The presence of Jews in Florence and the Ghetto
The very first stable Jewish Community in Florence dates back to the year 1437, when Cosimo the Elder called a group of Jewish financers to Florence because the lending of money was prohibited to Catholics. Various historical events lead to believe that this community lived in the area of Borgo San Jacopo, south of the Arno River on the Cassia road that lead to Siena. The credit banks were situated in various areas of the city.
The permanence of Jews under the Medici rule was a peaceful one and rich in cultural exchange, especially under Lawrence the Magnificent.
At his death in 1492 the favours the Jews had enjoyed until that moment ended, and in 1494 a Republic was established with Savonarola as head of state in 1495. He tried to take the credit banks from the Jews and put them in the hands of the Monti di Pietà cancelling the CAPITALS (contracts) stipulated prior to this moment and therefore giving the Jews a year’s notice to remove themselves from the city.
On April 21, 1496 the Monte di Pietà statute was approved definitely but in actual fact the bank closures were extended beyond the established date and many Jews remained in the city for the whole period of the Republic.
In 1555 however, Pope Paul IV with the papal seal “Cum nimis absurdum” condemned the Jews to life within a certain quarter and denied them the right to engage in commerce, except for the trade of used objects and rags. The quarter in which the Jews were confined was called “ghetto”: the origin of the word comes from the Venetian word ghetto (getto/mould) because at that time in the “Venetian ghetto” there was a foundry that moulded the metal used to make cannons, and the Ashkenazi Jews probably pronounced the soft G (J sound) like a hard G (G of get).
In Florence the Ghetto was not founded in 1555 because the Medici family were particularly sympathetic to the Jewish community, and it was only in 1570 when Cosimo I, desiring to become Grand Duke of Tuscany, had to succumb to the wishes of the pope. The ghetto was therefore constructed by Buontalenti in 1570: it extended from what is today Piazza della Repubblica (then the old market), via Roma (via dei Succhiellinai) where the first gate was, via di Campigoglio and via Brunelleschi (via dei Rigattieri); Piazza della Fonte was found in the centre, and was the place where the population went to collect water. In this period there were two Synagogues (called “scuole” schools): the Italian one and the Levantine one, both constructed at the end of the 15th century, and both looked onto to the square with the well.
Later on, when Ferdinand I (1587), was appointed, he promoted the commerce between the Jews and the Orient taking advantage of the fact there was fact a numerous Jewish population in Leghorn.
In 1670, a fire destroyed part of the ghetto so between 1705 and 1721 Cosimo III decided to extend the district, which was very crowded. Rich homes were therefore included in the perimeter and the ghetto reached as far as via dè Pecori and a new gate was opened in Piazza dell’Olio.
Between 1670 and 1723 under Cosimo III de’ Medici many restrictive measures were taken against the Jewish community.
Once the dominion of the Medici family ceased to exist and that of the Lorraine family began, the Jewish population began to enjoy a certain amount of liberty again. In 1750 they bought the properties where the Schools had been; and in 1755 the law forcing the gates of the ghetto to be closed was lifted. In 1778 Leopoldo sold the ghetto to the Jewish community because it cost too much to maintain and, therefore, in 1779 houses, shops and warehouses were sold to a society of Jewish bankers.
Under Peter Leopold of the Habsburg-Lorraine family (1765-1790) the situation changed for Tuscan Jews. Not only did he not have any prejudice against Jews whatsoever, but appreciated their industriousness and drive in commerce, a branch he wanted to develop and liberalize.
The freedom they experienced under the Lorraine was completely conquered with the invasion of the Napoleonic troops. With the return of the Lorraine, the old rules were applied, but it all ended with the onset of the Reign of Italy (1859).
The ghetto, which had been abandoned by most of the Jews, was torn down along with much of the centre of the city at the end of the 19th century to construct a new, more beautiful city centre for the appointment of Florence to capital city (1864-1870). The Medieval walls were taken down to create the Lungarni (riverside), the viali (ringroad) and Piazzale Michelangelo. And thus the project for a monumental Temple was born. Many Jews, disagreeing with this choice, in 1882 (see “Synagogue of Florence”) opened two oratories on the first floor of via delle Oche 4, one following the Italian rite and the other the Brotherhood of the Mattir Assurim, which worked to free Jews imprisoned for debts, and which had as its symbol a bird being freed from its cage.
The venues were sold in 1962, when the Ashkenazi rite functions ceased; the sacred furnishings can be found in the Jad Haghiborim Synagogue in Ramat Gan and in the Jeshivah Kerem be-Yavne. The money from the sale of the venues was used to construct a Jewish school which still today exists and has both a kindergarten and elementary school.