Jewish Self-Defense against the Blood Libel in Mid-Nineteenth Century Italy: The Badia Affair and Proceedings of the Castilliero Trial (1855-56)
by Emanuele D'Antonio
In 1855, the Badia affair, the sequel to a blood libel against a Jewish businessman in a Veneto town, temporarily put in question relations between state, society and the Jewish minority in the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom. After reconstructing the stages of the episode, the present article analyzes the strategies of response to the crisis resorted by the Jewry of Hapsburg Italy, then in the process of emancipation nearly achieved. With the support of state authorities, community leaders and Jewish intellectuals together with some Catholics, Venetian liberalism urged in favor of an apologetic explication to undermine majority prejudice. The effort led to the creation of a text, published as a supplement in the authoritative Eco dei Tribunali, which used the trial minutes against the slanderer, making the legal proceedings into a refutation of the ritual murder stereotype.
The Restoration coincided with the process of emancipation for Italian Jewry when it became the victim of a new, now little-known wave of blood libels. The six documented cases took place between 1824 and 1860 in cities and towns of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Sardinia.1 The accusations of ritual murder were local in scope overall; urban Jewish communities of varying size and demographic and socio-economic makeup were involved. The immediate cause provoking a libel was often the violent death or the disappearance of a young Catholic, for which the public authorities could not provide an adequate explanation. Local communities questioned these traumatic events in search of a “truth” more persuasive than the official account. The answer would typically surface based on the slanderous claim, widespread to the point of being taken to be common knowledge,2 that Jews had some religious rites which called for the sacrifice of Christian youths and then for feasting upon their blood as part of ritual ceremonies. The accusation would spread among the common folk as a rumor,3 increasing the sense of alarm and fueling strong anti-Jewish hostility among locals. Brought together by their belief in the veracity of the slander, the community would feel that it had to punish the Jews for the monstrous crime, as well as to neutralize the threat posed by their degenerate religiosity. The ensuing anti-Jewish riots saw different degrees of local participation and intensity, sometimes resulting only in symbolic acts of exclusion, sometimes in violence against individuals and property or, in some extreme cases, in mass assault on the former ghetto areas.4
In Restoration Italy, blood libels became the expression of a new anti-Jewish hostility stemming from long-term religious, cultural, and socio-political causes as well as aversion to secular modernity and its call for emancipation.5 The accusations’ breeding ground was the restored cultural legitimacy of the ritual murder stereotype, a medieval ecclesiastical concoction which, in the course of its secular history, was shared by theological anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.6 Its revival was part of an overall negative anthropology of Judaism originating in Catholic circles close to the anti-modern positions espoused by the Church between the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries.7 Contributing to this, hagiographies of the alleged “martyred victims of Jewish hatred,”8 echoes of the Damascus affair (1840),9 propaganda against emancipation,10 and writing of questionable merit11 all combined to create a popular notion of the Jews as a dangerous group animated by hatred of everything Christian and committed to religious crime, cannibalism and vampirism. Christianity needed to defend itself against all of these. However, the six documented cases of ritual murder charges in this period became an expression of the socio-political anxieties of the classes most affected by the crises of modernization. During the process of emancipation, Italian Jewry was identified with its bourgeois élites, and was perceived as a social enemy, the beneficiary of a modernity which, from the point of view of many, was nothing but the harbinger of worse living conditions to come. Rural dwellers’ anti-Jewish hostility, impacted by misleading social claims, was also often linked to the loss of land in ways which advanced the interests of bourgeois Jews,12 while nobles were resentful about the “usurpation” of rights which had once been their prerogative.13
The Jewish response to blood libels in Restoration Italy has not been the object of focused historical research, apart from sporadic exceptions.14 The leaders of the targeted Jewish groups seem to have defended themselves mainly by means of the traditional vertical alliance with the sovereign power,15 calling for protection by its local representatives. State authorities disposed of superior forces and appeared more reliable than the local; they were also not about to leave a “useful” population at the mercy of a local populace in turmoil. Even though dictated by a somewhat mythologized rereading of its own historical experience, this approach was generally effective in normalizing situations of crisis. To retain their growing monopoly over force, state authorities tried to prevent general unrest or, if this proved impossible, to repress it by military means. Control of the territory would sometimes be accompanied by the attempt to eradicate the source of the crisis. In 1824, government representatives in Mantua, in addition to taking the usual measures to preserve public order, organized a public refutation of the blood libel, all as part of a popular education effort to “tolerance.”16 In this as in other cases, defending the Jews from a blood libel charge depended on the attitude and choices of the sovereign power.17 To this end, self-defense measures taken by the Jews were not aimed directly at the surrounding dominant culture; the apologetic explanations documented in community archives or in the Jewish press18 were rather intended to support the plea for assistance from the authorities.
The Badia affair is an instance of this kind; however, it also involves a number of elements that make it unique in the history of pre-unification Italy.19 Without providing a systematic analysis and reconstruction of the events, which I leave for a future monograph, in this essay I propose to examine the Jewish response to the 1855 blood libel in a small town in southern Veneto. The Jews of Hapsburg Italy, whose civil emancipation was nearly complete by this time, managed a public self-defense which culminated in the publication – in the non-Jewish Eco dei Tribunali – of the report of the trial against the instigator of the charge of ritual murder.20 Similar to long-established trends elsewhere among contemporary European Jews, the decision to undertake a public refutation – which was also part of the attempt to achieve full emancipation21 – was taken in response to a socio-political crisis of unexpectedly vast proportions. The short-term cause, the local failure of the vertical alliance, led to the arrest of a respected bourgeois Jew, the victim of a heinous accusation. After a summary of the events, the present essay will reconstruct the history of the publication of the proceedings, focusing in particular on the case of Lombardo-Venetian Jewry. The publication will be considered together with some non-Jewish exhortations to liberal thought, and the apologetic and intellectual strategies used.
The first seven years of the third Austrian period of rule were a critical phase in the history of the Austrian Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom, marked by military domination – though incomplete and fluctuating – of the state apparatus, and by a profound economic crisis which had far reaching social consequences.22 The Jewish minority, represented by the communities of Mantua in Lombardy and Venice, Padua, Verona and Rovigo in Veneto,23 was faced with additional difficulties. The failure of the Revolution of 1848, a source of great disappointment for its many Jewish supporters, had meant the loss of the civil and political equality achieved during the Republic of Manin.24 The old discriminatory laws were reenacted, and the Austrian authorities seemed more interested in using political institutions to promote a slow, gradual expansion of rights related to “civil tolerance.” This approach was endorsed by a positive evaluation of the socioeconomic and cultural integration achieved by the Jews of Hapsburg Italy.25 The preceding three decades had shown partial emancipation to be – compared with other geopolitical developments in the peninsula – especially favorable to the rise of a Jewish bourgeoisie throughout the country.26 Jewish leaders, however, understanding the meaning of complete civil emancipation, could not accept a partial one; they were also concerned about the negative impact of the rapprochement between the Empire and the Holy See, which had led to the 1855 Concordat.27 Finally, surrounding majority views on the “Jewish question” were divided between pro-equality liberals and an opposition camp, which was probably larger and more articulate than intransigent Catholic circles.
The blood libel that broke the fragile balance in the relations between state, society, and the Jewish minority in the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom took place in Badia in the province of Rovigo, a location significant in terms of rural, manufacturing, and commercial activity and having about five thousand inhabitants.28 The affair broke out on June 25, 1855, with the return of Giuditta Castilliero, who had disappeared from the town eight days previously. The young woman, a twenty-one-year-old peasant officially resident in nearby Masi, was living in the house of an aunt and publicly explained her disappearance by claiming to have escaped from a ritual murder. As per her account, the Jews had kidnapped her and taken her to Verona, where they had tried to sacrifice her along with an unknown little girl whom she later lost track of. Her executioners had stunned her by repeatedly bloodletting her in the arms, collecting her blood in a terracotta basin. The “martyrdom” was prevented by a Catholic servant, who assisted her in escaping and, after a stop in nearby Legnago, returning to Badia. Among the alleged Jewish perpetrators, Badians recognized their fellow townsman Caliman Ravenna. He was accused of kidnapping a Christian for the purpose of ritual murder. As evidence of the alleged bloodletting, Castilliero displayed six wounds in her arms, evoking perfect resonance with deep-rooted common anti-Jewish fantasies.
The blood libel immediately fueled strong anti-Jewish sentiment; townsfolk united against the alleged kidnapper. Born in Rovigo in 1817, Ravenna had arrived in Badia with his wife Stella Levi in 1840. The few Jews of the town29 were formally members of the Jewish community of the provincial capital, Rovigo. Ravenna was a well-respected entrepreneur, hardware merchant, district tax collector, and moneylender.30 His success in business had placed him at the top of the bourgeoisie in Badia,31 making him an integral part of the elite. Ravenna was prominent in the city’s public life, frequented its salons and cafés, became co-founder of its Philharmonic Society and was one of the owners (palchettisti) of the local Teatro Sociale.32 His prestige could not protect him from prejudice, however. Opinion among his Catholic acquaintances was divided concerning his alleged guilt, further contributing to Ravenna’s social isolation. Amid mounting tension, the first wave of anti-Jewish agitation washed over Badia at the same time.33 Rumors helped spread this throughout the area, reaching as far as Rovigo.34
The local authorities’ intervention led to the acknowledgment of the blood libel. Having being warned of the seriousness of the case, Ravenna went to the local government representative (commissario distrettuale)35 to proclaim his innocence and ask that measures be taken to protect his “honor.”36 The officer, though skeptical about the attempted ritual murder, did not respond to his request, and under pressure from the municipal authorities transferred the case to the justice authority. Investigation by the local magistrate (pretore) put Ravenna in an even worse position. Strongly prejudiced, the investigators accepted Castilliero’s allegations, swayed by the deposition given under oath and the forensic examination of the injuries to her arms.37 On June 28, Ravenna, charged with public violence,38 was taken into preventive custody in the Badia prison. Next the case, in accordance with procedural requirements, moved on to the Court of Rovigo. The magistrates of the provincial capital, together with other criminal authorities, expedited the investigation of the crime, allegedly inspired by the “religious superstition of the Jews.”39 The immediate arrest of the perpetrators, from their point of view, was also a public order measure. Answering the public’s calls for “justice” could limit the unrest, and prevent its spreading to the cities where the larger Jewish communities of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom were concentrated.
The Badia affair became a regional crisis once the first accounts of it appeared in the press. On July 5, the Annotatore friulano, an authoritative weekly printed in Udine, published an account of the violence suffered by the “young little peasant” from Polesine.40 Without mentioning the Jewish identity of the alleged perpetrators, the report helped spread the libel by indirectly endorsing a story already familiar to its readers through rumors. Public opinion put Judaism on trial on its own, in discussions held among the social elites of the cities of Veneto and elsewhere. The Pedrocchi coffeehouse in Padua, where the Annotatore was typical reading, became the scene of verbal abuse against Jewish patrons.41 The agitation spread to the popular social classes in Venice and Padua, who were shaken by the rumors and determined to avenge the self-proclaimed “martyr.”42 In Venice, Jewish institutions received threatening letters that ordered Jews to stay away from the public sphere, or face an imminent massacre. Armed intervention proved needed to block the escalation of anti-Jewish violence, ultimately preventing damage to property and physical attacks against individuals.
State authorities interfered to respond to the pleas for protection from the area’s Jewish leadership. Diplomatic efforts by the Venetian community were paralleled by those of other communities approaching their various provincial authorities; together, they proved decisive in winning the support of the Veneto government.43 The Jews’ leading arguments44 must have been the refutation, in principle and in fact, of the accusation of ritual murder, as well as the political criminalization of the charge’s supporters. The Badia affair undermined “civil tolerance” and could be used as a cover for a conspiracy against Austria. The hypothesis that the anti-Jewish agitation signaled a renewal of the patriotic movement in Italy was farfetched and instrumental, but sounded dangerous to a power still traumatized by the events of 1848 and obsessed with the ghost of the Revolution.45 The highest political authorities in Venice took over the supervision of the case, and used the administrative bodies subordinate to them to conduct an effective defense of the Jews and an investigation to challenge the accusation.
Public opinion responded immediately to the change in the political climate. On July 9, the Gazzetta uffiziale di Venezia, the leading newspaper in Veneto, published a front-page refutation of the blood libel by Abraham Lattes, the chief rabbi of the Venetian community.46 Three days later, the Viennese Corriere Italiano, a ministerial newspaper widely read in Hapsburg Italy, accused the Annotatore of having intentionally promoted an anti-Semitic campaign.47 These articles made the weekly in Udine, after an inconsistent attempt at self-defense,48 retreat into silence for fear of penal sanctions.
This critical phase of the Badia affair ended with the collapse of the legal endorsement of the blood libel. On July 9, Castilliero was arrested for theft committed in Legnago against a family who, unconnected to the blood libel, had hired her as a domestic servant; the theft took place during the days of Castilliero’s disappearance.49 This news obviously contradicted the story of the attempted ritual murder; the indictment against Ravenna and his alleged accomplices from Verona was undone. The investigators, after obtaining the young woman’s confession, next devoted their efforts to identifying her apparent accomplice, the instigator of the libel. On July 14, Ravenna was released from jail. He held a celebration in the public square, thus starting his reintegration into the city community. The news was immediately published by the Sferza in Brescia,50 and ten days later, in greater detail in the Gazzetta di Mantova; this latter article was widely reproduced by the newspapers of Hapsburg Italy.51 The disproof of the charge of attempted ritual murder crowned the press campaign initiated by Rabbi Lattes’ refutation.
The Badia affair cast in question the real extent of the Jews’ integration in Lombardo-Venetian society; the shock reverberated throughout the Jewish world of the land. The widespread public acceptance of the blood libel called for an immediate response and a public refutation capable of counteracting prevalent prejudice. This project, though the names of its initiators are today impossible to establish, took shape among the leaders of the Jewish communities in Padua and Venice, and in the intellectual circles close to the Rabbinical College of Padua,52 the main Jewish cultural center in the area. The support of political authorities, which had been crucial for the success of the campaign against the libel in the press, was guarantee against intervention from the censors. Hailing from a long-standing tradition, public self-defense also reflected contemporary states of mind among European Jews, affected especially by the Damascus affair.53 In 1840, Lipman Hirsch Löwenstein published his Damascia, soon to have widespread impact and urging his coreligionists to break with the isolation induced by an enlightened culture that had nonetheless come to terms with “superstition.”54 The strategy envisaged by the Hebraist from Frankfurt did not seek the emotional support of non-Jews but rather aimed for their rational persuasion, based on rigorously documented facts about religion and history. Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), professor at the Rabbinical College and renowned Hebraist, was familiar with the text55 and shared its perspective. His rationalist approach followed the principles of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums, a European Jewish movement which rediscovered, by using scholarly method and analysis, its own religious and historical-cultural heritage.56 The strategy of rational persuasion of non-Jews also adhered to a particular apologetic tradition, masterfully analyzed by Cristiana Facchini, which had emerged in the Veneto area at the end of the seventeenth century.57 Carrying out a public refutation of the blood libel, however, required the unanimous consent of the Jewish leadership of the area.
The news of Castilliero’s arrest, even before it was officially announced, relieved the pressure on the Jews of Lombardo-Veneto. Once the minutes of the legal proceedings had been made public, the President of the Community of Padua invited the leaders of the other four Jewish communities of the kingdom to send representatives to a conference to plan “further steps to be taken vis-a-vis the Higher Government Authorities” in order to advance “the state of well-being overall.”58 The call for coordinated action echoed widespread trends towards self-organization in contemporary European Jewry;59 it was also in perfect consonance with recent developments in Lombardo-Venetian Jewish political tradition. Under the Austrians, Jewish leadership in the area had repeatedly produced joint responses to dangerous challenges from majority society.60 But joint effort in the past had been based on contingent choices informally agreed upon by the members of the five presidencies. The conference of 1855 was, by contrast, an official event, which required participating members to renounce their traditional autonomy.61 The struggle against the blood libel required a joint initiative of an extraordinary nature. The idea of publishing the proceedings was, perhaps, transparent to the invitation’s recipients, but remained hidden between the lines of the circular from Padua.
The representatives of the communities of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom finally met in Venice, at Graziadio Vivante’s house, on October 23.62 The delay was due to the resistance of Mantua’s Jewish leaders, the only ones hostile to the initiative.63 The choice of venue underlined the hegemony of the Venetian Community in the nascent consortium, but it must also be interpreted as offering a guarantee. The community’s president, Abramo Errera,64 was also in charge of the presidency of the Rabbinical College,65 the only institution shared in by all five of the kingdom’s communities. The participants were almost all members of their cities’ Jewish elites. They were distinguished people even in the eyes of non-Jewish society and experienced in dealing with the political authorities.66 Prominent among them were Rabbi Lattes, the director of the Rabbinical College, Giuseppe Consolo,67 and a member of the presidential committee of the community of Rovigo, Alessandro Levi.68 Levi was Caliman Ravenna’s brother-in-law and his advisor on legal matters. The conference finalized the decision to take action against surrounding majority prejudice by publishing a report on the upcoming Castilliero trial together with a refutation of the blood libel based on rigorously documented historical-religious arguments. The expenses incurred would be shared by the communities as per the “carati” system used in financing the Rabbinical College,69 that is, in proportion to community size.
Immediately following the conference, Jewish leaders of the region began preparation for the envisioned publication, led by Venice. Returning to Rovigo, Levi met with Alessandro Cervesato, a Catholic liberal and a supporter of emancipation,70 as well as Ravenna’s future defense attorney. Levi asked Cervesato to clarify the structure of the upcoming Castilliero trial. The risk was that the young woman would be indicted for theft primarily and the slander reduced to an ancillary crime, thus downplaying the importance of the mistreatment suffered by Ravenna and the need for redress. This scenario required an alternative strategy. The attorney gave a reassuring opinion, which ultimately proved to be correct.71 The main charge in the trial was slander; this was a more severely punishable offense than theft by virtue of some codified aggravating circumstances. By suing for civil damages, the victim of the slander would play a central role in the trial, testifying about the circumstances and consequences of the “infernal accusation.” The lawyer also supported printing the trial proceedings, both so as to advance Ravenna’s public rehabilitation and in order to establish the relevance of the legal case as a whole. Castilliero’s verdict would set a precedent that could prevent new blood libels in the future.
Reassured by Cervesato’s opinion,72 Jewish leaders started work on the explanatory, or apologetic, part of the publication. The task of drafting the preliminary briefs, which would specify documentary sources and outline an overall strategy, was assigned to two learned experts with a solid background in Jewish history and religious lore.73 Trained at the College in Padua, the Rabbi of Rovigo, Abram Mainster, was a Judaica scholar with a rigorous background in philology. Through his mentor, Luzzatto, he was also connected to the Wissenschaft des Judenthums movement.74 New to Jewish learning but familiar with the literature of the Wissenschaft des Judenthums, the Venetian Samuele Romanin was a renowned historian, a believer in the “religion of the document,” which then dominated scholarly research, and the author of an innovative Storia documentata di Venezia that was just then being printed.75 The director of the Rabbinical College, Consolo, was unable to collect at the College all of the documents pertaining to the blood libel which were in the communities’ possession;76 the College was left out of this preparatory work as a result. Luzzatto was instrumental in other ways, giving Mainster bibliographical leads77 and inspiring the research conducted by Romanin, to whom he was connected by feelings of esteem and friendship.
The briefs provided the Jewish leadership with essential material for the refutation. Mainster’s draft added a preliminary documentary basis. Studying two polemical writings published in connection with the Damascus affair, one by the Parisian lawyer, Alphonse Pinède, and the other by the founder of Wissenschaft, Leopold Zunz,78 had allowed him to put together a heterogeneous textual corpus to demonstrate that Jews could not possibly be involved in ritual murder.79 The Rabbi of Rovigo, albeit skeptical about the usefulness of the publication plan, suggested emphasizing the Christian tradition opposed to the blood libel, as in his opinion Catholics would accept this as more authoritative than Jewish sources of similar content. As we will show, the refutation was eventually based on a Protestant text and represented – in a manner consciously apologetic – the blood libel as a malicious deviation from Christian worldview.
Romanin’s brief pursued a very different goal, but came to similar conclusions.80 The Venetian scholar went on a research mission to Trent and produced a historical-documentary refutation of the “martyrdom” of the then blessed Simonino. The legend of the infant from Trent sacrificed by the Jews in 147581 had served as one of the main sources for legitimating the allegation of ritual murder. Its appeal derived from popular religious devotion, recognized by the Church, and had been revived by both erudite and popular hagiography, with increasing intensity, since the mid-eighteenth century.82 The story of the “martyrdom” was perpetuated in liturgy and hagiographic narratives, arousing interest far beyond the religious sphere, and entrenching the belief that Jews killed young Christians to feast on their blood in the Jewish Easter banquet ceremonies.83 Its strong anti-Jewish potential was evident in propagandistic texts, and could easily become the cause of blood libels in the future. In 1824, the people of Mantua cried “ritual murder!” following the discovery of a missing child near a Jewish property; according to rumor, the girl’s wounded body resembled that of Simonino, bleeding “from innumerable punctures [...] made with a needle.”84
Romanin was the first Jewish intellectual to examine the documents of the “great trial” against the Jews of Trent, but he was not the first to deploy critical method in studying the case. His work continued a project conceived by Shadal during the Damascus crisis.85 In 1840, addressing German-speaking Jews and based on a historical-philological critique of the available documents, the Hebraist from Padua had exposed the groundlessness of the hagiographic narratives of Simonino’s “martyrdom.”86 The Venetian scholar, somewhat by contrast, analyzed historical-documentary evidence to refute the original source as reproduced in a seventeenth-century rendition of the documented proceedings involving six defendants.87 The accusation of ritual murder had emerged, in his opinion, in a climate of anti-Jewish hatred promoted by Franciscan preaching. This brought the civil and ecclesiastical authorities together to search for a new saint who would attract a stream of devotees and pilgrims, bringing prestige and income to the city of Trent. Nonetheless, the Trent case, in the historian’s opinion, had to be omitted from the refutation “in order not to clash with the belief, which the Church has unfortunately made a religious tenet, in the alleged Saint.” Challenging Simonino’s beatitude would have provoked Catholic hostility, leading ecclesiastical authorities to call for censorship. The publication would then lose much of its persuasive impact, even if still permitted to circulate without restriction.
Endorsing Mainster’s and Romanin’s briefs, Jewish community leaders next needed to find an appropriate publishing house. Making choices of this kind had always posed a problem for the Jewish community; the issue remained unresolved as late as the end of the nineteenth century. Lombardo-Venetian Jewry under Austrian rule was typically reluctant to intervene publicly in political or religious questions that concerned them directly: the risks involved – censorship and clashing with hostile Catholic public opinion – were effective deterrents.88 Refuting the blood libel – any attack on the Church excepted – was granted the political authorities’ support, but it still had to face the prejudice of the surrounding milieu. Issuing a publication by the communities themselves appeared a doubtful course to pursue. The public would have greeted an “Israelitic” publication with “unpleasant polemics,” exposing it to “religious bias that would make it significantly less credible.”89 This fear was shared by Jewish intellectuals and the leaders of the communities of Rovigo and Mantua; the apprehension in this latter seemed even stronger. Any statement by a Jewish apologist would be treated by the Catholic public as “always suspect” of being partial, as Shadal put it.90
In June 1856, Paride Zajotti (junior) approached Ravenna with the idea of publishing the trial’s proceedings in his Eco dei Tribunali, thus putting the Jewish leaders out of their embarrassment. The periodical offered by the young Venetian journalist, a leading liberal publication, was a respected biweekly covering legal issues.91 Ever since its founding, reports that appeared on its pages about hearings of well-known cases had attracted great public interest. Zajotti himself, a pro-emancipation Catholic, thought of the need to disprove the blood libel as a “question of civilization,”92 while liberal-minded lawyers wanted to make their “academic” contribution as part of criticizing the inquisitorial system. The prejudice, as Rabbi Lattes had written on the same periodical’s pages, was also fostered by uncritical adherence to outdated legal decisions and documents. The confessions extracted under torture from the Jews accused of ritual murder, however, satisfied the superstition of the town’s magistrates, not the test of historical truth.93
Zajotti’s proposal was given an enthusiastic welcome in Rovigo and Venice. Acting on Ravenna’s behalf, the community of Venice gave Zajotti exclusive rights to publish all trial documents.94 Beyond this, the Jewish communities of the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom, pledged to buy five hundred copies of the publication.95 The preliminary investigation conducted by the Court of Rovigo had drawn to a close in the meantime; the Castilliero trial would not involve the instigator of the Badia affair. Protected by the young woman's staunch silence, this character was not going to appear as one of the accused.
Castilliero, charged with having slandered Ravenna, was tried in the Court of Rovigo during September 29-October 1, 1856. Following the proceedings, Zajotti returned to Venice, where he started printing the special supplement to the Eco dei Tribunali. This was published in fourteen biweekly installments later to be collected in a large-format booklet of fifty-six pages. The text was divided into two interconnected parts, the first a detailed report of the trial proceedings and the second made up of two refutations of the blood libel. One of these was fully referenced with extensive primary source citations. The exact number of copies printed is not known, but the publication must have been widely circulated, especially in the Veneto area. Advertised by the Gazzetta di Venezia, distribution was officially in the hands of local book markets in Veneto’s provincial capitals, as well as in Milan and Trieste (but not Mantua).96 In addition, Jewish communities promoting the publication distributed their five hundred copies among the Jews of the peninsula and in Europe beyond; the booklet, re-launched by the Jewish press outside the Lombardo-Venetian Kingdom,97 was instrumental in augmenting the refutations arsenal available to European Jewry as a whole should more ritual murder charges appear in the future.98
As reported in the Eco dei Tribunali, the trial was conducted in a manner acceptable to the Jews, even if an occasional shadow was cast on certain points. The public in the courtroom found the proceedings captivating, but the trial itself did not yield any new relevant disclosures. The slanderer’s guilt was established based on abundant evidence as well as her own confession; it was not put in question. The magistrates used the proceedings to address the only question still open, urging the accused to reveal the identity of her instigator. Blaming an unknown carter, Castilliero repeated a story that had already been disproved, and thus lost the disposition of the Court in favor of clemency. The court debate, as would often happen in Lombardo-Veneto, became a clash between “two opposing, if not antithetical, truths.”99 The recalcitrance of the accused, whom many saw as a naive victim of seasoned criminals, was greeted with general sympathy by those present, which was likely the overt expression of deeper seated feelings of anti-Jewish hostility. The trial also marked Ravenna's solemn rehabilitation, legally irrelevant but crucial for the economy of the publication. Having legally established his innocence, the entrepreneur, through a statement delivered by his lawyer Cervesato, withdrew from the proceedings and forgave his slanderer. After brief deliberation, the Court issued the sentence requested by the public prosecutor. Castilliero was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment (carcere duro), confirmed on appeal, the term to be served in the Giudecca women's prison in Venice.100
In his introduction to the trial minutes, Zajotti invited the public to rethink the Badia affair without prejudice, focusing on “the facts” so as to arrive at the correct legal and historical-cultural conclusions.101 Similar in form and structure to a document produced by a court registry, the text does not tell the story of an attempted ritual murder, but uncovers a conspiracy against an honest and well-respected Israelite. The architect of the crime was an unidentified Ravenna enemy, with personal ties to the accused, whom he was able to take advantage of to act upon his plan. Justice had initially been deceived by the conspirators, depriving Ravenna of his honor and freedom. But truth was soon reestablished, and eventually led to the release of the slandered victim and the arrest of the slanderer. Although she had confessed, Castilliero was still loyal to the criminal network she had acted at the behest of; she was not sincerely repentant, and deserved no pity. The Badia affair taught this lesson: Jews should not be attacked on the basis of slander and prejudice. Contributing to the hope of identifying the core fueling the conspiracy, Castilliero’s conviction sent a warning to society as a whole: the State would not tolerate the recurrence of similar incidents.
The chronicling of the Badia affair formed the basis for the refutation of the ritual murder stereotype. To this end, two discussion pieces followed up on the court proceedings, constituting the second part of the publication. The first piece was composed in the form of a letter addressed to Zajotti; it contains a brief but well-documented counter-history of the blood libel by Cervesato.102 He was presumably commissioned to compose the piece by the Jewish leadership of Rovigo, in keeping with its tradition of entrusting the writing of its appeals to Christian lawyers.103 Despite there no longer being any valid legal prohibition in this regard, a defense of Judaism produced by a Catholic was believed, as discussed above, more effective vis-a-vis non-Jewish public opinion than one by a Jew. Jewish intellectuals, nonetheless, played a decisive role in the composition of the text, providing the lawyer with the documentary references needed and elucidating the strategy to be adopted based on the briefs by Mainster and Romanin. His argument was primarily indebted to one of the first systematic refutations of the blood libel ever produced by a Christian; the official text of this had been submitted to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus II, by the Theological Faculty of Leipzig in 1714.104 Romanin had come upon this document in Damascia; it had probably also been known to Luzzatto even earlier.105 It discredited ritual murder theories produced by European culture over the centuries as superstition. Synthetic and schematic, the text was chosen to be the mainstay of the documentary appendix and would be published on the pages of the Eco with the trial proceedings.106 Rabbi Mainster is likely to have done the Italian translation, which was later edited by Luzzatto who, upon seeing it printed, experienced “great pleasure.”107 This primary source enabled Cervesato to argue that the ritual murder accusations originated from superstition, fought by the Church and Christian authorities whenever it broke out in history, as the “unfortunate […] bait of social upheaval.”
In the introduction to his piece, Cervesato, although satisfied with the outcome of the trial proceedings, reminded the reader that the “cardinal issue” of the Badia affair remained unresolved. As long as the motive as well as the identity of the “moral culprit” remained unknown, it would remain impossible to expose the case against Ravenna as an anti-Jewish conspiracy motivated by material gain. This hypothesis about the libel’s roots was inspired by an understanding of the libel’s function which was widespread among the Jewish intellectuals of the area. Less nuanced than Romanin, Luzzatto had voiced the same idea in explaining the Trent libel, borrowing this interpretation from early modern Jewish histories and memoirs. His main reference, in the aforementioned text of 1840, was the Valley of Tears (Éméq ha-bacha, 1558) by Yoseph ha-Cohen, a Hebrew manuscript published by Meir Letteris in Vienna in 1852.108 On the pages of the Eco, stating the conspiracy hypothesis was relegated to a legal document published in the appendix. In their investigation of a recent case from the vicinity of Aachen, the Prussian judiciary had withdrawn the charge against two Jews, and recorded the discovered motive of their slanderers: a sum of money which they stood to gain.109
Cervesato’s text goes on to refute the two main theories of ritual murder which had been in circulation together with Castilliero’s story. In the summer of 1855 the blood libel, according to the testimony of the rabbi and teacher at the Paduan College, Lelio Della Torre,110 had led to attacks on Judaism based on ancient theological stereotypes enhanced by echoes of the Damascus affair and spread far and wide by ultramontane propagandistic literature. The Jews, according to claims often connected to these attacks, used Christian blood in ceremonies prescribed by their religion. The main target of this theory, although Della Torre did not explicitly mention it,111 must have been the Talmud, a then unknown work which had been denigrated by the Church for centuries,112 and which aroused the distrust of the surrounding non-Jewish milieu. Casting the Talmud as a normative religious text prescribing ritual murder, a central theme of the Damascus affair,113 overlapped with the established notion of “Talmudism,” according to which Judaism had departed from its biblical roots, re-founding its morality on anti-Christian hatred.114 According to Della Torre, however, the main theory behind ritual murder charges was different, and had been assimilated by Italian Catholic culture through the echoes of the Damascus affair.115 Its supporters did not impute the “bloody ceremonies” to all Jews, but to a “secret sect” that had deviated from Judaism’s religious principles and was unknown to most of its coreligionists. The sect’s members supposedly practiced human sacrifice in deference to an esoteric tradition taken over from idolaters in antiquity, then charging the practice with anti-Christian meanings during the Middle Ages. In the absence of a clear description of the sect, the theory lent itself to elastic application, open also to magical-witchcraft interpretations of the use of Christians’ blood.116 The images that emerged from this theory, in the worldview of the upper urban classes of the area, gave it a further appearance of plausibility. The survival of “primitivism” in an otherwise “civilized” society seemed proven by the continued existence of rural lifestyles structured by archaic beliefs and practices routinely dismissed as “superstitious.”117 It was therefore not surprising that the Jewish population, like the society around them, would include isolated groups of fanatics committed to criminal practices most typical of “savages.”
In mounting an attack against these claims, Cervesato relied heavily on the historical and religious information affirmed by the official statement by the Theological Faculty of Leipzig. The reference to the Mosaic laws of purity, which forbade ingestion and contact with blood, directly disproved the accounts of the bloodthirsty “rabbinical rite.” The hypothesis of the original laws’ subversion by later interpreters was contradicted by the Jewish “abhorrence” of blood, developed over centuries of observance and documented in contemporary Europe, as well. Thus, the Jews refused to eat meat not slaughtered according to ritual shechitah procedure, for fear of being contaminated by its blood residues.118 The lawyer went on to refute the secret sect theory, arguing that no historical basis could be adduced for the claim of the Jews’ having assimilated the practice of human sacrifice. The blood libel as a ploy based on using trumped up charges, had appeared in the late ancient period, striking, as Tertullian wrote, the first Christians.119 The absence of any suspicions about the Jews, in the context of a bitter political-religious struggle, proved their original non-involvement in the practice.120 The accusation, once Christians had been cleared, rebounded on the Jews only in the thirteenth century.121 Cervesato argued it was a far-fetched connection, considering the Jews’ political predicament in medieval Christian Europe. Reduced to impotence, the Jews would have paid a heavy price had they really ever challenged Christian society in this way: they would have been deprived of the “only social protection” they had – the laws of tolerance – and de facto condemned to extinction. The genesis of the anti-Jewish ritual murder charge was explained, as hypothesized by the Saxon theologians, as a byproduct of the political-religious fanaticism fueled by the Crusades. The monks and the opportunists who had devised the blood libel against the Jews wanted to satisfy their lust for power and wealth, fighting a sort of parallel anti-Jewish crusade of their own. Invoking the pogroms of the Rhine and Moselle valleys, the lawyer recalled the Church's defense of the Jews, well known to an audience familiar with the romantic rediscovery of the Crusades.122 Catholic culture glorified this as a shining example of Christian charity, while typically did not question the accusation of ritual murder .123 By contrast with this, Cervesato emphasized the struggle of the ecclesiastical authorities against the “senseless slander,” describing this as a rational choice documented by a long series of papal pronouncements. According to him, the position of the medieval popes had been adopted by the civil authorities, uniting them in the defense of the laws of tolerance in the face of the periodic re-emergence of the accusation. In his conclusion, Cervesato urged the legal authorities to bring to justice the “occult engine” of the Badia affair, the cause of a temporary relapse into barbarity of a “civilization” that now considered Jews and Christians “children [almost] of a single family.”
In the second and final commentarial piece, Zajotti refuted the blood libel from a “legal” perspective with extensive historical and cultural repercussions.124 The journalist reconstructed the developments leading to Ravenna’s “luminous” acquittal, and then polemically wondered what the outcome would have been had the legal authorities worked with the “Inquisition’s system.” In this case, defending the accused would turn into more than just a legal problem. Since the late eighteenth century, criticism of torture had been linked to the Enlightenment’s struggle against superstition, relegating beliefs in constructs such as witchcraft and pestiferous unguents to a past both “barbaric” and irrational.125 Shortly prior to this time, the topic had been taken up by Alessandro Manzoni in his acclaimed Storia della colonna infame (1840/42), a critical reconstruction of the 1630-31 trial against the Milanese men accused of intentionally spreading the plague through the use of unguents (untori). In his account, the Lombard writer had delegitimized the “infernal” condemnation of the defendants: their crime, to which they had confessed under brutal torture, existed only in the magistrates’ minds overwhelmed by “passion” and “prejudice.” In nineteenth-century Italy, criticism of torture, though present in some Jewish writing in defense of Judaism,126 does not seem to have been systematically relied upon by non-Jewish writers rejecting the blood libel.127 This omission, openly hostile in the case of Manzoni,128 left room for uncritical acceptance of older legal sources along with undisguised anti-Jewish propaganda.129 In the Veneto area, the most dangerous, deemed authoritative, and widely accepted project serving this end was the recent work of a Venetian scholar and priest. In 1853, Giuseppe Cappelletti, in an installment of his Storia della Repubblica di Venezia, had summarized his view of local Jewry – a religious, moral, and social “pestiferous infection” of the Serenissima – by accusing them of ritual murder.130 The “evidence” consisted of the conviction of three Jews from Portobuffolé, burned at the stake in Piazza San Marco in 1480.131 Although he did not directly attack Cappelletti, Zajotti exposed his type of account, criticizing its ahistorical use of primary sources. His proof was based on an imagined trial against Ravenna held according to inquisitorial procedure. The deposition of Castilliero, although far-fetched, was supported by sufficient evidence to resort to the use of torture. In what followed, the magistrates, faced with Ravenna’s denial, would have “placed him on the rack.” Then the “progressive increase in martyrdom,” as in the situation in 1840 in Damascus, would have forced him to yield, confessing to the crime he was accused of. His conviction, however, would not have proven his guilt, nor produced any revelation about his religious tradition. Thanks to the legal safeguards, Ravenna had instead proved his innocence, persuading magistrates and even the most obstinate observers. The Badia affair thus had “immense historical significance,” as it invalidated in one swoop all the convictions ever obtained by torture from Jews accused of ritual murder.
Publicizing the proceedings of the Castilliero trial, a satisfying enterprise for the Jewish communities of the land with the exception of Mantua,132 had a positive impact in the short term. The publication’s reception helped to change the attitude of the political authorities, endowing Lombardo-Venetian Jewry with effective defense tools against the blood libel. In the years following, state authorities would consider the libel, as the unusual case of Lendinara (1860) shows, a superstitious, defamatory and dangerous belief that had to be “eradicated” from the “plebs” through public refutation and the summary legal conviction of its promoters.133 The publication also had an impact, albeit a limited one, on prejudice of dominant cultures. In the decades immediately before and after Italy’s unification, the booklet – together with other apologetic writings – forced some propagandists of the ritual murder accusation publicly to retract their statements.134 Its persuasive power was, however, nullified by clerical propaganda which, amid the turbulence of the fin-de-siècle, made the blood libel a pillar of its campaign to demonize Judaism, the “hidden instigator” of the abhorrent secularizing modernity.135 The text was mentioned in some later Jewish apologetic writings,136 but was more often ignored and sometimes even ridiculed by polemicists. The “truth” about ritual murder, wrote a Paduan clerical daily in the period of the debates surrounding the Beilis trial, had been revealed by the magistrates of Damascus; those of Rovigo had only unmasked the “trick” of a young peasant girl.137 Rational argumentation, carried out in an apologetic key, was finally overwhelmed by a far more powerful mythologizing machine.
Emanuele D’Antonio is Ph.D in History (Università degli Studi di Udine). Formerly a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Turin, he is the author of La società udinese e gli ebrei fra la Restaurazione e l’età unitaria (Udine 2012) and a participant in the online publication of the letters of Cesare Lombroso (http://www.lombrosoproject.unito.it). His main field of research is social and intellectual history of the Jews in 19-century Italy, particularly in connection with the emergence of modern anti-Semitism.
This article was translated from Italian by Federico Damonte
How to quote this article:
Emanuele D'Antonio, "Jewish Self-Defense against the Blood Libel in Mid-Nineteenth Century Italy: The Badia Affair and Proceedings of the Castilliero Trial (1855-56)", in Miscellanea 2018, eds. Quest Editorial staff, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.14 December 2018