City of Joy

The Renaissance was a remarkable period for the Jews of Italy. Of all Italian cities, gloriosia Mantua in the heart of Lombardy led her sister cities by artistic achievements. The noble house of Gonzaga and Jewish bankers whom they sponsored provided the necessary support for a Golden Age in Mantua that Jews knew as Kiryah Alizah, “City of Joy.”

In the 13th and 14th centuries, economic pressures motivated Jewish moneylenders from Italy’s southern regions to migrate northward to Lombardy. Expulsions from Spain, Sicily and religious persecutions in France and Germany also drove Jews to northern Italy. Mantua attracted many of the immigrants. The earliest mention of a cemetery and synagogue in the city, and hence an established kehillah, is 1420.

The city began to flourish in 1480, after Marquis Giovanni Francesco II married Isabella d’Este. She was one of the foremost Renaissance persons of her day and set the stage for an era of feminine emancipation that liberated Jewish women no less than their Christian peers.

Mantua became the center of a new humanistic spirit in Jewish scholarship. Physician, scholar, and rabbi Judah Messer Leon published a textbook of logic, Nofet Tzufim (Sweetness of Honey), in Mantua before 1480, the first book by a living writer that was printed in the Hebrew language.

The greatest Jewish historian of the Italian Renaissance was Azariah ben Moses de Rossi (1510-1578). In Me’or Einayim (Enlightenment for the Eyes), he described the disastrous 10-day earthquake of 1571. He noted that whereas Jews tended to see Divine intervention in the event, other scholars often searched for natural causes. Me’or Einayaim aroused opposition even among the enlightened Jewish scholars in Italy.

Jewish physicians in Italy were esteemed for their medical ability. The most famous family of physicians in Italy was the Portaleone dynasty that loyally treated Italian nobility in Mantua and Padua for 300 years.

Dramatizations of Purim’s scroll of Esther provided the earliest Jewish theater experience; they were so popular that Christian neighbors keenly followed the performances in violation of Church interdiction. As groups expanded their repertoire, they were invited to perform secular productions at the Gonzaga Court and other palaces. The first theatrical producer in Italy was the Jewish Judah Leone de ‘Sommi (1525-1590), who also became a prolific playwright. In 16 manuscript volumes, de’Sommi wrote pastoral comedies in Italian and some in Hebrew. De’Sommi ‘s pastoral drama for a Purim performance, Zakut B’dihutah d’Kidushin (The Comedy of the Wedlock), rediscovered and published in the 1940s, is the first original drama written in Hebrew.

Mantua led the new theater arts of Italy, while the kehillah provided dramatists, impresarios, performers, musicians and often the dancers for the many spectacles. The greatest Jewish musician of the period was Salomone de’ Rossi. Partly influenced by Palestrina and an occasional collaborator of Monteverdi, he published compositions from 1589 to 1623, introducing the musical spirit of the Renaissance. His works were composed of passages from the liturgy, including psalms, hymns and prayers for Sabbath and holidays. His cantata Hashirim Asher l’Shlomo (The Songs of Solomon), a collection of 33 songs he wrote for the synagogue, was recently republished in a modern edition in New York.

German mercenaries hired by Austrian Emperor Ferdinand II set siege to Mantua in 1626 and the city felt on the 9th of Av, in 5390 (1630). After it was sacked, Jews were expelled on 3 days notice. During the following four months, wagon convoys rolled out of Mantua carrying booty from ghetto, palaces and town. Later that year, after obtaining the emperor’s permission, only about a thousand of the 1600 survivors chose to return to their looted homes in Mantua. The reorganized kehillah was a shadow of its former self and never regained its past splendor.

Ever shrinking, the kehillah numbered 669 in 1931 and by 1980 the 160 Jews who still lived in Mantua maintained only a solitary extant synagogue. It was the last of six synagogues they had used in the nineteenth century when they numbered more than 2,000. The building has been declared a national architectural monument. One of the kehillah’s real treasures was a precious archive, now kept far away in the Vatican Library (Codex Rossi 555).

Condensed by Danielle Wegman from Synagogues Without Jews.