perceived as a distinct social group due to their “ambiguous” religious identity and their profession as merchants not only in Apulia, but also (to some extent) in Venice. 

After all, Trani was the center of Venetian interests in the ‘Mezzogiorno’. Their presence in Venice seems sporadic in the last decades of the fourteenth century, however – quite suddenly – it becomes significant from the years 1399-1402. Throughout the first half of the fifteenth century they emerge as the largest merchant community active in Venice from southern Italy, selling grain, oil, saltpeter and buying textiles/cloths made in the Venetian hinterland. Venetian political authorities appreciated their reliable contribution to supply the city and, on the other hand, they supported Venice’s interests within Apulian cities. For example, the Capuano family held the position of Venetian vice-consul in Manfredonia from 1430 until the 17th century. However, the Jewish origin of these families began to constitute grounds for suspicion even in the Laguna towards the end of the 15th century. 

In 1473 the inquisitor Francesco di Rovigo started investigating within the community looking for elements to corroborate allegations of crypto-Judaism, and he focused on one of the most well-known members: Angelo di Francesco Ursino di Trani.

Fortunately, this trial did not go beyond a preliminary inquisition and there are no evidences of any action taken by Venice against them before 1497, when the Senate ordered the expulsion of all Marranos from its territory. It is likely that the ‘Cristiani novelli’ were placed in the “category” of Marranos, since the two terms were used as synonyms in Apulia from the late 15th century. It seems, however, that the distinction on a national basis was quite clear in those years and the term ‘Cristiano novello’ was a kind of subgroup within the macro category of ‘Marrano’.

Nevertheless, the occasional tensions with elements of Venetian society and the expulsions/violence against the Jewish community and the neophytes in the kingdom of Naples in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries did not undermine their prominent role in the trading networks within the Adriatic space.


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