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

Edward Gold­berg
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By – October 31, 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.

Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

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