Mediterranean Enlightenment: Livornese Jews, Tuscan Culture, and Eighteenth-Century Reform

Stanford University Press  2014


Bregoli’s new history of the Livorno Jewish community—the nazione ebrea—challenges the notion that economic utility, freedom, and engagement with enlightenment philosophy nec­essarily produced a rejection of traditional Jewish society and adoption of an individualistic modern outlook. Using a wide array of new archival sources, Bregoli demonstrates that, as was the case with many “port Jews,” the Jews of Livorno experienced a state of “economic usefulness” that proved essential to the development of Tuscany. This “usefulness” yielded a number of significant advantages for the Jews, in that they “gained liberties and privileges that Jews elsewhere did not possess, short of political inclusion.” These liberties and privileges included the unhin­dered pursuit of their mercantile lifestyles, maintenance of the jurisdic­tional autonomy of their community, and the sanctioned state protection of the “benevolent Ruler” of Livorno. Moreover, Livornese thinkers were never obliged to defend their religion—the Italian enlightenment never strove to overthrow religion, and the philosophers were able to participate “in the culture of the times, not in their Jewish capacity, but as members of the ‘human family.’”

Yet in the face of these advantages the Jews of Livorno gravitated toward the conservative maintenance of the status quo. Though they con­tinued to make appeals to the Grand Duke and to make frequent use of the Christian courts, the Livornese Jews tended to compartmentalize their lives. While engaging in the intellectual and cultural life of the majority society they maintained the traditional political and corporate integrity that had always persisted in their community. As Bregoli explains, “both the state and the Jewish leadership in Livorno were invested in maintain­ing the old ‘national’ framework for Jewish privileges.”

This conservative outlook yielded what some might see as drawbacks. Unlike other port Jews—such as those in Trieste—the Jews of Livorno were not directly, nor positively affected by the programs of toleration en­acted by such overlords as Joseph II of the Hapsburg Empire. This meant, in turn, that the Livornese Jews were not able to enjoy the promised increase of civil inclusion and legal parity that came with greater tolera­tion. They preserved their communal organization, but they were not able to become members of the larger culture. Whether this was better for the Jews or not depends on one’s perspective.

An intriguing work, Bregoli’s book is an important exploration of the impact of the Enlightenment and the Jewish response to that phenom­enon. It will be of interest to readers mindful of the development of Jewish, and particularly Sephardic communities.

Related content:

Have You Read...