The strange history of the last Jews in Volterra
Volterra – located in the heart of Tuscany, about 70 km from Florence, 60 from Pisa, 47 from Siena – rises on the peak of a hill, 555 mt. above sea level. The hill is the watershed between the valleys of the rivers Cecina and Era. During the 14th century the commune was replaced by the seigniory of the family Belforti, which tragically ended in 1361. The end of the Belforti opened the door to the Florentines, and very soon Volterra – though theoretically still independent – became a subject of the Florentine Republic, which considered the town as a strong rampart against the enemy Republic of Siena. During the 15th century, Volterra was one among the “sixtowns” of the Florentine Republic, with an urban population of 3600 inhabitants (another 3500 people lived in the contado)1.
Volterra was, for more than a century, the fulcrum of the activities of one of the most important Jewish family of the Renaissance: the Da Volterras. Buonaventura, son of Genatano of Bologna, was the progenitor of the Da Volterra. He moved from Bologna2 and settled in Volterra towards the end of the 14th century, initially as the agent of Roman Jewish bankers (the “Da Roma”), thereafter as the owner of the Condotta granted by the city council of Volterra (in agreement, of course, with the government of Florence, to which Volterra was subject)3. While the very mobile members of the family were active as merchants, bankers, moneylenders, and physicians in many other Tuscan and Italian towns and regions (Florence, Siena, Pisa, Verona, Rome, Naples, Sardinia, Calabria)4, they showed at the same time a rather unusual attachment to Volterra, which they considered their “home-town”. Generation after generation, they found there a sort of “gravity center”, a place which always granted them good business opportunities and a safe shelter when they needed one.
As many other Jewish settlements in northern and central Italy, Volterra did not have Jewish inhabitants during the High Middle Ages5. As a consequence, from the end of the 14th century the presence of Jews was, in some ways, a new experience and the local authorities had to regulate the legal status and the settlement of the religious minority through the writing of mutually binding agreements, the so called condotta, a pact signed by both the moneylender and the town’s government. It contained several paragraphs (“capitoli”), intended to regulate at least two orders of questions: first, on what conditions the Jews were allowed to reside in a certain place; second, how the moneylending business should be run6. Through the condotta, the Jews living in northern and central Italy, who normally at the end of the Middle Ages were not citizens7, could enjoy – at least for a numbers of years – a kind of “temporary citizenship”, and were granted the same privileges of the “normal” citizens. In addition, they were exempted from the payment of many taxes, being forced to pay usually only the so called “taxa pro fenerando” (the tax due for moneylending activity).
Thus, the renewal for more than a century, of the condotta permitted the Da Volterra to build their own fortune in the town they certainly began to consider as their home. They were treated as citizens (sicut alii cives) and enjoyed a number of rights and privileges. Towards the end the 15th century, however, the living conditions of the Jews in Florence and in the subject cities (like Volterra) began to worsen. At the time Savonarola held way in Florence and the Medici had been expelled, the government of Volterra decided to annul the condotta8. This fact was of the utmost importance. While the Da Volterra did not have to face expulsion (a rather rare event in northern and central Italy during the Quattrocento), they did lose most of their privileges. As a consequence, some decided to leave9. However, the most famous among the Jews of Volterra, Meshullam ben Menahem10 (or, with his Italian name, Buonaventura, son of Emanuele11), decided to stay with his wife and his three children, Emanuele12, Consola, and Iacob.
THE FOUNDATION OF THE “MONTE DI PIETA'”
At the end of December 1498 the government of Volterra decided to have the condotta annulled13. It was the last act of a rather long process, which has led to speculation concerning the lawfulness of Jewish moneylending (and, accordingly, of Jewish presence). The following are the steps which led to that decision: on 7 April 1481, the Priori tried to revoke the agreement signed by Buonaventura, son of Emanuele of Volterra, in 147414. The proposal of the Priori was rejected, most likely because Buonaventura urged the government of Florence to act in his favor. A letter was sent to the Capitano of Volterra, Ridolfo de’ Ridolfi, inviting both parties to find a suitable agreement15. A few years later, on 19 April 1490, the government of Volterra wished again to have the Condotta annulled16. The text of the deliberation shows very clearly the influence of the Franciscan friars, who in that period were trying to stop Jewish moneylending in Volterra, as well as in other Tuscan towns17. Notwithstanding the fervor of the friars nor the number of the city counsellors that were most likely against Jewish moneylending, nothing happened. The council did not take any action, and four years later the Jews were still living in the town and running a bank. The expulsion of Piero de’ Medici constituted the final blow for the Jews of Volterra: on the 18 of December 1494 the local Monte di Pietà was founded18. The rescission of the Condotta opened a very difficult phase for the members of the Da Volterra family. However, four more years passed before they should face the revocation of the “civilità” (temporary citizenship) they enjoyed for so long. Incidentally, it is unclear whether or not the da Volterra were forbidden to practice activities related to the banking business in this period. In any case, the Condotta signed in 1474 was explicitly allowing the Jewish bankers to live, and to a certain extent to operate, in Volterra for two more years after its rescission19. The extant documentation clearly shows that no one in Volterra even tried to expel the Jews at the time of the revocation of the agreement. The fact that we have to wait until 1498 for a deliberation of the city council, asking and obtaining the cancellation of the privileges enjoyed for more than a century by the Jews of Volterra, leads us to conclude that actually the rescission of the Condotta was not sufficient for cancelling those rights and privileges20. Therefore, only the cancellation in 1498 of the socalled “civilità” (temporary citizenship) meant also the end of any public banking activity. The pawns and the sums still hold by the Jews were confiscated and transferred to the recently founded Monte di Pietà. The damage was not a minor one. The foundation of the Monte di Pietà once and for all removed the Jews of Volterra from the local loan business. However, the worst damage was constituted by the revocation of the “temporary citizenship”. Suddenly, the member of the da Volterra family found themselves in a rather awkward position, that of the “forestieri” (foreigners), who were incidentally also members of a religious minority. The extant documentation does not permit us to determine whether the new situation carried the risk of limiting the cultual freedom enjoyed for so long by the local Jews; one very unwelcome change was, for example, the obligation to wear the yellow badge21. However, the government of Volterra showed a rather ambiguous behaviour towards the Jews. For example, they never took into consideration the question of the Jewish real estate, permitting the Jews to possess houses and land, though in theory in the absence of a condotta, that should be not allowed. The policy toward the local Jews continued to be full of ups and downs: less rights but absolutely no expulsion; no official moneylending, but unofficially the Jews were still active as bankers; and so on22.
CONVERSIONS AND MIGRATIONS
Those events, nevertheless, encouraged the majority of the family in to abandoning Volterra and finding a new, more welcoming place to dwell in. Those who decided to stay and keep living in Volterra, with only one exception (i.e., Meshullam/Buonaventura, who was the at the end the 15th century an old man, at least 60 years old), converted within ten years. Why did they stay? What did they expect? Did they already take into consideration the possibility of converting to Christianity? I’ll try to answer at least some of those questions.
While the apostasies are a fact, the reasons that drove the remaining Jews to accept baptism remain rather obscure. Clearly, we are not dealing with “forced conversions”. The Christian of Volterra never performed acts of violence in order to have the local Jews converted, nor tried the government of Volterra to obtain apostasies compelling the Jews to choose between conversion and expulsion23. While it is certainly true that the annulation of the Condotta played a role in the wave of conversion to Christianity, one should resist the temptation to mechanically link the phenomenon mostly or uniquely to the economic difficulties the members of the da Volterra family had to face. I am not suggesting that the economic factor was not an important one. It was, and it is certainly interesting to notice that during the 15th century there is no mention – both in the private deeds and in the official documentation – of Jewish converts. Only after the cancellation of the Condotta the Jews of Volterra took into consideration the possibility of accepting baptism. Unfortunately, general studies on the conversion’s trend to Christianity of the Jews dwelling in the Florentine State is still not available24. Therefore, we do not know which was the yearly conversion rate in the 14th and 15th centuries. For this reason, it is difficult to include Volterra in a general frame.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that in Volterra the pressure exerted on the Jews for leading them to apostasy was quite moderate. The first of the da Volterra to accept baptism was one of the sons of Meshullam/Buonaventura, Iacob25. The Priori decided to grant him a charity in order to “augmentare et acrescere la sancta fede christiana et dare animo ad altri ad essa ritornare” (“to increase the holy Christian faith and to persuade other to become Christians”). The decision to grant some money in order to help the newly converted Jew was quite normal. Iacob’s apostasy caused the Jewish relatives a lot of troubles. First of all, his wife Bellafiore, daughter of David de’ Gallis of Tortona, declared herself a widow (according to rabbinic tradition, a converted spouse was to be considered dead); two months after Jacob’s conversion she asked to have her huge dowry (900 golden ducats) returned, and Iacob’s father had to take care of everything and to pay back the requested sum26. Iacob and Bellafiore have been married for many years, but they not have living children: a fact which probably made things easier for the couple.
In the following years, other conversions took place. On the 7 of May, 1507, the city council examined the request of Consola, daughter of Buonaventura, who was willing to be baptized and to take the veil in the monastery of S. Chiara of Volterra27; she had to pay the dowry requested by the monastery and for this reason needed a donation from the city council of Volterra. Consola’s conversion seems to be completely voluntary. Furthermore, the decision to become a nun, truly suggests a convinced adherence to Christian faith. Her father Buonaventura was still alive when she converted, but the extant documentation does not provide information on his reaction. On the 16 of June, 1511, the Jew Guglielmo (Emanuele’s son), who decided to abandon Judaism and to become a Christian, pleaded for a charity. He claimed, he should renounce his properties in order to convert. Less than one month later, Gugliemo had been baptized with the name of Giovannandrea and on the 28 of July, 1511, the Priori decided to grant him the sum of 200 lire so that he could buy some real estate28. Emanuele showed for the first time the intention to convert on the 16 April, 151229. He declared his willingness to abandon Judaism and to become a Christian “in the same town which was the center of the fortune of his family and which he considered as patriam dulcissimam30. The motivation is very interesting. Emanuele pointed out how strong the bonds were between the descendants of Buonaventura, son of Genatano da Bologna, and the town of Volterra. It seems very likely that for the scions of Buonaventura/Meshullam, to abandon Judaism in Volterra seemed much more convenient than in any other place. They certainly felt “part of the town”, and considered themselves as citizen of Volterra. Emanuele converted with the rest of his family: his wife Rosa and his three children followed him and accepted baptism. Emanuele was christianized Vittore, his wife Giusta and one daughter Caterina31.
Summarizing: the members of the family who decided to stay and continue living in Volterra were permitted to do so as Jews, and the city council, which greatly struggled in order to have Jewish moneylenders removed, did not object to their presence after the foundation of the Monte di Pietà. The Jews converted within a period of ten years. During this time, the new Christians were permitted to maintain regular contacts with their Jewish relatives and even to cooperate with each other32. The mutual solidarity did not cease, both from an economical and emotional point of view. In some case, the religious identity seems rather clear (Consola), while in others (Iacob, Emanuele) is much more ambiguous. The bond with Volterra appears to have been the main reason for staying, while the identification with Judaism was probably not as strong as in the past. That’s true also for Buonaventura/Meshullam (who never converted), whose behaviour throughout the years suggest a rather strong identification with the values of the upper-class Christian families. Reading the travelogue of his trip to Jerusalem (which took place in 1481, officially for fulfilling a vote) we can’t but notice how much he values what I would define the “Tuscan way of life”, which he praised much more that “foreigners” Jewish customs (like, for example, Oriental and Askenazi ones). The diary of Meshullam, written in Hebrew but literally crammed with Italian words, reflects his attitude towards Christianity and Islam and a very strong disposition to criticize behaviours which he perceived as “not Italian”. Italy, and particularly Tuscany, are in his eyes the centre of the civilized world. To abandon this world probably resulted to painful for him33. A Converted Jew as the leader of the Monte di Pietà. Once baptized, Emanuele-Vittore began to pest the city council of Volterra with petitions, in order to obtain a public office for himself and his son Guglielmo/Giovannandrea. The first request was submitted on the 7 of June, 1512; a few months later, the Priori declared to have been informed that the ex-Jew had been recommended by Carlo de’ Medici, who wrote personally to the volterrani, urging them to grant Emanuele/Vittore a public office. Therefore, the city council agreed to act on his behalf as soon as possible34. As a matter of fact, Emanuele/Vittore had to wait some more months before obtaining the office he deeply yearned for. In January 1513 he submitted a new request to the Priori. Finally, on the 31st October 1513, the Priori made a decision on his behalf; Domenico of Giovanni Salvatico de’ Guidi proposed to appoint the ex-Jew president and “magister” of the local, recently founded Monte di Pietà.
Emanuele/Vittore was to receiving a monthly salary and was appointed for a period of three years. In 1516, the Priori decided to renew the office for another year; at the end, the volterrani were so happy with Emanuele/Vittore, inconditionally regarded as a very skilled business administrator, that they decided to renew the appointment for the third time. The choice to appoint an ex-Jew as “rector et gubernator” of the Monte di Pietà met some opponents. After all, the typical accusation the Franciscan moved to the Jews was that they were bloodsuckers, willing to harm Christians and impoverish them. To permit a Jew, though converted, to lead the Monte di Pietà, seemed to be a contradiction. Instead of removing the baptized Jew from every position in which he could sin again, lending money on interest, the most prominent Christian of Volterra seemed to be determined to make use of his capacities, first and foremost of his banking expertise35.
It is true that the volterrani took precautions against possible criticism, underlining in the “deliberazioni” (decisions) of the council the fact that Emanuele/Vittore’ role was merely an executive one (which, by the way, I strongly doubt) and that the “general policy” of the Monte di Pietà was to be decided by the member of the board. Very often they pointed out how important it was, from a moral point of view, to permit the Jews to carry out the moneylending business “in bono” (in a good way) and not, as in the past, “in malo” (in a bed way), impoverishing and exploiting the lowest social groups of the town. In my opinion, they evidently wanted to justify a practice which could seem rather unusual: to appoint a former moneylender and pawnbroker, and a Jew, though recently baptized, in order to guarantee the good functioning of a loan structure, implicitly recognizing his superior skills, gained through many years of experience as the official moneylender of Volterra. Substantially, the conversion did not change the quality of Emanuele/Vittore’s activities. As a Christian, he kept performing the same task he performed for many years as a Jew, and contributed to the success of the Monte di Pietà, founded with the purpose to eradicate Jewish moneylenders.