Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis

University of Toronto Press  2011

 

What was it like to be a Jew in Florence, Italy, in the early seventeenth century? Edward Goldberg answers that question by compiling a mass of original material into a readable narrative. No ordinary historian, he follows the personal problems of a Jew and a nobleman while skillfully exploring various aspects of Florentine life. The author is an archivist of Florentine history.

As in many other cities, a Jewish bargain basement flourished in the Florentine ghetto. Luxury goods, either used or stolen, were for sale there at temptingly low prices. Jews were also the economy’s money lenders. Since it was considered sinful and was illegal to charge interest, collecting a bad debt was a problem.

As a self-governing community, the Jews lavished care on their synagogue and holiday observances. Benedetto Blanis, a merchant of some wealth and distinction, lived with his wife and daughters in one room. Residents were marked as Jews by yellow badges for all.

With his noble Medici patron and some priests, Benedetto undertook occult studies and attempted to turn base metals into gold. In good Renaissance style this “magic circle” grasped at any classical manuscripts not banned by the Inquisition, copied them by hand and tried to learn Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

Certainly for academics, but for many others, too, Jews and Magic offers a rare view of one western ghetto before the gates were opened.



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