Invis­i­ble Enlight­en­ers: The Jew­ish Mer­chants of Mod­e­na, from the Renais­sance to the Emancipation 

Fed­er­i­ca Francesconi

January 12, 2021

Fed­er­i­ca Francesconi writes the his­to­ry of the Jew­ish mer­chants who lived and pros­pered in the north­ern Ital­ian city of Mod­e­na, cap­i­tal city of the Este Duchy, dur­ing the sev­en­teenth and eigh­teenth cen­turies. Her pro­tag­o­nists are men and women who stood out with­in their com­mu­ni­ties but who, despite their cul­tur­al and eco­nom­ic promi­nence, were ghet­toized after 1638. Their socio­cul­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion and even­tu­al legal and polit­i­cal inte­gra­tion evolved through a com­plex dia­logue between their Ital­ian and Jew­ish iden­ti­ties, and with­out the trau­mat­ic rup­tures or dra­mat­ic divides that led to the assim­i­la­tion and con­ver­sion of many Jews else­where in Europe.

In Mod­e­na, male and female Jew­ish iden­ti­ties were con­toured by both cul­tur­al devel­op­ments inter­nal to the com­mu­ni­ty and engage­ment with the broad­er soci­ety. The study of Luri­an­ic and Cor­dover­ian Kab­bal­ah, litur­gi­cal and non­de­vo­tion­al Hebrew poet­ry, and Sab­bateanism exist­ed along­side inter­ac­tions with Jesuits, con­verts, and inquisi­tors. If Mod­e­nese Jew­ish mer­chants were absent from the pub­lic dis­course of the Estes, their busi­ness­es lives were nev­er­the­less locat­ed at the very geo­graph­i­cal and eco­nom­ic cen­ter of the city. They lived in an envi­ron­ment that gave rise to unique forms of Renais­sance cul­ture, ear­ly mod­ern female agency, and Enlight­en­ment prac­tice. New Jew­ish ways of per­form­ing gen­der emerged in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry, giv­ing rise to what could be called an entre­pre­neur­ial female com­mu­ni­ty devot­ed to assist­ing, employ­ing, and social­iz­ing in the ghet­to. Indeed, the ghet­to lead­er­ship pre­pared both Jew­ish men and women for the polit­i­cal and legal eman­ci­pa­tion they would even­tu­al­ly obtain under Napoleon. It was the cul­tured Mod­e­nese mer­chants who com­bined active par­tic­i­pa­tion in the polit­i­cal strug­gle for Ital­ian Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion with the cre­ation of a spe­cial form of the Enlight­en­ment embed­ded in schol­ar­ly and French-ori­ent­ed lay cul­ture that emerged with­in the Euro­pean context.

Discussion Questions

In her book The Invis­i­ble Enlight­en­ers, Fed­er­i­ca Francesconi clear­ly and per­sua­sive­ly argues that some of the ele­ments of moder­ni­ty” and inte­gra­tion” that his­to­ri­ans of the Jew­ish past have often asso­ci­at­ed with the post-Enlight­en­ment era were already vis­i­ble in ear­ly mod­ern Italy cen­turies ear­li­er. The book exam­ines the sto­ry of Jew­ish mer­can­tile elites in the city of Mod­e­na who were forced to live in the ghet­to, which might seem an unlike­ly lens through which to study social and cul­tur­al inte­gra­tion of Jews, and yet, the plen­ti­ful sources from archives in Italy, Israel, and the US, cou­pled with an impres­sive­ly wide range of oth­er evi­dence — print­ed, archi­tec­tur­al, visu­al, and mate­r­i­al — reveals that these ghet­toized Jews were, in fact, invis­i­ble Eng­light­en­ers,” who were made vis­i­ble only in the era of the Rev­o­lu­tion because only then did some of what they had prac­ticed final­ly align with Enlight­en­ment ideology.