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

Francesca Bre­goli
  • Review
By – November 24, 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:

Ran­dall Belin­fante has served as the Librar­i­an of the Amer­i­can Sephar­di Fed­er­a­tion for more than 13 years. He has tak­en a tiny col­lec­tion of 200 books and built an assem­blage of over 10,000 items. Mr. Belin­fante holds degrees in var­i­ous aspects of Jew­ish stud­ies, and dur­ing his tenure at ASF, he has inves­ti­gat­ed a vari­ety of top­ics, pre­sent­ing papers on such diverse top­ics as the Mizrahi Jews dri­ven from their homes in Islam­ic coun­tries and the cryp­to-Jew­ish Mash­hadis of Iran. He has also writ­ten many book reviews on books of Sephar­di / Mizrahi interest.

Discussion Questions