The Jews of Italy


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From The Sun newspaper, New York City, dated November 10, 1907:



Establishment of the First of the Ghettos—
Emperors and Popes Who Protected or Ill Treated the Jews—
Sons of the Ghetto Who Have Sat on Thrones.


photographs from article:
left: the Old Ghetto; top, middle: Part of the Ghetto Under Cenci Palace; top, right: the New Synagogue; middle, right: Porticus of Octavia; bottom: Porticus of Octavia, Inside View Showing Marble Slabs used by the Jewish Sellers of Fish.

Rome, Oct. 29 – Of the colonies of foreign residents for which Rome in ancient times was celebrated all have been altered and modernized, with one single exception—the Jewish colony, which has practically remained unchanged since the year 160 B.C. And yet the Jews of Rome have been persecuted through the centuries, they have been trampled under foot and made to pay heavy taxes, they have been forbidden to have intercourse with Christians, prohibited from walking the streets and subjected to every possible humiliation.

The centre of the Jewish settlement in Rome was the Porticus of Octavia, where Vespasian and Titus celebrated their triumph after the fall of Jerusalem. Among the spectators of this celebration stood the historian Flavius Josephus, “the base Jewish courtier,” to whom we owe a description of the triumph.

In the early days of the city the region between the river and the Janiculum was marshy and so unhealthful that it was chosen by the Senate as a place of residence for prisoners of war whom they wished to destroy. Here the Jews were established.

The first Jewish slaves are said to have been brought to Rome by Pompey the Great after he had entered Jerusalem and taken the Holy of Holies, but the Jewish colony on the banks of the Tiber was already flourishing before the time of Pompey, other Jews having previously been driven from their native land by poverty, besides the many brought as slaves behind the chariots of their Roman conquerors. Here they all took refuge. Many of them perished, but many lived to form in course of time a poor and unhealthful but populous quarter of their own.

Some of them became wealthy, and leaving the home of their co-religionaries settled in fashionable quarters in the city. St. Peter is said to have been the guest of Aquila and Priscilla, who lived on the slopes of the Aventine. The Jewish Princes Herod and Agrippa lived in Rome in wealth and honor and found a home in the palace of the early Caesars. Bernice, the daughter of Agrippa, was on the point of marrying Titus and becoming Empress of Rome.

Julius Caesar was the first and one of the few of the Roman benefactors of the Jews. He loosed their bonds of slavery and allowed them to form a separate caste, that of the Libertini. His murder was therefore mourned by them as nothing less than a national calamity.

Augustus, the founder of the empire, was merciful to the Jews, but Tiberius and Caligula ill treated the colony and determined to exterminate it. Titus employed thousands of Jews in building the Coliseum, and Vespasian obliged them to pay a tax of two drachmae, formerly paid to the temple treasury, to Jupiter Capitolinus, a custom which survived until the seventeenth century, when the Jews of Rome were made to pay a tribute of 1,200 gold florins to the Camera Capitolina, to which were added thirty denari in memory of the betrayal of Judas.

Under Domitian the Jews were banished from the city to the Valley of Egeria, where they lived in a state of outlawry, occupying themselves with soothsaying, love charms and mysterious cures, their furniture being restricted to a basket suspended from a tree and a bundle of straw. Juvenal says that every tree of the sacred grove rendered a tax to the Roman people.

During the reigns of the early Popes the Jews enjoyed considerable liberty. The Transtiberine quarter still continued to be inhabited by the Jews, but after the pillage of Rome by Robert Guiscard in 1084 they migrated to the opposite bank of the Tiber and settled among the remains of the Porticus of Octavia, close by the Fabian bridge, which then acquired the name of Pons Judeorum.

A reason for the peaceful life and the liberty they enjoyed is found in the fact that they were then the bankers of the Holy See. They often lent money to the Popes at a high rate of interest, sometimes as much as 20 per cent, and generally they borrowed the money from the Christian bankers at a very low rate of interest.

They were skilled in medicine, so much so that the Pope’s physician or Pentifical archiater was for a considerable time a Jew. Martin V, Eugene IV, Innocent VII, and Pius II were all attended by Hebrew doctors, and it is said that Innocent VIII at the point of death, was advised by a Jewish physician to have his blood rejuvenated with the blood of three boys. The operation proved far from successful, as the Pope as well as the three boys died, but the doctor saved his life by flight.

Some Jews held important offices in the Papal court. One, a certain B. Abraham, was intendent of the household of Alexander III. Several wealthy Jewish families abjured the faith of their fathers and acquired considerable power and influence under the Papal Government, such, for instance, as the Brancas and the Pierleonis whose descendant was the anti-Pope Anacletus II.

There is a tradition that two members of the Pierleoni family, which was considered one of the patrician houses of Rome, migrated to Germany in 1450 and became the heads of the Hapsburg family. Lucrezia, the last representative of the family, who died in the year 1582 and is buried in the Church of Santa Maria della Conzolazione at Rome, is proclaimed in an inscription on her tomb to be “the only surviving daughter of the most noble Roman and Austrian race.”

Paul IV (1555-59) was the first real enemy of the Jews. He ordered that they should live apart from the Christians in a quarter of their own, surrounded by a wall with but one entrance and one exit, and on July 15, 1555, the Jews were shut up in the place which has since been called Ghetto, an abbreviation of Borghetto (little town) in contradistinction to Borgo (town), and which at the time was known as Vicus Judeorum.

Four Christian churches which were within the enclosure were pulled down, while the piazza close by the prison of the Jews was called Piazza del Pianto, or Place of Weeping, to testify to the grief of the people. It is said, however, and perhaps with greater probability of truth, that the place was so called after the close by Church of Santa Maria del Pianto, where an image of the Virgin shed tears on beholding a murder committed at its feet.

The humiliations and vexations suffered by the Roman Jews have in many cases been exaggerated. Martin V (1417-31) caused the Jews to wear a sign by which they could be distinguished from the Christians. This sign varied. Originally it consisted in red overcoats for men and women alike. Later the letter O in yellow was worn sewed on the breast. Under Paul IV the men wore yellow conical caps and the women veils of the same hue.

The difference in the color or cut of the clothes worn by various classes of people was a matter of custom in the Middle Ages and certainly it did not originate nor was it intended as a special humiliation for the Jews.

The races which the Jews were compelled to run during the Carnival have been qualified as a cruel custom and an increase of the many humiliations to which they were subjected, and yet, together with the Jews, Christian old men and boys used to run as well, and when Pope Clement IX abolished the races for the Jews the customer of having Christian boys run races with the asses still continued.

It must be admitted, however, that as a rule common law penalties were applied with more severity in the case of Jews than of Christians, especially in crimes against morality, for which Christians were punished merely with fustigation while Jews were burned at the stake.

Sixtus V treated the Jews better than his predecessors owing to the fact that they belonged to “the family from whom Christ came,” and he granted them the privilege to practice several kinds of trades. Clement VIII and Innocent XIII restricted their liberty to only two trades, namein, those in old clothes and rags and iron, “stracci ferracci,” which they are still playing at the present day.

Gregory XIII forced the Jews to hear a sermon once a week in the Church of Saint Angelo in Pescheria, and this custom was renewed in 1832 by Leo XII and only abolished in 1848 by Pius IX, who opened the gates of the Ghetto and revoked all the oppressive laws against the Jews.

Near the Ghetto, in memory of this custom, stands to this day a church called the Divine Pity, erected by a converted Jew, which bears on the outside a picture of the Crucifixion with the following inscription in Latin and Hebrew: “All day long have I stretched out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people.”

The Jews had their synagogues and schools near the Ghetto. Originally these temples stood on the banks of the river. Later temples rose in various parts of the city, but the new synagogue has been built, following the ancient custom again, near the river and not far from the Ghetto, where the majority of modern Jews in the city still reside.

Thus the Jewish colony, or at least the greater part of it, has kept the habits of 2,200 years ago and retained to a great extent its old characteristics.

The poor classes still cling to their religion and habits, keep the Sabbath, when either they do not light any fire or have it kindled by a Christian servant, refrain from passing under the arch of Titus, erected in the year 81 A.D. to commemorate the fall of Jerusalem, and regularly walk out of the Porta Portese, by which the expected Messiah is supposed to enter Rome. The well to do Jews are less careful to observe old customs and it has been remarked they seem to have given up the profitable trade of lending money at usury probably on account of the successful competition of their Christian rivals.



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