Pic­ture of the I Fratel­li Foa colophon (or print­er’s mark) in a book.

My father, an Ital­ian Jew, used to say that fam­i­ly is every­thing,” yet I knew very lit­tle about the his­to­ry of the Foà fam­i­ly. That changed when, in his retire­ment, my father wrote a forty-page fam­i­ly mem­oir and began to fill in some of the miss­ing pieces. He devot­ed only one line to our most famous ances­tors, I Fratel­li Foà, print­ers of Bibles and Hebrew prayer books in six­teenth cen­tu­ry north­ern Italy. They flour­ished between 1551 and 1590 in the tiny, walled city of Sab­bione­ta. I’d become aware of them when, a decade ear­li­er, an Israeli cousin had sent me copies of their hand­some printer’s mark, or colophon. Their books are still con­sid­ered excep­tion­al­ly beautiful.

Pic­ture of the I Fratel­li Foa colophon (or print­er’s mark) in a book.

After my par­ents died, I pro­posed to my sis­ter that we take a trip to Italy to vis­it those vil­lages where the Foàs first emerged from the fog of his­to­ry. As a writer, I took par­tic­u­lar pride in our print­er ances­tors who ped­dled, not rags, but books. Per­haps, too, the exis­tence of these print­ers helped explain why my father and his entire fam­i­ly believed that the Foàs were special.

Of all the vil­lages we vis­it­ed, tiny Sab­bione­ta is the one I fell in love with. It’s an exquis­ite Renais­sance walled city. So per­fect and beau­ti­ful are the pro­por­tions of its two town squares that, when we drove through its red brick out­er city walls, I thought I was on a BBC movie set film­ing a new ver­sion of Romeo and Juli­et.” It’s a mag­i­cal place.

When we men­tioned to a woman in the tourist office that we were the Foàs in search of our fam­i­ly his­to­ry, she imme­di­ate­ly rung up some­one who she said is extreme­ly knowl­edge­able about the Jews of Sab­bione­ta. With­in min­utes Alber­to Sarzi Madi­di­ni turns up, a non-Jew­ish res­i­dent of the city whose pas­sion is research­ing and writ­ing about the Jew­ish his­to­ry in his home­town. He is eager to show us the syn­a­gogue, and dri­ves us to the Jew­ish ceme­tery. Dur­ing two sub­se­quent vis­its and research of my own, I dis­cov­ered much more about the Sab­bione­ta Foàs who, it turns out, were for­tu­nate in many ways.

The restored syn­a­gogue in Sabbioneta.

First, they were lucky to have lived under the lib­er­al rule of Ves­pasiano Gon­za­ga (1531 – 1591), the Duke of Sab­bione­ta. An enlight­ened ruler, edu­cat­ed in Greek, Latin, his­to­ry, Ital­ian lit­er­a­ture, the Tal­mud, and even Kab­bal­ah, he was raised to be both a sol­dier of for­tune and true Renais­sance prince. Gon­za­ga want­ed to make Sab­bione­ta a cap­i­tal of the mind. He not only per­mit­ted the rise of the Foà print­ing house, but also remained an enlight­ened pro­tec­tor of the Jews. In fact, as I lat­er dis­cov­ered, Sab­bione­ta is the only city in Italy (with the excep­tion of Livorno) that nev­er estab­lished a Jew­ish ghet­to. Gon­za­ga wel­comed and respect­ed Jews as peo­ple of the book,” at a time when oth­er cities cre­at­ed ghet­tos and forced Jew­ish print­ers to close.

They were also for­tu­nate that Rab­bi Tobia Foà, a man of excep­tion­al cul­ture and good deeds, estab­lished the press. Accord­ing to David Amran, author of The Mak­ers of Hebrew Books in Italy, No Hebrew press of the cen­tu­ry was more for­tu­nate in the num­ber and qual­i­ty of its workmen.”

My grow­ing curios­i­ty about our print­er ances­tors led me to edu­cate myself about the his­to­ry of print­ing and its migra­tion from Ger­many to Italy. It’s a his­to­ry with some surprises.

I did not know, for exam­ple, that although Jews helped finance Gutenberg’s 1450 inven­tion — first used to print a Bible in 1455 — they were not per­mit­ted to join Ger­man print­ing guilds. So Ger­man Jews took their knowl­edge to Italy where, as ear­ly as 1470 in Rome, Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish print­ers were estab­lished. Nor did I real­ize that, even in Italy, the priv­i­lege of print­ing books was nev­er con­ferred upon a Jew. Only mem­bers of patri­cian hous­es could estab­lish press­es. This explains why Jews part­nered with fam­i­lies like the Gon­za­gas. Even so, licens­es to pub­lish Hebrew books were grant­ed and revoked at the whim of local rulers and the pope. In fact, only a short win­dow of time exist­ed dur­ing which the church allowed Jew­ish print­ers to pur­sue their trade in Italy. The sit­u­a­tion var­ied from city-state to city-state.

I also had no idea that book burn­ing was such an ancient prac­tice. In 1554, for exam­ple, Julius III issued a Papal bull to the effect that all Jew­ish texts, the Tal­mud in par­tic­u­lar, should be burned. The prac­tice had already begun with a bon­fire of books in Rome’s Cam­po de Fiori. In Venice alone, thou­sands of books were thrown into the flames in St. Mark’s Square. Very few books sur­vived. Those that did, iron­i­cal­ly, were often saved by monks and tucked away in monasteries.

Infor­ma­tion about the I Fratel­li Foa print­ing house in Sab­bione­ta that is dis­played out­side the syn­a­gogue to inform vis­i­tors of
their importance.

Six years after my first vis­it to Sab­bione­ta, I dis­cov­ered that Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Press owns the third largest col­lec­tion of Judaica man­u­scripts in the coun­try, out­side of a reli­gious insti­tu­tion. It was mount­ing an exhib­it called, Peo­ple in the Books: Hebraica and Judaica,” and on a hunch, I called the cura­tor, Michelle Ches­ner, to find out whether they might have an I Fratel­li Foà­book in their col­lec­tion. To my aston­ish­ment, they did. I arranged a vis­it to the library and spent a long time look­ing at, han­dling and pho­tograph­ing the book. Though its cov­er was miss­ing, it was fas­ci­nat­ing to turn its pages, some unusu­al­ly laid out like invert­ed pyra­mids, and oth­ers bear­ing black cen­sored lines and sec­tions. I did not know that books that escaped incin­er­a­tion were rou­tine­ly cen­sored and that Jews who con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism often became offi­cial cen­sors, in part because they were the only ones who could read Hebrew. (Show the two print­ers marks on the last page of the book?) Cura­tor Ches­ner also informed me that oth­er Foà print­ers con­tin­ued to car­ry on the fam­i­ly pro­fes­sion in eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry Ams­ter­dam, Venice and Turkey. Their work con­tributed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the dif­fu­sion of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture in Europe.

Since my first vis­it to Sab­bione­ta, and despite a 2012 earth­quake that dam­aged the syn­a­gogue, the city was named a World Her­itage Site. Funds were raised to con­tin­ue the synagogue’s restora­tion and clean-up of the ceme­tery. New his­toric arti­facts, includ­ing glass mezuzahs, prob­a­bly made from Venet­ian glass, are on dis­play in sev­er­al cas­es devot­ed to the town’s col­lec­tion of Jew­ish and Chris­t­ian arti­facts. And stand­ing at the entrance to the syn­a­gogue are two infor­ma­tive nar­ra­tives: one on The Sab­bione­ta Jew­ish Print­ing House,” and the oth­er on The Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty in Sabbioneta.”

Four years after my ini­tial trip to Italy, I took the ele­va­tor to the top floor of Sotheby’s, the New York auc­tion house, to vis­it the world’s largest col­lec­tion of Jew­ish books, the Val­madon­na Trust Library. It was a mob scene. Guides were giv­ing tours of the floor-to-ceil­ing shelves of books — 13,000 vol­umes — from every cor­ner of the Jew­ish dias­po­ra. Near the shelves of Ital­ian books were two long glass vit­rines with a hand­ful of books, some open and some closed, on view for fur­ther inspec­tion. And there, thrilling­ly, were two exquis­ite­ly pre­served I Fratel­li Foà­books. One was espe­cial­ly beau­ti­ful; a small trav­el­ing Torah with a hand-tooled tapes­try-embroi­dered cov­er. The oth­er was open to the I Fratel­li Foà colophon: the black lus­trous image of a palm tree, Star of David, two ris­ing Lions of Judah and the Foà name in Hebrew. It looked so fresh, as if it had just been printed.

Pic­ture of the colophon paint­ed on the ceil­ing of a home that has just been renovated.

Over­whelmed, I couldn’t help but won­der why, out of the thou­sands of books in this col­lec­tion, Lun­z­er chose to dis­play the works of my ances­tors. I felt com­pelled to ask him myself. Thread­ing my way through the crowd, I moved clos­er, placed my hand on his arm and qui­et­ly intro­duced myself to the eighty-five-year-old bib­lio­phile as a Foà. Lun­z­er sud­den­ly looked up. A Sab­bione­ta Foà?” he asked. I nod­ded. You’ve been to Sab­bione­ta?” I nod­ded. He smiled, raised my hand to his mouth and, in a ges­ture wor­thy of an Ital­ian aris­to­crat, kissed it.

You come from a won­der­ful fam­i­ly,” he said.

Eleanor Foa is an author, jour­nal­ist, and cor­po­rate writer. Her mem­oir MIXED MES­SAGES: Reflec­tions on an Ital­ian Jew­ish Fam­i­ly and Exile comes out in Novem­ber 2019. Her work appears in nation­al news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and web­sites. She is the author of Whith­er Thou Goest and In Good Com­pa­ny, Pres­i­dent of Eleanor Foa Asso­ciates (eleanor​foa​.com), past pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of Jour­nal­ists and Authors, and received lit­er­ary res­i­den­cies at Yad­do and the Vir­ginia Cen­ter for the Cre­ative Arts.