Around the Hall of MerchantsMy father never talked about the fact that he was Jewish.
Ebreus perfidus est, ut cantat Ecclesia est inimicus fidei, et ideo presumitur odium abere Christi fidelibus, ergo abetur pro suspecto.
ARCHIVES OF MONTE SAN SAVINO
Monte San Savino, 1656. “Those people bristle with ideas, they brim with inventions!” The enthusiastic delegate seemed unable to find words to extoll the ingenuity of the local Jewish merchants. Taking advantage of the city’s geographical location, they imported their goods from the Marques and the Vatican regions, avoiding the prying eyes of the Cortona customs officers, before “racing all over the country to sell them, not just in the Valdichiana, but even further afield, right to the borders of the Papal State!” Monte San Savino was a small city of some two thousand tucked away in the Tuscan hills between Sienna, Arezzo, and Cortona. Since 1550 it had enjoyed feudal privileges granted by the Medicis, rulers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, to one of the great local families, the Cosci di Monte, in homage to one of their sons who became Pope Julius III. Monte San Savino was thus exempt from the customs duties imposed by the Florentine corporations, operating as a free zone and independent enclave within the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. What would have become of this little rural center, floundering with its local artisans, its few leading families, and its numerous religious orders, but for its Jewish citizens, who skillfully took advantage of the exceptional circumstances to become moneylenders and establish a monopoly in commodities, the only professional prerogatives of Tuscan Jews at the time?
Even today, Monte San Savino seems to revolve around its hall of merchants, the Loggia dei Mercanti. Austere and grey, with slender arcades, fluted columns, and Corinthian capitals carved in pietra serena
, the hall is solidly lodged between two private houses on the main street, and its elegant, imposing presence surprises the visitor to the city center. Constructed at the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Loggia was rented out a hundred years later to Jewish merchants, who set up stalls there. Directly across the Ruga Maestra stands the majesty of Palazzo di Monte, the masterpiece of the great Renaissance architect Sangallo, which was the home to a local boy who would one day become Pope Julius III. Today, he is remembered for his patronage of Palestrina and Michelangelo, for his religious life “perverted by pleasures and indulgences or else for his political life as an inveterate nepotist”—and for the papal bull of August 12, 1553, whereby he decreed the destruction of all the copies of the Talmud. While the covered market looks out over the main street of the city, the Palazzo di Monte, extending upwards with its interior courtyard, hanging gardens, and amphitheaters, opens out towards the hills of Sienna. The Jews of Monte San Savino thrived commercially, but were constantly hemmed in, forbidden the splendors of its rich medieval culture. The physical constraints of the Jewish merchants in the Loggia embody the limitations that confronted and challenged Leo Castelli’s ancestors.
Apart from the Palazzo Pretorio, built in the thirteenth century, the city’s other aristocratic residences—the Palazzo della Canceleria, the Palazzo Tavamesi, the Palazzo Galleti, the Palazzo Filippi—exemplify, through their imposing façades, the stages of the Renaissance. Around the covered market, in a circumference of a few dozen yards, the palaces, cloisters, and churches whose names ring like their bells— Chiesa della Pace, Chiesa di Santa Croce, Chiesa di San Antonio, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Monastero di San Benedetto, Monastero di Santa Chiara, Santa Maria delle Neve, Chiesa di Santa Agata, Chiesa della Fraternita—seem to chime in a kind of utopian harmony that might negate social distinctions. At first glance, behind its heavy medieval walls, Monte San Savino looks like a miniature Tuscan city, but a city without social distinctions, where the lay folk, the clergy, and the aristocracy might live side by side in perfect amity. But when you look closer, you can see that, within its odd oblong shape, rising up on the western side with palaces, churches, and cloisters, Monte San Savino has a narrow street less than six feet wide to the northeast, hidden by the immense Benedictine monastery. From the early eighteenth century on, this street was the Jewish ghetto, the home of about a hundred people whose houses were clustered around the synagogue.
The most evident signs of social demarcation in Monte San Savino, an egg-shaped labyrinth veined by narrow streets, are the four carved doors set in the great medieval walls like the points of a compass. The Porta di Sopra, also called the Porta Fiorentina, decorated with the five red orbs of the Medicis’ coat of arms and so the most noble of the doors, leads to the north, towards the road to Arezzo and Florence beyond; the Porta Romana, or Porta di Sotto, the most ancient, its arco ribassato
bearing the Orsinis’ coat of arms, opens to the south, towards Rome; the turreted Porta della Pace, or Porta Senese, faces to the west and gives onto the road to Sienna; and finally, to the east, the Porta San Giovanni, the one closest to the Jewish ghetto, with its arco a tutto sesto, on a steep hill, lead the traveler past Cortona, to Perugia and Umbria. It was here, within those points, that the Castellis, Tuscan Jews, lived during the Renaissance.
When did the Castellis settle in Monte San Savino? How did it come to pass that one of their ancestors, apparently chased out of Spain by Isabella the Catholic, managed to wander into the nazione ebrea del Monte
, the Hebrew nation of the Mount, taking refuge in this beautiful hilly region of southern Tuscany? It was doubtless following the creation of the ghetto in Rome in 1555, and those in Florence and Sienna in 1570, that one of the first Castellis heard of this small city that had not yet forced its Jewish citizens into confinement. Thanks to the Medicis, Monte San Savino enjoyed political autonomy as well as certain privileges, for example, the ability to grant asylum to debtors. Bordering the Papal State, it became the ideal refuge for small groups of wandering Jews as they fled the harshness of the Counter-Reformation and the persecutions of the Papal State and the Christian population between 1555 and 1750. As a “border community,” smaller than the great urban centers and under less scrutiny than Florence or Sienna, Monte San Savino was more reassuring. When the ghettos in those cities were established, there were only eight Jewish families in Monte San Savino. But in 1620, immediately after the prominent Passigli family opened their bank in the city, Monte San Savino saw the rise of a lively, colorful, and even illustrious community of Jews, which numbered only a hundred (5 percent of the population), but which would prosper in the environs of its synagogue, its school, and its cemetery for nearly 172 years.
The first members of the Castelli family arrived in Monte San Savino in the same era when, a dozen miles away, Piero della Francesca was working in Arezzo on the frescoes of The Legend of the True Cross
, while in Cortona, Francesco di Giorgio Martini was building Santa Maria del Calcinaio and Fra Angelico, having been forced to leave Sienna because of the plague, was finishing his Annunciation
. Perhaps it will one day be discovered that ancestors of Leo Castelli, the Castelli brothers, who would in the next two centuries establish a monopoly in the production of paper, had already been suppliers to the artists of the region, such as Vasari, Perugino, Pontormo, or even Andrea del Sarto! In any case, just like the other inhabitants of the ghetto in Monte San Savino, the Castellis lived precariously, subject to humiliation or favor at the whim of the religious and administrative authorities.
The lives of local Jews changed drastically under Cosimo III, grand duke of Tuscany from 1670 to 1723. The most oppressive sovereign since the Counter-Reformation, he enacted a series of harsh and degrading measures, such as the decree of January 1678: every citizen of the “Jewish nation” had to “wear a distinctive symbol, yellow or red, sewn onto his clothing,” brick up his windows so as not to “demean Christian processions by leaning out of the window,” “refrain from selling precious stones, new clothing or fabric, only used rags.” Cosimo enforced strict segregation in the domestic sphere as well, forbidding Jews to “hire a Christian midwife or nanny.” On August 10, 1707, the grand duke took his repression to its logical conclusion when, through the Testo del Bando
, he decreed the creation of a ghetto in Monte San Savino. All the Christians who lived on the easternmost end of the narrow Borgo Corno were to leave their houses, and rent them out to Jews, all of whom were thereafter confined to that area; any infraction was punishable by a fine of one hundred crowns; the narrow street was then renamed the Borgo della Sinagoga or the Borgo degli Ebrei.
But even during the oppressive seventeenth century, some Jews found economic opportunities and even social mobility. The Passigli banking family flourished, growing wealthy by trading in money, like other Tuscan Jews during the Renaissance. Originally from Florence, the patriarch Ferrante Passigli was a multilingual and cultured man, interested in art. With the help of his employees—his ministri
—he developed a network of clients throughout the region, extending as far as several hundred miles from the city. By reason of his abilities he will earn a privileged status from the Marquis Alessandro Orsini: the right for himself, his family, and his employees to venture outside the ghetto and to “move freely within Monte San Savino without displaying the usual symbol.” And so he lived in a comfortable house, adjacent to the Porta Fiorentina, at the entrance to the city. When Pope Innocent XI abolished money lending, the Passiglis lost their prerogatives in Monte San Savino, though they still lived grandly. In 1717, for instance, the wedding of Samuele Passigli was a weeklong affair, with Christian musicians in attendance.
For most members of nazione ebrea del Mont
e in the seventeenth century, however, the years spent in the overcrowded, disease-ridden ghetto, in houses with boarded-up windows, were grim times indeed. The community, made up mostly of petty merchants, assumed an oligarchic structure. At the top were four or five powerful families, the Usiglis, the Montebaroccis, the Passiglis, and the Toaffs, all intermarried. In perpetual conflict with these were the Borghis and their relatives, the Castellis and the Fiorentinos; more recently established in business, they were retailers who bought their goods at a discount and resold them for profit in the surrounding countryside. In time, the Castelli brothers, who had traveled throughout the country dealing in cotton and linen fabric, also managed, with the help of thirty employees, to achieve a monopoly not only in paper, but also tobacco and alcohol, in the Monte San Savino region. From 1712 onwards, they extended their reach to include Montevarchi, Lucignano, and Foiano. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, with the relaxation of some Counter-Reformation anti-Jewish strictures, the Castellis joined the Borghis, the Passiglis, and the Montebaroccis as the only Jewish families with permission to live outside the ghetto, even if only for the duration of their monopoly. At the time, Monte San Savino was a buzzing, welcoming little city, with artisans, a few aristocratic families, various religious communities (one out of every four inhabitants wore a cassock), and a Jewish population that still consisted of about a hundred living in the ghetto, within little more than four hundred square yards.
In the eighteenth century, the Jews of Monte San Savino, known as the kehilla
, set up their own democratic government. Eleven elected governors, the massari, ruled the political life of the “Jewish nation” and determined the laws, recorded in the “Book of Deliberations of the Hebrew Nation of Monte San Savino.” Four of the massari
were in charge of teaching Hebrew in the yeshiva, the city’s Jewish school, located inside the synagogue. The latter was a large three-story building with many functions—Talmud torah
school, place of worship, communal meeting place, and home of the rabbi. The synagogue contained all the amenities necessary for worship: the ritual bath or mikvah
, for conversions and for purification, the aaron ha kodesha
, which held the Torah. It was here that the rabbi officiated, performing circumcisions, celebrating bar mitzvahs and weddings, gathering a minyan (or quorum for prayer), and saying Kaddish for the dead, who were buried far away, in the terrible Campaccio, a ravine the Jews were allowed to visit only at night. In funeral procession, they would circle it seven times, carrying the coffin on their heads before the interment prayers. Monte San Savino even had a sciochet, so animals could be slaughtered according to ritual kosher law.
However the governance evolved, pressures of life in the ghetto inevitably engendered commercial rivalries, legal disputes, brawls and skirmishes, sometimes ending in violence, especially between those Jews confined to the ghetto and those entitled to live outside it. In December 1698, for example, knife fights erupted between the Montebaroccis and the Usiglis on one side and the Borghis and the Pelagrillis on the other, after exchanges of insults in the marketplace and even in the synagogue. “The place of worship became the fight club,” as the historian Toaff wrote, “and the time for prayer was the ideal occasion for each person to air his own complaints against the injustices, whether real or imagined, that he had suffered at the hands of other members of the community, or even a time when everyone could give free rein to their frustrations.”
Indeed, Saturday mornings in the synagogue were volatile as the petty merchants and grand bankers, the marked Jews who dwelt in unwindowed houses and the unmarked Jews with the liberty to travel, prayed side by side. The contention seemed to center on the ritual calling to read the Torah, an honor conferred during the Shabbat service, for which one had to make an offering. Sometimes, the privilege was offered as a “gift” to one of the poorer families by one of the more prosperous, as on Saturday, June 11, 1700, when Gabriello Vitali was given this honor by the Usiglis. But, as there was no rabbi present that day, the Usiglis felt free to behave like veritable despots, insulting other worshippers they considered their inferiors. When Dr. Leone Usigli, a pillar of the community, called Ventura dell Aquila a “dirty bastard,” forbidding him to help Vitali read the Torah, dell Aquila fought back: “Leone Usigli is a troublemaker and lawbreaker . . . The Usiglis are unfair, arrogant and outrageous; they want to tell everyone what to do for no good reason. Christians as well as Jews have plenty to say about their behavior, their arrogance and their pride . . . They want to be monarchs . . . As for Abramo Borghi, he was judged and even condemned for less than that!” At the trial that followed, Manuela Montova came to dell Aquila’s aid: “The Usiglis have been here for a long time, but they want foreigners to remain foreigners!” As for Gabriello Vitali, he backed up his protector: “Dr. Leone Usigli wants to appear superior and as far as I’m concerned, he is superior, because he was the first of us Jews here.”
Excerpted from Leo and His Circle by Annie Cohen-Solal. Copyright © 2010 by Annie Cohen-Solal. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.