Jews on the Move

The recent quincentenary of the foundation of Venetian ghetto has been marked by a number of conferences and other events. The ghetto was initially populated by many Jews who had fled from Venice’s mainland empire, where they had long been settled, as a result of the dislocation of the wars from 1509 onwards. In this respect, their experience of war was not dissimilar to that of other Venetian subjects caught in the path of war. One Venetian chronicler observing this stream of refugees to the metropole at this time took the opportunity to evoke the Venetian foundation myth. They came to Venice, he wrote, like sons seeking the protection of their mother or chicks sheltering under the wings of their mother – just as in the time of Attila when this ‘scourge of God’ had persecuted Christians and they had fled the mainland for the lagoon and founded Venice.[1] The chronicler went on to describe how no humane person (‘persona humana’) seeing such a mournful spectacle could not fail to provide shelter out of pity for such desperation. Some Venetians, he claimed, sheltered ten refugees, some twenty, some thirty, some forty, and many were placed in churches, hospitals and even in the newly-built but uninhabited warehouse-residence for the German community, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi (now a flashy shopping centre) by the Rialto bridge.[2]

However, the experience of mainland Jews did differ in some respects from that of their Christian neighbours. When Brescia passed from Venetian to French control in 1509 the Brescians marked the change in authority by pillaging Venetian property in the form of the Jews. This pillaging has been presented as a ritual event by the Bologna Seminar coordinated by Carlo Ginzburg, but the theft or destruction of Jewish stores of pledges and lists of debtors by Brescians and French troops in the mini-sack which accompanied their arrival in 1509 was also highly opportunistic. According to the Jews who reached Venice a few days later they had lost as much as thirty thousand ducats. King Louis XII conceded the Brescian request ‘pro veneratione Religionis Christiane’ to prohibit Jews from living in the city and from lending money in the surrounding district. However, subsequent attempts on the part of the council and the new royal government to trace the pledges lost in 1509, to reconstitute the list of debtors and even to extend some protection to the remaining Jews failed or were rejected and it seems as if the Jews gave up on Brescia and like many other Jews in the terraferma moved permanently to Venice.[3]

The suspicion that the Jews were intent on revenge and enrichment because of such experiences helps to explain the anti-Jewish theme which ran through the vivid account of the bloody sack of Brescia in 1512 written by Marco Negro. He calls the French the ‘enemies of God and of humanity, bloodsuckers, and people without laws or faith, not worthy of being called Christian.’ It was reported that Jews stole some of the funds of the monte di pietà and that this money ended up in the hands of some Milanese Jews together with the communal archive. Negro went much further than this and in an echo of the blood libel (that Jews killed Christian children and consumed their blood) he described a massacre in the Brescian duomo with Jews filled with lust for Christian blood among the French attackers. Negro alleged that the French commander Gaston de Foix himself led Jews in cruel raids on regular clergy and friars and looted holy objects. The king of France was characterized by Negro as the ‘most greedy, cruel and unjust supporter of thieves, libertines and Jews.’[4] 

As might be expected the entry of troops into Italian towns during the Italian Wars was often characterised by violence and the looting of Jewish property. A chronicler in Modena recorded the sacking of some Jews by the Swiss in Rome in January 1495.[5] In anticipation of regime change with the approach of the French the Neapolitans sacked very rich Jews in the city who had fled there from persecution in Spain. Even those who escaped from the Jewish quarter to the safety of the castle were sacked.[6] The local chronicler Giuliano Passero estimated the sack to amount to two thousand ducats.[7] The news from Naples passed on to Ludovico Sforza in Milan in February 1495 included a note to the effect that the Jews and ‘Maranni’ (crypto-Jews) had been pillaged and that while the latter had been saved in ships the Jews had been ‘cut to pieces’.[8] From Bari it was reported a month later that all the Jews had been expelled by the local inhabitants and that a booty estimated at 16,000 ducats had been taken from them.[9] Similar examples of such looting and violence were reported throughout the Italian Wars.

It seems that these troubles could contribute to both Jewish and Christian concerns about divine intentions for men and women. Some Jews followed kabbalistic calculations that 1490 marked the year of Jewish deliverance, while for others the year 1495 with the pope’s flight before the advance of the French army (albeit only to the Castel Sant’Angelo within the city of Rome) and Charles VIII’s entry into Naples, where the Jews were sacked but quickly put under his protection, marked the beginning of years of suffering that preceded deliverance.[10] In Christian eschatology, of course, the final conversion of all the remaining Jews was one of the signs of the Apocalypse. It is probably in this sense that we should understand the presence in Marin Sanudo’s compilation of verses about the arrival of Charles VIII in Italy of a poem about the conversion of the Jews.[11] 

The providential hopes and fears of Italians were widely stirred by the arrival of Charles VIII, a man judged very ugly by many Italian witnesses (judge for yourself here) and acclaimed by others as the ‘king of fierce countenance’ foretold in the Book of Daniel (8: 23); indeed, the rise to power of the friar Girolamo Savonarola in Florence drew strength from this eschatological sentiment. It is useful, though, to consider the fate of Jewish lives and goods as part of the social history of the Italian Wars. They were an especially vulnerable group during the sacks of cities given their stores of pledges or lists of Christian debtors; but they were also a resented local presence because they fell under the direct protection of higher authorities such as the Neapolitan king or the Venetian doge rather than the local powers. When royal or republican protection failed they were forced to flee – forming another episode in the long history of Jewish mobility, the subject of a conference in Edinburgh in July.


Primary Sources


Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Viscontea-Sforzesco, potenze estere, 252, 253

Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.VII.323 (8646). Donà, Tommaso (attr.). ‘Cronaca di Venezia fino al 1528’

— It.IX.363. Marin Sanudo (comp.), ‘Composizioni poetiche volgari e latine intorno le cose d’Italia sul finire del sc. XV’.


Coniger, Antonello. ‘Recoglimento de’ più scartafi’. In K. Pelliccia (ed.), Raccolta di varie croniche, diarj ed altri opuscoli, così Italiani, come Latini, appartenenti alla storia del Regno di Napoli, 5: 5-54 (second pagination). Naples: Bernardo Perger, 1782

De’ Bianchi detto de’ Lancellotti, Tommasino. Cronaca Modenese. 2 vols. Parma: Pietro Fiaccadori, 1862-5

Dei Conti, Sigismondo. Le Storie de’ suoi tempi dal 1475 al 1510. 2 vols. Rome, 1883. Facsimile reprint. Foligno: Accademia Fulginia di Lettere Scienze e Arti, 2015

Passero, Giuliano. Storie in forma di Giornali. Ed. Vincenzo Maria Altobelli. Naples: Vincenzo Orsino, 1785

Secondary Sources

Bowd, Stephen D. Venice’s Most Loyal City: Civic Identity in Renaissance Brescia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010

 Krauss, Samuel. ‘Le roi de France Charles VIII et les espérances messianiques.’ Revue des Etudes Juives, 51 (1906): 87-96

[1] Tommaso Donà (attr.), ‘Cronaca di Venezia fino al 1528’, Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.VII.323 (8646), fols. 223r, 223v. See also ibid., fol. 244v for a similar use of the example of Attila.

[2] Tommaso Donà (attr.), ‘Cronaca di Venezia fino al 1528’, Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.VII.323 (8646), fol. 223v.

[3] Bowd, Venice’s, 199-200.

[4] Ibid., 200-05.

[5] De’ Bianchi, Cronaca, 1: 129.

[6] Dei Conti, Storie, 2: 106; Coniger, ‘Recoglimento’, 30, 31.

[7] Passero, Storie, 66-7.

[8] ‘Li Iudei et Marani  sono stati pigliati. Li Judei sono stati tagliati a peze et li Marani sono salvati in Nave.’ ‘Novelle arrivate de presente da Napoli scripte in lo dicto loco à 20 di e altre novelle à 21 de Febraro’, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Viscontea-Sforzesco, potenze estere, 252

[9] Letter dated at Bari on 22 March 1495 to the Duke of Milan, in Milan, Archivio di Stato, Carteggio Viscontea-Sforzesco, potenze estere, 253.

[10] Krauss, ‘Roi di France’.

[11] Marin Sanudo (comp.), ‘Composizioni poetiche volgari e latine intorno le cose d’Italia sul finire del sc. XV’, in Venice, Biblioteca Marciana, It.IX.363, fol. 58v.

Author: Stephen Bowd

I am a Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Edinburgh, and a Leverhulme Research Fellow (2016/17).