Patricia Fortini Brown spoke about policies and ideas that influenced Venetian defensive architecture in its colonies. This presentation was fascinating because while I have obviously seen copious amounts of Venetian architecture in my travels, one seldom things about the civic ideals which influenced it (at least I don’t). Brown points to the idea of Munire et Onare or the dual concept of protection and ornamentation. She also related her work to scholarship presented in Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference and The Kings Two Bodies. She mentioned that Venice governed in its eastern (SN: I ALWAYS WANT TO CAPITALIZE DIRECTIONS) colonies by using local elites as middlemen between the Venetian state and the local population. This was a common practice for all successful empires, including Venice. She also explained that the ornamentation of defensive structures was often tripartite: it featured the Doge, St. Mark, and God the Father and could either be directed inward or outward-conveying different ideas of civic identity in each case.
Gates and fortresses were the most commonly built structures in the colonies and they focused on points of egress and ingress. A few interesting things I learned from this presentation: the longest continuous siege in history occurred between Venice and the Ottomans (21 years), Corfu remained a Venetian colony until the Republic itself collapsed in 1797 (knew about this but forgot), and in 1567 Venice finished building an 11-point star fortress with each point being named after a noble family.
The second speaker was Larry Wolff. His presentation covered the presence of Ottoman subjects in Venetian and European opera, as subjects of both tragedy and comedy. He presented samples of the music which was a really nice touch, but the presentation seemed rushed. He did introduce a fascinating concept: the triplex confinium or the axis between Venice, Austria, and the Ottoman empire. This was especially interesting to me because a large part of my research focused on the cultural influence of Viennese nobility on Venetian economic patterns. I am ignorant of art and music history in all capacities so I definitely learned the most from this presentation. He explained that the first opera about a Turkish subject emerged in 1689 but references to Turks were completely erased in the 1800s. I think this is an especially interesting topic because it provides a way to connect contemporary issues to the past. The portrayal of Ottoman subjects in Venice could easily be extrapolated to contemporary portrayals of Muslims in Europe today. There is definitely room for some fascinating comparative scholarship (he just wrote a book so maybe he talks about it?)! Something else that was especially intriguing was the fact that Naples seems to have been a more popular cultural center than Venice. Once of the operas he spoke about debuted in Naples in 1820 and then in Venice in 1822 with a revised ending (counter-factual, as he said). When one considers the north-south divide in contemporary Italy and the idea of Italian culture as it relates to this divide, one wonders how this divide affected opera and music history on the peninsula. Something else for me to look into!
The third presentation was the most interesting to me and connected most directly to my own past research, although I was disappointed because Molly Greene didn’t include any information about the Jewish influence on the Venetian-Ottoman economic relationship. This was especially surprising because she directly addressed the fact that many Venetian subjects in the Ottoman empire were Cretans-and there has been a lasting community of Jews on Crete which I believe played an important economic role as intercessors between Venice and the Ottomans. She did introduce an idea that I hadn’t ever heard about: the economic network between Alexandria, Istanbul and Venice. I have studied Venetian trade with the Levant, but didn’t ever consider the centrality of Alexandria in its economic history. I am also interested to know how Jerusalem factored into this economic network, if at all. She also introduced something I had absolutely no clue about-the fact that the majority of Venetians in the Ottoman empire were Greek and the fact that Greek merchants ran the Fondaco de Turchi in Venice! Her first book, A Shared World: Christians and Muslims in the Early Modern Mediterraneancovers the transition from Venetian to Ottoman rule on Crete so I definitely want to check it out and see if there is any mention of Jewish economic networks on the island or in either of the metropoles. She also mentioned the Venetian retreat from maritime trade, which connected directly the last chapter of my thesis. This is also a great place to connect Larry Wolff’s triplex confinium to changes in Venetian economic patterns because Venetian nobles looked to Vienna for ways to move away from the stato da mar.
Finally, Daphne Lappa presented part of her work on borderland religious practices and the blending of Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholicism in Corfu. This presentation was by far the best organized. She presented the time period, location, and subject clearly and she used primary sources (both textual and artistic) as evidence of her thesis. Again, I think this topic also opens up new areas to be explored relating to Judaism. She explicitly stated that Orthodox practices influenced Roman Catholics and vice versa. It would be interesting to see what the relationship was between Roman Catholics, Orthodox believers, and Jews in Venice’s eastern colonies. I think the most fascinating aspect of this presentation was the idea of double churches, or churches built for Orthodox and Roman Catholics to worship simultaneously. Her presentation was also extremely interesting for me because I know scholars who study borderlands in the context of Texas-Mexico and I would be interested to see how borderlands religion in Texas has been influenced, especially in relation to Protestantism. Another fascinating aspect of this presentation was the role of calendars in Orthodox and Roman Catholic division. Lappa explained that Roman Catholics celebrated Orthodox Easter and didn’t follow the calendar change that occurred in the Roman rite.
SN: One of the presenters also mentioned that on the Hapsburg-Ottoman border, Hungarian was spoken on both sides.
While Molly Greene’s scholarship connected more closely to my own than the others, each presenter taught me something I didn’t know and definitely helped me expand and complicate my knowledge of Venetian history as it relates to the orient and occident. I think Venice proper was an economic and religious borderland in many capacities. As Muslims, Christians, and Jews worked and lived together in the city and its colonies, they created a unique economy and citizenry which helped forge a thousand-year-old empire. In the end, I think this topic is extremely relevant to our current time. Of course, history is cyclical. Not only can we explore the localisms of past European borderlands and adapt those lessons to our own southwestern borders, but Ottoman religious and economic relations with Europe are especially pertinent in contemporary times.
I don’t know when the next lecture is, but I’ll definitely keep you guys posted. I’ll be here learning more Venetian history!
Tonight, I went to a roundtable discussion entitled “La Serenissima: The Millenarian Venice” at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America at Columbia University. The speaker was Jordi Savall, a Catalan musician who has been recording, performing, writing, speaking and otherwise informing the world about ancient, medieval, renaissance, and baroque music (from both the orient and occident) for over 50 years.
I originally thought to attend the lecture because I have studied Venetian political history but know very little about music from Venice. I (very nervously and poorly) presented a paper at a conference in West, Texas in 2012 and was exposed to some Medieval Spanish music there, but I otherwise have no experience with music history (you can peep that paper on my LinkedIn profile). To my pleasant surprise, Savall went beyond the discussion of music history and touched on the two things I am most passionate about: Jewish history in Venice and European cultural identity.
Savall is in New York to perform as part of a Carnegie Hall series about Venice. He has constructed a 1 hour and 50 minute (whittled down from 4+ hours) performance which covers Venetian music history. The auditory history begins in 828 when Venice was only a cub in the Adriatic and ends in 1797 when Napoleon slaughtered the sick lion.
Savall specifically mentioned the importance of Sephardic Jews to the commercial history of Venice and the first of two pieces he played was a Sephardic melody: Por Que Llorax Blanca Nina. He explained that the piece had been played from the Expulsion in the 15th century to World War II. He brought up a great point about radio which plays into Benedict Anderson‘s ideas about shared language and print culture. Up until the 1920s and 1930s music was very much a community affair. Not only was it passed down from generation to generation orally, it also had to be played by members of the community. It could never be replicated exactly and it was not a shared experience outside of the memory of those who witnessed the live performance (still true to an extent hence the unique experience of concerts). With the invention and permeation of radio and recording, people were then able to share a common experience and simultaneously ingest audio content while also interpreting it differently. People were able to do this with vernacular language and print much earlier, but it wasn’t until the 1920s or 30s that people were able to have this shared auditory experience (then shared and simultaneous visual experiences with cinema+TV). Similar to the evolution of print culture and its relation to modes of power, Savall also touched on the idea of folk music and its relationship to the two main sources of power in European history: the king’s court and the Church. I’m interested to look into this more and it definitely reinvigorated my curiosity about ways in which European identity were and are created. While his discussion of Sephardic Jewish music in the Venetian diaspora was especially fascinating, he also discussed something much more contemporary that has always intrigued me: cultural preservation and European identity.
I have always thought that regionalism, separatism, and local governance are the best ways to preserve cultures, heritages, and languages. Savall, as a proud Catalan, voiced a different belief. He thinks that unique cultures and heritages should be preserved, but he does not see that as a separating factor between Europeans. He specifically stated that he is not only Catalan but also a citizen of Europe. He says he speaks Spanish, but talks to his friends and reads in Catalan, yet feels at home in London, Venice, and all of the other cities in Europe. This brings up something at the heart of my second Masters essay: the hierarchy of one’s cultural and political identities. He didn’t talk about referendums or separatism at all, but he made it clear that he does support European unity while maintaining a strong Catalan identity-with music being the meeting place of those identities. This expands and adds nuance to a model I used for my essay. Here is an excerpt:
“Sébastien Dubé and Raùl Magni-Berton provide a theory which directly correlates one’s income and national GDP to Euroscepticism. Their model outlines four specific differences in European political identity. The first model is poor people living in poor EU member states, the second is poor people living in rich EU member states, the third is rich people living in rich EU member states, and the last is rich people living in poor EU member states. In general, each of these socio-economic situations produces a different hierarchy of transnational, national, and regional identities. Poor individuals living in poor states often elevate their religious identity above that of the nation, assuming the pre-nationalist identity that Anderson outlined above. Poor individuals living in rich countries are more likely to identity with their particular culture or nation. Rich people living in poor countries often elevate their transnational identity above their national or cultural identity, valuing diversity above most other qualities. While rich people living in rich countries are often concerned with improving their aesthetic environment, maintaining their material well-being, as well as pride in their nation and personal economic status. Dubé and Magni-Berton conclude that wealth, and in turn European identity, denotes support of deeper EU integration while those poorer citizens that possess a strong national and cultural identity are often against EU expansion.”
I don’t necessarily think Savall’s opinions contradict the above model (I don’t know how his ideas of European integration have changed over time), but he did introduce some intricacies which I haven’t considered. In my work, I presented art and entertainment (as it was presented to me) as tools used to build national and transnational identity. There is a wonderful book called Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice which touches on the importance of entertainment and placation of the public as a tool to create shared experiences among citizens of all classes, build a singular identity, and mold people in to allowing the state to govern them. Modes of entertainment owned and operated by elite forces (the king, the Church, wealthy European politicians, etc.) have been used as tools to sculpt the political identity of the masses since Ancient times, but I have never thought about how folk music (and music created and performed on the local or regional level) helps to shape and bolster one’s political identity. I am very intrigued to know how other folk musicians from different regions and socio-economic backgrounds think of their music in relation to European integration. I will do further research, but I am also very happy to see ideas of cultural preservation come to the forefront, without some of the xenophobic ideas that often accompany that conversation. We can and should work together to help preserve the unique music, language, art, culture, and history that we each represent in the modern world. As Stavall said, cultural conservation does not have to denote separation!
SN: The theme for the 2016-2017 year at The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America is “Conservation and preservation of heritage and the contemporary destruction of art and architecture”. The brochure presents one particular scholar and her work, which seem to tie in directly to my ideas about cultural identity and transnationalism: “Public indifference to the loss of cultural heritage and identity” by Roberta De Monticelli. I have yet to read her work (as I just learned of it this evening), but I would argue that the public (generational intricacies are super important here) is actually not indifferent to the loss of cultural heritage and identity at all. In fact, I think a majority of people who support Eurosceptic and populist political movements (beyond economics) are doing so in a desperate attempt to reclaim both national and regional cultural heritage and identity. Now, finding a singular definition of said cultural heritage and identity to “reclaim” and from whom to “reclaim” it is where the difficultly arises (which often manifests as fear, exclusion, xenophobia, racism etc.). Rather than addressing the root cause of these fears, many just scream “Fascist” or “Nazi” and go on about stripping away or militantly reshaping those very identities people are so scared of losing. I think the preservation of cultural heritage may be a great way to change some of the sentiments which lead to the support of populist and Eurosceptic political movements (againnn, just to be clear that I don’t have my head in the sand: I do think economics trumps cultural heritage and without economic changes people are going to continue to reject transnationalism). When national and transnational governments fund the protection and preservation of these local identities, they are showing citizens that in the face of globalization and economic/social/religious/linguistic integration, their personal identity matters to the success and heritage of the European Union. And we all know people just want to matter!
Anyway, tonight was FREAKING AMAZING and I can’t wait for the next discussion on the 13th: “East of Venice: La Serenissima as seen from its Eastern frontiers“! One of the criticisms of my second Masters essay was that I did not adequately situate Italy between the orient and the occident. I wasn’t thinking about this when I wrote the paper as I’ve never read any scholarship touching on Venetian history from the perspective of the East (beyond my short foray into Jewish merchants as middlemen between the Ottomans and Venetian Republic), so I am stoked to finally learn some stuff about that! Come back and join me then.
Early one Monday morning, less than half a mile from his apartment, a 38-year-old Army veteran named Joseph is stabbed to death in the Bronx. A 22-year-old man, identified as Nicholas, comes to his rescue and is stabbed 8 times in the back. They were both part of a group which had been invited by the American Legion to march in the annual Memorial Day parade downtown. All of this takes place within yards of one of the oldest hospitals in New York City, yet they both perish. Their deaths make it into the New York Times and a world-renowned attorney agrees to defend their accused murderers. He succeeds and no one is ever imprisoned for their deaths. Their funerals draw 10,000 mourners and newspapers as far as Texas and Kentucky publish their obituaries…
So, Anna, here we go again with those weeks-long gaps in writing. Why you’re absolutely right, but I have a good excuse this time: I was researching for this next piece. Now, this one is not going to be an opinion piece and there is going to be no resolution at the end, but if you are interested in history, then I think this might grab your attention. Also, it does have a tangential connection to Donald Trump (just hold your horses-it isn’t commentary on current politics…that’s for another time) and there will be lots of pictures and a few mysteries! Now, let’s get down to it.
Back in the Spring of 2015 I took a required class at NYU and the final assignment was a primary source research paper. Well, if you’ll remember, even my first M.A. thesis was based mostly on secondary sources. So, I had very little experience working with primary sources, outside of some transcription I did for a professor one year. For this paper, I went to two research libraries and a courthouse archive here in the Bronx. The result was a 20+ page primary source research paper about two murders in the Bronx and Italian political history in New York City. A few posts ago I mentioned that I “spider-webbed” a lot of my work in graduate school so that I could expand upon the same topic and do more research on one subject. That semester it was Fascism. I was also enrolled in a Nazi Germany/Fascist Italy dual-taught course. Instead of working on two separate things I wrote this seminar paper for one course and a historiography over a similar topic for the Fascism+Nazism class. I am terrible at writing historiographies so that one didn’t turn out great, but my seminar paper was much better. I got a B on the paper and I was really upset about it, but a few months later a click-bait article from BoingBoing about Donald Trump’s dad being arrested as part of a KKK brawl came across my Facebook timeline. I didn’t plan to click, but then I saw the funeral announcement for the two men who were murdered! I clicked and realized their deaths had been a much bigger deal than I initially thought and I also picked up on some inconsistencies from my paper.
I’m not going to summarize 20 pages of writing in this blog, I just want to talk about the two guys who were murdered. If you want to know more about the Italian diaspora just read this. I was researching Fascism in the Italian-American communities in NYC and how Italian’s organized their Fascist groups abroad. InItalian Fascist Activities in North America by Gaetano Salvemini, he mentions the case of two men who were murdered in the Bronx in 1927. Clarence freakin’ Darrow defended the men accused of their murders pro bono and got them off (here is his correspondence from the trial). Despite this, the murders were only discussed in a page or two and the discrepancies regarding the accused and the victims were never addressed. I have been researching for a year and a half now, on and off, and I have yet to find another book or historian who has delved into this case. I obviously can’t travel to Italy and I can’t go back in time to know what really happened, but I will present you with the evidence I’ve found. I have used ancestry.com, the Bronx Country Courthouse, familysearch.org, and a few archival websites in Italy.
Here is the profile I’ve put together of the two victims:
Michele Ambrosoli was born on 9 September 1906 in Rionero in Volture, Potenza, Italy. His father was a farmer named Giovanni Ambrosoli. He was born at #13 Via Processione. In my research, I found a Via Ambrosoli in Melfi, nearby. When you search the street on Google it’s called Via Michele Ambrosoli, but Google maps only lists it as Via Ambrosoli. I know the Fascist government renamed many streets in Italy, so it would be interesting to know if they named this street after this Michele Ambrosoli, when, and who took Michele off of Google maps and why.
Also, Via Processione no longer exists in Rionero, but I know it existed before because other people traced their relatives to the same street on some genealogy blogs. I have searched and searched for an old map of Rionero with no success, but I will keep trying. Michele immigrated to the United States in July 1920 aboard the S.S.Patria. He was 14, traveled alone, gave no destination, and no relatives back in Italy. He was held by immigration at Ellis Island for 2 days and ultimately released on 2 August around 3:45 PM. I haven’t been able to track him any further until 7 years later when he is killed on the corner of 183rd and 3rd in the Bronx around 8 AM. He is then misidentified in every newspaper that reports on his death. The court records also misidentify him and the accused are tried for the death of Michele. The Fascists hold a funeral for him in the Bronx and 10,000 people attend. A new Fascist club was created in his honor in Brooklyn under the name Michele Ambrosoli.
While this information may seem trivial, we need to talk about naming and name changes. Initially, Michele Ambrosoli was identified by the New York Times as Nicola Amoroso, then Nicholas Amoruzo, Nicola, Amorosso, then Nicholas Amoruzo D’Ambrosoli. The Ambrosoli was only mentioned in one of the last stories about their funeral in Naples. His death certificate is listed on Ancestry under Michael Ramibrose. I have yet to figure out how or why he was identified as Nichola(s) Amoroso. A new Fascio was commemorated in his honor in Brooklyn and it was called Fascio Michele Ambrosoli, so the Italian community knew his real name. He was also listed as a Fascist martyr as both Michele Ambrosoli and Michele D’Ambrosoli. I am currently trying to get ahold of a funeral announcement from Mt. Carmel Church, but all evidence points to the fact that he was not going by an alias. I believe he lived in Brooklyn and was only visiting the Bronx, but I have no evidence so far. I don’t know where he worked, where he lived, if he ever traveled back to Italy, nothing. The list of Fascist martyrs says that he died trying to help a comrade who had been attacked by “subversives” and I can only assume that was the first victim that day: Giuseppe Carisi.
Now, for the other guy. I’ve had a LOT of success finding information about him. Similarly, his name is listed in various forms: His birth name is Giuseppe Carisi but he signed his name and is listed as George Carisi, Joseph Carisie, Joseph Carrisi, Joseph Carisy, etc.
Giuseppe Carisi was born on 10 February 1889 in Reggio Calabria, Italy. Pietro Carisi was his father. An unnumbered house on Via Santa Caterina is listed and Vittoria Mesiano is also listed on his birth certificate.
I have been able to track him to a home at 124-126 Thompson street in Manhattan in 1910. He was boarding with a Carmelo (twenty years his senior) and Philomena Mesiano, who I can only assume were relatives of Vittoria from back in Calabria. Carlo was making watches in his home and Giuseppe said he was an operator at a coat shop.
In 1913, Giuseppe moved to the Bronx and according to the 1920 census Carmelo and Giuseppe were living 500 feet from one another at 502 and 552 East 187th Street. Carlo now owned a jewelry store and Giuseppe was a tailor at a factory. Giuseppe was now living with his younger brother Pietro. As of 1918, he was working at Eclipse Cloth(es) Company on 328 Church Street (which now appears to be a Post Office). In 1890 this factory had 22 employees and is listed as specializing in foodstuffs, leather, and general merchandise. During World War I, Joseph (he was signing this name now) was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Hancock, Georgia for six months.
He became a naturalized citizen there. Upon his return from the Army, he applied for a passport in 1919 and traveled back and forth to Italy at least two times in the early 20s. It appears he intended to bring his family back to the United States.
While his brother appears to have been here with him in 1920, his assets were probated in 1928 and all of his family is listed as resident aliens in Staiti, Calabria-including his brother Pietro Jr. I am unsure as of yet if he was able to bring his family back from Italy. Tragically, his father died just 18 days after he was killed. Giuseppe had over $2000 in assets which appear to have been given to his family, although it appears the legal proceedings took over a year to complete.
One of the most interesting things to note is that Carmelo Mesiano moved from 124-126 Thomson street to 502 East 187th street sometime between 1910 and 1920. I do not know when or if any of these men became full-fledged Fascists, nor what that process entailed, but he was living next door to 506 East 187th street which was the headquarters for Fascists in this area and the location of the Fascio Mario Sozini. This Fascio is featured in Carlo Tresca’s memoirs as an especially active Fascio and most of the accounts I read said that the men gathered there that morning before leaving to go to the parade. Perhaps Pietro joined the Fascists first, maybe Carmelo invited Giuseppe to join for economic or social reasons. Maybe Giuseppe wasn’t Fascist at all and just hung out with his friend and neighbors regularly. People shifting their identities is nothing new, so it is important that we realize these shifts in the political and national identity of immigrants have existed for centuries.
The two men were murdered here (the train station has since been demolished)
One reason history is so fascinating to me is because we are often able to pin down the exact time and date certain things happened, but other than the occasional diary it is impossible to know how people felt. I will never know how a World War I veteran that died with a $2000 estate in 1927 became a Fascist. I will never know why a 14-year-old boy traveled to a new continent alone, became a Fascist, was murdered while trying to aide Giuseppe, was misidentified by the national media, and doesn’t show up in any extant records. But one thing is for sure, two men who were able to gain the attention of national and international media and drew 10,000 people to the Bronx for their funerals are worth talking a look at.
I think this case is incredibly relevant to current political discourse. Veterans, immigration, Fascism, identity, diaspora, allegiance, and the importance of documentation are all as important today as they were on Memorial Day 1927.
So, this is where I leave it for now. I will probably continue to research this for years to come and hopefully one day I will be able to visit Southern Italy armed with these records. I don’t know what I can do with all this stuff since I’m not in academia anymore, but I’d love to make a vlog of the significant locations, write a biography, or even a historical novel.
**I am in the process of ordering the two men’s death certificates (they are sequentially numbered which really helped with making sure I was researching the right guys) and will update this when/if I find out anything new!
So, let’s get down to business. Now that you know how and why I became interested in the history of Jews in Venice, I’m going to connect some dots and summarize my work.
This post will explain a few different connections between economic, political, and religious history in Venice, Italy before 1797.
You can read my original paper from 2012 here. Or if you want to read even more, you can peep my thesis here (disregard page numbers because I deleted the front matter).
Running Disclaimer: I am not Jewish nor am I an expert of Judaica. I am not Italian nor am I an expert of Italian history…or an expert of anything really. All of my research is based on primary and secondary sources (cited in the papers) and interviews with members of the Jewish community where I currently live. My knowledge is restricted by these factors. While I can verify things people tell me, their experiences, ideas and theories are their own and I have no authority to correct them if they may contradict something I’ve read over the past 5 years. If you read something you think is wrong, please comment below and I will either edit/expand my post or clarify my original point.
Who-What-When-Where-Why…not in that order
-Where: What area are we talking about here? In the contemporary imagination, Venice is a relatively small group of islands off the coast of northeastern Italy where people from all over the world go to marvel at art and architecture. But the Venetian Republic occupied/governed a much larger area back in the day…according to good ol’ Wikipedia and a quick look at a few maps, one can see that Venice governed land in areas that now make up part of Italy, Croatia, Greece, Albania, Cyprus, Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine!
Venice also occupied/governed large swaths of territory on the terra firma (solid land…ya know, not islands)
The contemporary region of Veneto looks like this (SN: In a future post I plan to talk about a current political movement which hopes to reestablish the Venetian Republic…what what?)
-Who: Who are “the Jews of Venice”? Was it just a few rich merchant families? In modern times the Jewish community in America and Israel (maybe elsewhere, but I don’t know) is divided into two groups: the Ashkenazim אַשְׁכְּנַזִּים and the Sephardim סְפָרַדִּים. To be clear, these two larger groups contain countless smaller groups that follow the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. In Venice, these two groups were known as Tedeschi and Ponentine, respectively. There was also a third group of Jews in Venice: the Levantines. While Tedeschi is a direct translation of Ashkenazim or Germanic, Ponentine is a particularly Italian classification of Jews from the “west”, specifically Spain and Portugal, who followed the Sephardic tradition. In modern times there are two other large groups: Ethiopian Jews and Mizrahim or Eastern Jews (from what I’ve learned the latter classification is antiquated and can be offensive in certain contexts but also a point of pride in other contexts). Levantine Jews in the Venetian context were Ottoman subjects and would fall within the modern Mizrahim or Eastern group, who follow the Sephardic tradition. So Levantine and Ponentine Jews followed the Sephardic tradition and Tedeschi Jews followed the Ashkenazi tradition. Ashkenazim and Sephardim don’t only denote geographic origin but also describe the specific traditions one follows. The two groups also have unique languages, food, prayers, music, etc. Most Jews in Germany, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe follow(ed) Ashkenazi traditions (with particular local adaptations), while Jews from Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean region, the “Middle East”, and Western Asia follow(ed) Sephardic traditions. Russia and its “sphere of influence” is its own animal. Russian Jews from Western Russia follow(ed) mainly Ashkenazi traditions while formerly Persian areas, which came under Russian control in modern times, follow Sephardic traditions. Think Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran (Persian Sephardim have their own unique traditions too), Azerbaijan, etc. To make things even more confusing, there are two other unique traditions: Italian and Romaniote Jews. Italian Jewish tradition, known as Italkim, is different from Ashkenazim and Sephardim. While there may have been a small Italkim and Romaniote Jewish community in Venice (proper and its overseas holdings) which fell under the umbrella of Ponentine or Levantine, there was not a specific classification by the Venetian government for Italkim or Romaniote Jews. I talk more about Ashkenazim and Sephardim in another post, but just wanted to illuminate the fact that “the Jews” is a completely misleading way to identify Jewish people both in the past and now!
So, for the purposes of this post, the Universita degli Hebrei or Jewish community in Venice contained three groups: Tedeschi (including Italkim), Ponentine, and Levantine (including Ponentine-yes, I know it makes no sense) Jews. Jews existed in three communities as well: there were groups of Jews living in Venice proper (the islands where the government was located), on the terra firma in modern day Mestre and the surrounding area, and in Venice’s overseas holdings like Crete and Corfu.
-When: Let’s start with the end of the Republic since that is a definite. Venice was taken by Napoleon Bonaparte on 12 May 1797 and gifted to Austria 5 months later, with the treaty of Campo Formio. Along with the Jewish ghettos, the Venetian Republic ceased to exist. Now, for the beginning. People began populating the islands of current-day Venice in the 400s! Yes, the fifth freakin’ century! The city itself was established on 25 March 421. Venice fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire until 751. Although the first Doge was elected in 726. These elections (as tenuous as they may have been) ceased and the Great Council closed in 1297, which officially created the exclusive oligarchy which would rule Venice until the end. Families who were part of the Venetian political scene from the 700s would still have members in the government in 1797! I obviously cannot write about or even summarize the history of Jews in Venice between 421 and 1797, but I will explain how the community helped the Republic maintain its power up to its last days.
Like many historical events, the establishment of the Jewish community in Venice is a hard one to nail down. What makes a “Jewish community”? Would one Jewish merchant be enough? 5? 10? The establishment of a synagogue? The first document (that I know of) placing a Jewish community under the control of the Venetian government is a petition from the Jewish community of Crete to the Doge in 1314. While this may be the first document directly addressing Jews, I am quite sure there was a Jewish presence in Venice several decades if not centuries before. There is a disputed census from 1152 which records the presence of a Jewish community and the Venetian government outlawed money lending in the islands in 1254 which forced Jews and Christians to lend on the mainland (don’t worry, this changed and Jews were exclusively contracted to lend money in Venice beginning in the 1300s). The Venetian government invited money lenders, specifically Tedeschi Jews, to come to Venice between 1366 and 1373. With the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492/95, a new wave of Jewish migrants came to the islands as well. The Venetian government didn’t officially invite/allow Ponentine Jews to settle until the end of the 16th century, but Ponentine Jews entered Venice from the east as Levantines (remember, they were both Sephardic) during this 100-year gap and afterward. Cecil Roth, a scholar of Venetian history places the Jewish community in Venice sometime in the 12th century and a new exhibit at the Met explains that at least 3 ships a year were sailing between Venice and Jerusalem by the 13th century (I’m in the middle of researching these ships and will check back in when I get some info). Contracts between the Venetian government and Jewish communities living in the islands and on the terra firma abound from the middle of the 1300s, so that’s what I’m going with. There are still 500 Jews living in Venice today, so the story isn’t over!
-What: So what actually went down between Jews in Venice, non-Jewish citizens, and the government? Long story short the Jewish communities in Venice had a HUGE role in the Venetian economy and lent money to poor citizens, rich citizens, and the Venetian GOVERNMENT (yes, the Jewish community in Venice lent money to the state for interest-think government bonds!) up until the final days of the Republic. First, let’s address moneylending. This money lending was more closely related to pawn brokering (the Jewish community also cornered the market on the sale of secondhand goods-no doubt pledges that lenders weren’t able to buy back) although Jewish moneylenders did lend on written agreements at a higher percentage of interest. Tedeschi and Italkim Jews lent money in Mestre and Venice. See, most of the rest of Italy used a poor-relief system operated by the Catholic Church called the Monte di Pieta, but Venice received “permission” (I use quotes because Venice had a strained relationships with the Church on many occasions) via a papal legate from 1463 to contract money lending to the Jews and later the Monte di Pieta was outlawed completely! Initially, the Jewish money lenders were only lending to wealthy Venetians as to ensure they would receive the highest interest rate, but it was put into law that the Jews had to accept pledges from poor clients and lend small sums. This allowed the Venetian government to control poor-relief or “welfare” without giving up any power to the Church but also, the state itself wasn’t responsible. Genius move! SN: These contracts were extensive AF and the last one from 1786 had 96 clauses–including who Jews could have sex with, where they could work, when they could come and go from the ghettos, what they could wear, tax rates, etc.
So, were the Jewish moneylenders in Venice only responsible for poor-relief? NO way! They also sold secondhand goods. There were strict rules about this though because, ya see, Venice was a “union” city and guilds ruled the roost. First and foremost in order to have a legitimated government “the man” has to placate its citizens in order that they will allow themselves to be governed. There are many ways of doing this (like bread and circuses, yo) and one way the Venetian government did it was through extensive contracts and negotiations with guilds! There were guilds for salt and leather and sewing and building and shipping and everything else you can think of. Unique contracts with each guild outlined what they could do and provided protections for their industries. Anyway, people in Venice were very poor, even nobles, except a few (like, really, a few)
As a result of these guild rules, Jews in Venice weren’t allowed to trade overseas as Venetian merchants until 1589. Venetian shipping suffered immensely with the discovery of America and a shipping route around the horn of Africa so the government pulled out all the stops and opened up the profession to Jews. A large number of Jews visited Venice regularly as Ottoman subjects/merchants and were governed in this capacity before 1589. Jewish merchants were also allowed to trade with other Italian cities so they did have a role in the Venetian merchant economy, as long as it didn’t conflict with the native-patriciate nobility and their merchant activities.
Don’t get it twisted, for quite some time, the state used “forced loans” from the Jews and wealthy nobles to stay afloat. See, a bunch of rich Venetian families decided shipping and receiving was a trashy way to make money and they thought feudalism was cool…a few hundred years after feudalism was found to be a no-go on the continent. So a huge chunk of the nobility-when they weren’t creating unprofitable farms on the terra firma-worked for the government in order to get a pension from the state.
When the Great Council closed in 1297 lineage was the only thing that validated one’s position in government. This meant many families, despite their net worth, were allowed to hold political office. The lower class nobles, aka barnabotti, were dependent on the Jewish lenders, the government, and wealthier nobles. As early as 1490 a MAJORITY of the noble class in Venice was dependent on the state for subsistence!
This is a good book if you want to know more:
Also, guess what? These contracts encouraged conversos to go back Judaism in order to enjoy the benefits of the contracts. The contract for merchants allowed Jewish traders to pay the same customs rates as native Venetian merchants, whereas conversos wouldn’t be allowed to be merchants at all!
Parts of these contracts also included the ghettoization of the Jews. Jewish Venetians had to live within the ghettos established by the state. There were warehouses for their goods, stores, schools, synagogues, and other institutions for the exclusive use of Jews. There were three ghettos in Venice, the first of which was mandated in 1516 for the Tedeschi Jews and visiting Levantines…prior to this, Jewish moneylenders and merchants were allowed to live wherever they could find a space to rent. From 1516 to 1797 the Jews were required to reside only in the ghettos. A specific ghetto was created in 1541 for the Levantines and in 1633 for Ponentines. One of the most interesting parts of all of this is the intricate system of self-government the Jewish community in Venice organized. I am not an expert and I can’t summarize here, but in short, there were groups or Scuole for each tradition and they composed a sort of Jewish congress (with the permission and encouragement of the Venetian state) which exacted taxes from the community and negotiated with the state on its behalf.
As I mentioned before I am fascinated by separatism and self-determination and one interesting adaptation of this occurred in the Jewish communities of Venice. The Tedeschi, Ponentine, and Levantine Jews created an intricate system of self-government in Venice. It was a state within a state where individuals represented themselves and members of their particular group. This obviously completely flips the idea that the Venetian state was a harsh oligarchy where people had no authority over their lives. Of course, the state held power over the Jewish community and I am not saying they had some sort of absolute agency over their position in Venetian society, but organs of self-government served a valuable purpose and were not just for show! Check out this book: A Separate Republic: The Mechanics and Dynamics of Venetian Jewish Self-Government, 1607-1674
The last encounter between the Universita degli Hebrei and the Venetian government came in the form of a gift of silver in 1796 in an attempt to help stave off French forces. It didn’t work and Venice crashed and burned and the Jews were subsequently “liberated” by the provisional democratic government.
Just to summarize, the Jewish community in Venice monopolized poor-relief in the city, aided the noble class by providing loans to poor noble families, loaned money to the state for little to no interest (hey, like those negative rate bonds people have now!), and served as merchants in trade between Venice and the East…all through specific contracts negotiated by the governing bodies of their communities and the state of Venice!
-Why: Why does this matter at all in 2016? Well, if you hadn’t noticed tensions are quite high between people of different races, religions, and nationalities across the United States and Europe. Somehow Venice was able to navigate social, political, economic, and technological changes for over A THOUSAND YEARS while maintaining relationships with various empires and religious groups to the benefit of the Republic. Granted, there was no internet, modern warfare, or World Bank to muddy the waters and obviously ghettoizing+legislating people’s personal lives is not a modern solution to today’s issues, but surveying Venetian political history can provide a new way to analyze the relationship between the state and minority communities. The “Politics of Difference” as explained in Jane Burbank and Frederic Cooper’s work Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference
is a challenge faced by every empire and now, nation-states. Using local agents (in this case the Universita degli Hebrei) as mediators between communities and the government is one strategy that worked in several imperial contexts, including Venice. Also, while the Jewish community was in no way a monolithic group, their tradition of self-governance in Venice allowed the individual Jewish groups (Tedeschi, Ponentine, and Levantine) as well as the community as a whole to negotiate with the Venetian government much to their benefit. As we read above, the Venetian government extended contracts to the various Jewish communities to both help regulate and encourage their role in the economy. They also used Jewish merchants as middlemen between empires-most notably the Ottoman Empire and as middlemen domestically in aiding the urban poor. Unique geographic, cultural, religious, and political circumstances helped Venice survive for so long, but that doesn’t mean it’s political history cannot be adapted to contemporary political challenges. History could teach our leaders a thing or two about interacting with, meeting the needs of, and validating the role of marginalized communities.
**Let me repeat this again just in case anyone misunderstood: Venice was by no means perfect and I am under no illusion that Medieval and Renaissance governance of minority communities was a fun and happy space to occupy. Obviously, governing where people can go and who they bump uglies with and how they can dress is ridiculous. This is only meant to show that past city-states/empires/Republics/oligarchies were diverse institutions able to navigate a relationship with minority communities which promoted the prosperity and inclusion of those communities (while simultaneously using them for the benefit of the state), at least in part.**
I’m not entirely sure, but I think the next installment will be about some Fascists that were murdered in the Bronx which will include Clarence Darrow! Come back!
So, as usual, I didn’t get to follow the schedule I’d planned for starting this new series because life and that paper chaseee. But here we are now. Ok, this first post will mostly be a background about why this Catholic, Army-brat from Georgia became interested in Judaica studies (didn’t even know that was a thing until 2011) and how a seminar paper from 2012 became a thesis chapter in 2013 and has impacted my life more than I could have ever fathomed. This initial post is more about me than about Jews in Venice (if that’s all you’re here for, just wait for part two-there will be no personal stuff in that one), but I will link to my original paper and the L.A. Times article about the same topic from last year. Part 2 will be an updated summary of my paper/thesis chapter with some new material and commentary.
I am going to start by saying I knew NOTHING about Judaism. Zero. Zilch. Nada. I knew Hitler killed millions of “the Jews” in the Holocaust, that Jews didn’t believe in Jesus, and that they didn’t eat pork, but that was the extent of it. I know about Christianity because that’s the religion my parents are and therefore how I was raised (mom’s Baptist non-denominational and my dad is a non-practicing Catholic). I know about Islam because I had several Muslim friends (see also: hung out with an Imam’s son in the back of his coffee shop after school for a few weeks my Junior year) in Tulsa and I became more curious about that religion when my dad was deployed to Iraq. I’ve learned about Christianity in Sunday School since I was 3 years old and I learned about Islam through independent study, friends, and a couple of university classes. But guess what? In all my travels and all the moves, I had not ever met a Jewish person-to my knowledge.
Circa 2006 or 2007, I went to Alabama with my mom and we had lunch with her uncle. He knew I was interested in history and gave me a jump drive with our family tree on it. He was an amateur genealogist and had traced my mother’s, father’s, mother’s family tree. I never looked at the jump drive, but he passed away in the Summer of 2011 and I thought I’d better check it out. I opened up the document and to my surprise, he traced the family back to the 15th century in Bassano del Grappa, Italy! After some Googling, I saw that research had been done by other people who thought the family were exiled Jews from Spain or Portugal. I obviously thought it was cool, but didn’t really dig any further. When I started graduate school in 2011, I took a class about Venetian History and learned about the ghettos and a little bit about the Jewish population there. A new student arrived the following Fall and we became friends-it turned out she was Jewish. It just so happens that I signed up for a History of the Reformation class with her and the professor was Jewish too (hold on to your shorts, this will get trippy in a little bit). We had to come up with a paper topic and since I always tried to piggy-back my research paper’s off one another, I thought I would expand upon research I’d already done about Jews in Venice.
**Grad School pro-tip: I highly suggest finding a broad topic you like before you start graduate school and using that to guide all of your seminar papers. It turns out my broad topics were Italian Politics and Judaism. I went to two universities and took 25+ classes and was able to spider-web my papers and expand upon a few core topics each semester. (Obviously, I took unrelated courses like Carribbean History and Russian Cinema for which I wasn’t able to research anything related to these topics, but you get what I mean.) If I ever got nervous about using my own prior work, I’d just cite myself and link to my paper on Google Docs, but as far as I know there is no academic dishonesty in this approach and it will cut down your workload tremendously because you’ll be familiar with a group of sources and have already researched a topic that you can just expand or reframe in your next class.**
In 2014, I went to Italy and got to visit all the places I’d talked about in my thesis. From the place the first Venetian settlers came from, to the town where my family came from, all the way to the Jewish ghetto itself! Later that year when I got to New York, I quickly found a job in Riverdale, an affluent-and largely Jewish-suburb in the Bronx. I began working for a family as a companion to a lady with Alzheimer’s. I soon found out that her daughter-in-law was from Fort Worth, Texas. The following year, upon meeting her in-laws, I asked them if they knew the Jewish professor who was on my thesis committee (not just because he was Jewish-I’m not that redneck-but because I knew he was an active member of the Jewish community in North Texas) and helped guide my research. It turns out my new bosses’ in-laws were very well aquainted with that professor I took the class with way back in 2012. Then, early this year, I logged into Facebook and had several notifications. 3 or 4 friends that knew about my seminar paper and thesis had linked me to the L.A. Times artilce about the history of Jews in Venice! I found out shortly afterward that I wasn’t accepted into a Ph.D. program, so I really thought that was the end of all this history stuff, but it turns out I wasn’t quiteee done.
As part of my job, I go to a Jewish Senior Center multiple times a week and earlier this year I met a member of the senior center who is an Afghani-Sephardic Jew from Israel. We became close friends, and in the past 6 months my research about Judaism has increased ten-fold (peep my IG if you’d like to see my interactions with the Jewish community in the Bronx). While I’ve branched out beyond Venice, I am still finding new sources which connect to my thesis!
So, a family tree given to me in Alabama in 2007 and viewed in 2011, led to a seminar paper in Denton, Texas in 2012, and a thesis chapter in 2013. An application to a Ph.D. program using this chapter as a writing sample brought me to New York City in 2014, where I found a job with a connection to two Jewish families in Fort Worth, Texas and the Bronx, New York. This new job led me to a Jewish Senior Center and a new friend from Israel, who just so happens to be an expert in the field of Judaica. Here I am, 4 years after writing that first paper and just last week I found yet another connection between Venice and “the Jews”…
*Next up: Let’s talk about the modern day divides within Judaism and the history of Jews in Venice/their importance to the Venetian economy!