“Few Italian political men are so well known, at least outside the Peninsula, as Luigi Luzzatti. At home his untiring political, economic and scientific activity and his long parliamentary career have kept him constantly in the public eye. Abroad he is known because he negotiated important commercial treatises and represented Italy at international congresses, while his writings have had the honor of being translated into several languages. […] He is the most encyclopedic man of the Kingdom.”1
Luigi Luzzatti (1841-1927) was probably one of the most famous Jewish politicians of his time, and one of the few to become a prime minister in Italy.2 In contrast to other Jews of the period, Luzzatti was well-known abroad for his active involvement in Jewish politics, especially in regards to matters related to Romanian and East European Jews.3 An accomplished politician and economist, Luzzatti’s endeavors were thoroughly described by Helen Zimmern, a writer who had shown a continuous interest in Italian culture. Zimmern, a British woman of German-Jewish origin, was a journalist who had moved to Florence by the turn of the nineteenth century. Most likely inspired by the work of the Galician rabbi Samuel Hirsch Margulies, she had written a long article on David Levi, whose life and works attracted the attention of a wide spectrum of Jewish intellectuals.4 Both Luzzatti and Levi were outstanding Jewish Italian politicians, who also engaged in issues related to the “religious question,” as it unfolded during the nineteenth century. In Luzzatti’s brief biography, Zimmern emphasized his enormous influence on economy and politics, and highlighted his interest in religious matters. In the article devoted to David Levi, Zimmern stressed his untiring attention to the question of religion, and his attempt to offer a theory of Judaism and modernity viable for the nineteenth century.
Luigi Luzzatti (1841-1927)
Fondazione CDEC, Photographic Archive, Giorgio Sacerdoti’s Collection.
Two decades later, another portrait of Luzzatti appeared. Many things had changed in Europe: The Italian politician had died in 1927, a devastating world war had broken out and destroyed any remnant of optimism, and new forms of dictatorship emerged. In 1934 Hector Bolitho published a collection of articles devoted to Jewish biographies. Luzzatti now appeared among “twelve eminent Jews,” in the company of Lord Bearstead (Marcus Samuel, the founder of Shell), Benjamin Disraeli (the famed British politician), Paul Erlich (a scientist), Jacob Epstein (a sculptor of some renown), Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis), Ludwig Mond (a scientist), Marcel Proust (the famous French novelist), Walther Rathenau (the German minister of Foreign Affairs), Max Reinhardt (a film director), Leon Trotsky (the Russian revolutionary) and Chaim Weizman (a Zionist leader and scientist).5 The book was planned before the rise of Nazism, and according to the author, was conceived as an attempt to respond to European anti-Semitism.6
This monographic issue of Quest resumes this old practice of biographical trajectories, and aims at presenting six Italian Jewish characters whose lives and work span from the early nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth century. The six characters in search of a narrative are respectively David Levi (1816-1898), Tullo Massarani (1826-1915), Elena Raffalovich Comparetti (1842-1918), Bernardo Dessau, (1863-1949) Alfonso Pacifici (1889-1983), and Laura Orvieto (1876-1953), whose lives were entwined with Italian and European history. Their biographical trajectories intersect the local, national, and transnational dimensions of nineteenth and early twentieth century history. The Jewish facet of their lives tells a great deal about the diversity of their choices as Jews and as Italians, in respect to culture, politics, and religion. These six stories will give us the chance to delve into some tenets of Jewish culture in the nineteenth century from a perspective that will also offer new insight into concepts of Judaism and religion.
Alessandro Grazi’s article engages therefore with an author whose work has received some attention, though he remains quite unknown to an English audience. A biographical tour is accompanied by a description of his general intellectual work, both published and unpublished. Levi’s biography is indicative of a path that some social segments of Italian Jewry constructed through the nineteenth century. Levi’s intellectual and political culture was extremely eclectic, and was characterized by entanglements that are difficult to unknot. He was a santsimonian, a mazzinian, a freemason, and, to an extent, an advocate for the importance of Jewish values in what he conceived to be “Western civilization.” There are at least four significant elements in Levi’s work as far as it concerns Jewish culture.
1. The first one, as identified by Grazi and others, is related to his positive reading of Christianity, not exclusively as part of a deist’s tradition, but as supporting a viable path to political emancipation and Italian unification. Levi was, among others, a strong supporter of Pope Pius IX, who had for a brief moment emerged as a possible leader of the Italian unification.8
After the revolution of 1848, Pius IX rejected from this perspective, and in so doing created a serious problem for the advocates of a moderate and liberal form of Catholicism that could pursue the unification. Levi’s poem to Pope Pius IX and his friendship with the influential patriot Nicolò Tommaseo are therefore perfectly understandable against this background. Although Jewish engagement with different currents of Catholicism was not shared by all members of the elite, it certainly held an important role in defining representations of Judaism.9
2) The second element that characterizes Levi’s biography, as well as that of Tullo Massarani, is related to the history of both their families, which provides information on the path to integration within Italian society. Levi and Massarani were both raised in Jewish families that had already integrated into the social and economic fabric of their cities and villages, providing their children with good educations for the pursuit of their careers.
3) The third significant element in relation to Levi is his interpretation of Judaism vis-à-vis other representations that were developed among Jews during the nineteenth century. More precisely, Levi highlighted the symbolic Jewish role in the evolution of Western society and attributed great relevance to the role of religion in history. According to recent scholarship his notion of Judaism must be paralleled with the one developed by the Reform Judaism movement in Germany.10
4) The fourth and most overlooked aspect of Levi’s intellectual legacy is related to his interest in religious history, to which much of his work testifies. Levi was especially interested in ancient religions and their symbolism, as were many members of the Masonic Lodges. Egyptian symbolism and oriental religions were deemed very relevant, and contributed to the spread of a sort of cultural orientalism that never seriously challenged either the Catholic Church or popular Italian belief systems. In this regard, his interest in religion, though distinct in its way, may be paralleled to Luzzatti’s personal endeavor to use scholarship on religions to elaborate a very personal and original theory of religious tolerance.11
David Levi’s efforts to interpret Jewish history and Jewish tradition is broadly explored, as Grazi remarks, in the work he published from the 1860s onward. Grazi rightly highlights that the style and language Levi chose for his enterprise -- that is, historical drama and poetry – was in consonance with the culture of the time. It is remarkable that Levi’s most important work was conceived as a theatrical drama whose focus was on the biblical context, and namely the role of Prophetism. Il profeta is one of his most notable “orientalist” works, even if, as Grazi stresses, he never was an orientalist himself. The theme of orientalism is quite relevant as it follows a course of thought that has been inadequately investigated and at times overshadowed by Edward Said’s critical account.
David Levi (1816-1898)
Retrieved from https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Levi#/media/File:David_Levi_Italian_Poet.jpg
The work of David Levi may be analyzed both in conflict and in concert with the biography of Tullo Massarani. Maurizio Bertolotti’s detailed reconstruction of selected moments in Tullo Massarani’s biography follows in the footsteps of micro-history and proves to be instructive indeed, depicting the likely path that Jewish elite might have taken during the nineteenth century. The article is particularly informative in regards to the relationship between Massarani and his father, focusing on the intergenerational perspective. Tullo Massarani was born into a wealthy Jewish family in 1826 in the small Renaissance town of Mantua, situated in the north-eastern area of the Italian peninsula. Mantua had hosted a relatively large Jewish community that during the Renaissance had blossomed and produced a thriving cultural world.12 Despite the autonomy of the Gonzagas, a ghetto was built in the center of the city in 1610. By the end of the eighteenth century, Mantua became, along with Milan, Venice, and Padua, part of the Habsburg Empire, when the Republic of Venice and its dominions, together with Lombardy, were given to the Austrians after the Napoleonic demise. This is a key historical detail, as it partially explains some of the most significant elements of the article.
Under the Habsburgs, Jews of the north-eastern part of Italy -- including Trieste, which was the main port city of the multinational empire -- were introduced, just as Catholics were, to religious modernization. This was implemented through the introduction of substantial reforms aimed at stressing the role of education and acculturation, in order to support and integrate different groups into the social fabric of the empire.13 It was under the supervision of the Habsburgs that the first Rabbinical Seminary was planned and then opened. The first site of the Rabbinical Seminary was initially Mantua, and later on it was moved to Padua. The Seminary was destined to forge the Italian rabbinical class, even though in the nineteenth century other sites of Jewish learning were still active.14
Tullo Massarani lived in the same city where Marco Mortara (1815-1894) served as the Chief Rabbi. Marco Mortara, father of one of the most important Italian jurists, taught at the Rabbinical Seminary in Padua, and accordingly became a renowned member of the Italian elite and a member of the wider Wissenschaft des Judentums, where at different stages he represented Italian Jewry.15 Of note is his short, yet terse, pamphlet devoted to the notion of Jewish messianism as a response to one of the most significant anti-Semitic moments of Liberal Italy, which occurred between 1872 and 1873.
Marco Mortara (1815-1894), 1890 ca.
Fondazione CDEC, Photographic Archive, Angelo Piattelli’s Collection
The “Pasqualigo case” has often been described as the most important case of Italian anti-Semitism in Liberal Italy, and it is related to the appointment of Isacco Pesaro Maurogonato (1817-1892) as minister of finance. Maurogonato was a Venetian Jew and a prominent and active member of the Italian Risorgimento. Recent research indicates that Maurogonato felt uncomfortable with national policies related to the confiscation of Church properties, and refused to take this office twice, in 1869 and 1873.16 However, between 1872 and 1873 the PM Francesco Pasqualigo addressed the question publicly, with several articles highlighting how Maurogonato was unfit for a ministerial role due to his Jewish dual loyalty. Even if the case might have ultimately been a product of political wars among the Liberal elite, it exploited religious anxiety.17
Although Massarani spent most of his adult life in Milan, it is not difficult to imagine Mortara and Massarani crossing paths throughout their lives in the little town at the center of the Po valleys, surrounded by lands that were areas of secular turmoil and extreme poverty. The modernization of agriculture in this area is related both to the rise of socialist movements and to the birth of a Jewish landed gentry. It is a fascinating history that we can only glimpse at, thanks to Bertolotti’s article which describes the slow rise of the agrarian Jewish middle class.
Extensive research on eighteenth century Jewish social history in Italy is still overlooked, and we can at least underline how this specific story mirrors a process that needs to be more broadly analyzed. In their articles Francesca Bregoli identifies a process of land acquisition in Livorno and Tuscany in the second half of the eighteenth century, and Fabio Levi highlights the course of Jewish economic growth in Piedmont, while Emanuele D’Antonio describes the path to Jewish gentrification in smaller Italian areas of the Hapsburg Empire.18 This path might have been quite similar in Ferrara, Modena and the other small towns scattered around the Po valleys.
The process of land acquisition began earlier than the political emancipation, which was exported to Italy by Napoleon at the end of the eighteenth century (1797-1799), reissued in 1848 by Carlo Alberto of Savoy, and extended to the Italian Kingdom in 1861.19 Bertolotti suggests a fascinating hypothesis in interpreting cultural changes. He claims that the loosening of the ties of the communal bond were not the byproduct of the political emancipation, as much as the result of a more nuanced process of economic change, which in turn supported shifts in cultural patterns. It is particularly in regard to Tullo’s father, Giacobbe, that we find some important information about the tradition of Enlightenment that influenced Jews and Catholics alike.
The story of Giacobbe and his teacher, a former Catholic who soon became disillusioned, or the story of Tullo’s teacher, a Jew who eventually converted to Catholicism, invite historians to pay more attention to the complexities of historical experiences, to the fluidity of cultural and religious identities, and to the crossing of borders, especially in small cities.
Those forms of Deism that were inherited from the eighteenth century reappeared quite often in nineteenth century public discourse, particularly among Jews who were state echelons (or Juifs d’ètat). The tradition of Deism among Jews should be taken into account alongside Masonic symbolism and its religious ideology because it implied a notion of religion shared by Jews and Christians of liberal faith. This tradition remained ideologically vague and was sometimes translated into a general notion of a ‘religion of humanity’, which could be used by different political groups, from sansimonians to followers of Mazzini. Its vagueness proved relatively flexible and attractive, yet it never influenced organized religion, which kept its strong ties to tradition, especially among Catholics.
Religion without ritual seemed to appeal to some members of the Jewish elite, as it did to liberal Catholics, who played a significant role in the construction of national state until at least 1848, and still occupied, despite the promulgation of the Syllabus, some important positions in the construction of the national state. This form of religion, deeply individual and class oriented was in tune with patriotism, whose features were destined to change during the first decades of the twentieth century.
Massarani and Levi held different ideas about religion and their commitment to Judaism diverged greatly. Massarani attributed less relevance to the Jewish past, as it never came to represent an ideal or idealized form of culture or civilization. Bertolotti is convincing in detecting currents of Enlightenment traditions in Massarani’s thought, which he likely received from his father. Although Massarani might at times stress his origins as part of a “persecuted lot,” which was a common trope among Jews, his life was primarily devoted to national politics in the ranks of the so-called “historical Right,” and he became the first Jewish senator of the Kingdom. Massarani’s biography is fascinating as it offers insight into the rise of a well-to-do upper bourgeoisie, which was devoted to public affairs, committed to culture and art, and preoccupied with one of the most striking features of nineteenth century culture; that is, the question of education.
Florence was one of the most important intellectual centers of Italy. Raffalovich, the daughter of a dynasty of wealthy Jews from Odessa, was connected to Italy through relatives who lived in Trieste, the most important port city of the Habsburg Empire. Elena Raffalovich entered Italian history, as Salah claims, as the great-grandmother of one of the most prominent radical Catholic priests of the twentieth century, Don Milani. She is also often mentioned as the wife of Domenico Comparetti, an acknowledged philologist and academic who might have been too patronizing for Elena who, after ten years, left her marriage to pursue her own career. Salah offers a vivid reconstruction of Elena Raffalovich’s enterprises in children’s education, to which she was deeply committed. Through her connections, many of which were Jewish, Raffalovich attempted to introduce Froebelian schools in Italy, a country still under the control of the Catholic Church and skeptical about modern education without a religious foundation. The fascinating story of Elena Raffalovich is one of determination and independence. She was a woman attracted by “revolutionary nationalism,” be it Polish or Ukrainian. Her stance, like that of her husband and their friends and acquaintances in Pisa, Paris, or Florence, was radical and materialistic, committed to the improvement of women’s conditions and the advancement of human rights.
Elena’s religious convictions are similar to Massarani’s vague notion of Deism, which was a shared belief among many Jews of the period. Comparing her biographical trajectory with Jewish women as well as women from other religious groups, one may recognize, following Salah, some cultural trends, such as a clear alignment with the Protestant commitment to educational reforms. At the same time, the family structure she was bound to was more typical among the cosmopolitan mercantile Jewish elite who, while keeping strong kin ties and familial solidarity through male lines, were more inclined to pursue exogamic marriages for the daughters.
Her life trajectory corresponds to one of the symbolic acts that most affected the lived Jewish experience in modern times: ‘Conversion’. Conversion is usually a technical term that describes the passage from one religion to another one. It also entails a process of strengthening religious feelings, and a path to an individual return to God or to the religious community.20 In a historical view conversion might have been a matter of choice or the outcome of a violent campaign, as often happened in the Middle Ages. Recent scholarship has emphasized the relevance of border-crossing and conversion from one religion to another in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Whether it was a passage to other religions or an escape from traditional life, border crossing and conversion constituted an important part of the Jewish historical experience.21
As is seen in Massarani’s biographical portrait illustrated in this issue, patterns of cultural shifts were established well before the impact of political emancipation. One may rightly ask if leaving the fold of religious tradition was not a common feature in other religious communities, as the case of Massarani should aptly indicate.
However the story of Elena is particularly striking for she, as one of the many Jewish women who pursued their education and career in Western Europe, was not just another among numerous outstanding Russian Jewish women who came to Italy. She also stood out in her search for freedom and independence, choosing liberty over marriage, pursuing her life “comme l’oiseau sur la branche.”22
Although the history of Eastern European Jews in Italy has yet to be narrated, it is worth mentioning the importance of female characters who actively engaged in radical political movements, such as Anna Kuliscioff, Angela Balabanoff, or the Sereni brothers’ grandmother, Xenia, a revolutionary activist from the Russian Empire. Although Xenia was not Jewish, her circle of social acquaintances and friends was mainly Jewish.23
Eastern European Jews might have entered the Italian imagination principally as a persecuted lot, as one can easily perceive reading reports in the newspapers, or through Luigi Luzzatti’s untiring activity. “Jewish suffering” was an important cultural trope which represented both the history of the Jews as well as their current problems, especially in regards to East Europe or Romania.24 However, one should bear in mind that the history of Eastern European Jews is also characterized by responses to persecution and a great dynamism. The examples mentioned by Salah offer a different perception of Eastern Jews, through the history of Jewish women, who strove to find their way, embracing values and projects they deemed beneficial for the progress of humanity. Moreover, the story of Elena suggests a more nuanced interpretation of models and patterns of women’s emancipation in the nineteenth century.
Rosa Errera (1864-1946), Cleofe Pellegrini (1854-1936), Aurelia Josz (1869-1944), 1900 ca. They were all deeply involved in educational activities.
Fondazione CDEC, Photographic Archive, Exibitions Collection (“Donne ebree nell’Italia unita,” 2011).
Laura Orvieto did not arrive in Florence from Odessa, nor was she a political activist like Anna Kuliscioff or other Jewish Russian young women mentioned by Salah. She was born in Milan in 1876 and when she arrived in Florence, the city that hosted an important Russian community had become an important hub of Italian culture.
As Laura recalled in her attempt to write the history of her family in 1938 (right after the implementation of the racial laws), Florence was home to a special cultural atmosphere, due to it having been the capital of Italy for a very short period, and attracting much interest for its Renaissance history.
As in the majority of other Italian cities, Florence built a ghetto in the center of the town.
By the end of the nineteenth century the ghetto was destroyed and a magnificent synagogue was built instead, as a reminder that radical changes had occurred.
Florence, “Mercato vecchio,” before 1881.
Piero Bargellini, Com’era Firenze 100 anni fa, (Florence, 1998). Retrieved from
The Jewish urban landscape changed in many Italian cities. Beautiful synagogues became the markers of political and social integration. No serious research has been conducted on the real impact of aesthetic and architectural modifications on nineteenth century Judaism, or how the ecology of the religious system contributed to the transformation of religion itself.
Drawing of the central Synagogue of Milan. Luca Beltrami, 1891-1892.
Fondazione CDEC, Photographic Archive, Exibitions Collection. (“Milano, crogiuolo di ebrei,” Milan, 2000)
Laura married Angiolo Orvieto, who was a member of a leading family of Jewish intellectuals, and, in fact, a distant relative. Laura’s story of personal empowerment and intellectual achievements as a writer is rooted in the world of prominent Italian Jewish families. Nevertheless, although she married within the Jewish community, she was also educated and inspired by a Scottish Puritan enlightened teacher, Lily Marshall. The story of Laura, as recounted by Ruth Natterman in her article, traverses the nineteenth century and reaches the period of racial laws, when her written works were censored and banned.
Laura’s career as an author was supported and definitely promoted by her husband who had founded, together with his brother, Il Marzocco, a periodical publication, which brought together important Italian authors and literati. The story of Laura as a Jewish author is, as the author herself stressed, “italianissima,” and situates the reader in the Florence of the early twentieth century. Reading Natterman’s story of Laura Orvieto (nèe Cantoni) one is reminded that Laura herself felt obliged to describe what “religion” was for her and her family. In her private writings she confided that Angiolo followed religious practices she deemed a bit “superstitious,” and how he and his brother were introduced to Jewish religion by their radical private tutor, David Castelli, a prominent Jewish scholar at the University of Florence.25
Angiolo himself penned a moving portrait of the maestro after his death in 1901, highlighting the notion of biblical Prophetism as a form of universal Judaism that Castelli contributed to spreading, together with other intellectuals. References to “biblical Prophetism” evoked the religion of the prophets that David Levi had performed as a theatrical play, celebrating the unification of Italy. That notion of religion was still quite vibrant in the early twentieth century, both in Italy and abroad. The young Giacomo Debenedetti, the author of the acclaimed Otto ebrei and 16 Ottobre 1943 offered his own rendering of the biblical prophets in some of his first public lectures in Turin.26 More could be developed on the relationship between biblical scholarship, public discourse, and literary imagination. For now it is enough to mention, as a concluding remark, the moving lectures on this same theme delivered by the great orientalist and anti-fascist Giorgio Levi della Vida at the Collège de France in 1938, before he emigrated to the United States.27
Florence was also the place where Samuel Zwi Margulies (1858-1922) arrived in 1890 from Polish Galicia. Margulies is generally considered the rabbi who brought new life to Italian Judaism. Educated at the University and at the Rabbinical Seminary of Breslau (Wroclaw, now Poland), Margulies contributed greatly to the renewal of Jewish studies and Orthodox Jewish life in Italy. However, perhaps as a ritual of cultural integration, Margulies paid tribute, as I already mentioned, to David Levi, Dichter und Poet of the nineteenth century.
Margulies belonged to a small group of outstanding Galizianer who animated the scholarly world of Wissenschaft des Judentums between Italy, Europe, and the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century. The biographical trajectories of Samuel Z. Margulies, Israel Zoller, Ismar Elbogen, Zwi P. Chajes, and Isaiah Sonne, just to mention those who came from Galicia, constitute an important chapter of the intertwined history of scholarship and culture between Europe, the United States, and Israel, and which spanned across the dramatic events of European history. We mention them here as they offer a perspective that calls for transnational intellectual and cultural history to be integrated within Italian historiography.
Though we do not offer a chapter on Italian Wissenscahft des Judentums, it is within this setting that we should read Sara Airoldi’s article on Alfonso Pacifici. Pacifici was born in Florence in 1889 and soon became the favorite pupil of Margulies. He is the only rabbi we present in this issue, and his work may be interpreted along two lines of inquiry: his interpretation of Judaism and his commitment to Zionism.
Airoldi’s internal approach meticulously describes connections within the Jewish world, especially those internal links to both German religious culture and some currents of Zionism. Pacifici’s religious Zionism is scrutinized against the background of the national and international debate that animated certain segments of the intellectual Jewish elite, and stresses the ambivalence of his theological reading of Judaism and Zionism. Along with this, Pacifici’s systematic thought included notions of Judaism, religion, and modernity which underwent criticism and changes in the broader cultural setting of the early twentieth century. His religious thought is imbued with the cultural atmosphere of his time, not only in reference to Italian idealism and historicism, but also in relation to the religious changes that were taking place in wider Christian society. ‘Religious renewal’ was a sort of catchphrase for a younger generation that wished to rebel against the ‘fathers’: it appears among Protestants, and to an extent among Catholics, alongside a process that called all religious communities to deepen their commitment to patriotism and nationalism. Airoldi’s article keeps a fair balance in navigating through all these questions, while presenting a coherent image of the development of Pacifici’s religious thought and the criticism it attracted.
Finally, Marco Bencich’s article explores other facets of Italian Zionism, through the activities of Bernardo Dessau. Dessau was born in 1863 in Offenbach into a family of Orthodox Jews, and after graduating in Germany, he eventually found a job in Italian universities. At the beginning of the twentieth century, following his marriage, he moved to Perugia to teach Experimental Physics. By then he had already become a fervent Zionist, and though he hoped to eventually find a position at one of the new research centers in Palestine, he ultimately settled in Italy.
Bencich offers insight into Dessau’s interpretation of Zionism, which, in contrast to the one offered by Pacifici, was aligned with a political-nationalist concept of Zionism. Examining private correspondences and published material, the article reconstructs the development of the debate over the meaning of Zionism within the Italian Jewish world, as well as tackling the problems that surfaced with the rise of nationalism and the outbreak of World War I.
Some of the complicated entanglements of politics and religion that slowly emerged during the first two decades of the twentieth century and grew more complicated during the war are of great historiographical relevance, and are addressed by both authors.
L’Idea Sionnista (1901-1910). Bernardo Dessau was one of the authors of the “L’Idea Sionnista”.
Cover image: Emma Goiten.
Debates over the nature and meaning of Judaism occupied, to a different degree, both the internal debate and the public outcome. In many cases, beyond Judaism, it was religion in general to be discussed, translated into the language of Deism, Masonic rites and symbolism, and other ersatz religions. Traditional communities facing these challenges responded in three main ways: adapting to new political discourses and other features of modernity, opposing them, or reinventing religion at large. Open commitment to the “religion of humanity” or to traditional religion were combined with refusal and criticism of religion as such. The diverse paths that individuals followed, their personal choices, must be positioned within a larger environment that includes family structures, nation-state building, professional changes, and cultural transformation.
Historians should pursue diversity and retrace the many trajectories that contributed to the cultural world of Jews in the modern period. Nevertheless, a common thread runs through these stories: all our authors searched for meaning in the world they inhabited. Zionism emerged both as a practical way to solve the problem of anti-Semitism and as a cultural discourse aimed at constructing an imagined community. Nostalgia for an ideal world was a common feature among scholars and intellectuals. This feeling might be projected to the past, though it was often combined with a positive vision of the future. Nostalgia for the past was embraced, accompanying active involvement with present-day political and cultural challenges, which inherently entailed shaping a vision for the future. This may be true both for Zionists and for Liberal Jews, whose cultural trajectories intersect here.
As some of these biographies demonstrate, Jewish thinkers and intellectuals who inhabited Italian and European culture in the nineteenth century were fully involved with the political issues of their time. Their lives tell a story of strong commitments to social, political, and economic issues. They were often involved in religious questions and, despite their various paths to secularization, they contributed to a discussion that is often overlooked by historians: the construction of a modern world where the place of religion and tradition was debated. In pursuing their practical goals they acted as though they belonged to real and imagined communities, to recall Benedict Anderson’s famous notion.28
However, it must be noted that the “imagined communities” they all contributed to creating were multiple, as they lived in the world they meant to change. Moreover, one should stress that their belonging to or criticism of any community implied emotional attachment to it: when translating Judaism into a modern language, working towards the implementation of religious tolerance in other European countries, or collecting financial aid to resettle Jews elsewhere, they all confronted their own Jewish identity, whatever it meant or implied.
Our six authors offer historians a possible way to look at the history of modern Italian Jewry, combining individual agency with general issues of national and transnational history. A more complex and nuanced historical portrait emerges, as biographical trajectories convey more than a reproduction of social structure or a unique possible historical experience. They offer historians new questions and challenges in interpreting the past, and in this case they invite reflection on how the history of minorities contributes to a different understanding of historical phenomena.
* * *
In order to analyse some of the issues fundamental to the history of Jews in Italy, from the emancipation of 1848, to the Fascist period of the 1930s, the essays in this edition of Quest adopt a biographical approach. This decision is motivated by the fact that, following the Italian Jews’ acquisition of civil and political rights, their route towards integration in the majority society is composed of thousands of unique, individual experiences, rather than a single, monolithic vision.
Our decision to adopt biography as methodological approach permits the non-Italian speaker to identify, through the stories of the intellectual, political and even family lives of the people discussed here, some of the issues common to all of the Jewish middle class in this period, both within Italy and further afield. It also allows the reader to understand the peculiarities of the Italian Jewish experience during the “creation” of the State: first through their active participation in the Risorgimento process, and later in the shaping of the national and therefore of the new Italian identity, which for some Jews, was smoothly linked to the traditional Jewish one.29
A biographical reconstruction of the figures analysed in these essays helps us bring to light the coexistence of various different identities, linked in varying degrees to their shared Jewish origins, but permeated by religious, cultural and political stimuli from the wider society during the nineteenth- and twentieth-century.
Useful information on sentimental, intellectual, friendship and business links which characterised the lives of these six individuals emerges from the profiles. This biographical approach allows us analyse the networks of national and transnational relationships of them all. Indeed, we cannot fully appreciate Elena Raffalovich Comparetti’s interest in Froebelian pedagogy without understanding her wide range of contacts throughout Europe; and Asher Salah’s essay on Raffalovich Comparetti highlights the importance of this approach, revealing her links with Protestants, alongside whom Elena promoted Froebelian pedagogy in Italy. Elena received mixed responses across Italy, since the Catholic clergy were opposed to the Froebelian method. Laura Cantoni Orvieto, like other women belonging to the Jewish middle class in Italy and across Europe, also dedicated herself passionately to pedagogical issues. She was a follower of the educational method devised by Maria Montessori, and devoted part of her life to the education of infants, writing several books for children. As Ruth Natterman discusses, Orvieto took part in the process of women’s emancipation in Italy: she often wrote for the Florentine journal ‘Il Marzocco’, and for other pro-emancipation journals of the period. There was a sort of process of double emancipation for Jewish women in Italy at that time: they were rising up against the traditional role Judaism held for them, as well as from the role which society reserved for all women in general.30
The social group represented in these six biographies is that of the upper middle class, and the “financial aristocracy,” this latter is characterised by Elena Raffalovich, who was originally from Odessa, the great Russian city on the Black Sea. Odessa was an important community of port-Jews31 commercially connected with other significant port cities of the period, including Trieste - another port city with an important Jewish community.32 Trieste also promoted the Froebelian kindergarten, which were already employing Jewish teachers from the 1870s. Elena is an example of just one of the many Jewish Russian women living in Italy during this period, and about whom there remains much to say, especially in a prosopographical perspective. Salah’s essay explores the importance of this group, whose level of education and independence belies the stereotypical assumption that Jewish women in Western Europe were largely uneducated, though of course the women discussed here belonged to the middle class, and not to the lower classes. Salah also discusses Anna Kuliscioff, Angelica Balabanoff and Julia Schucht, who were actively involved in the Socialist or Communist movements: Kuliscioff and Balabanoff were also engaged in the fight for the rights of women, especially female workers.
Most of the people discussed here were the children of bankers and merchants (Laura Cantoni Orvieto; Elena Raffalovich Comparetti; David Levi), of self-employed individuals or landowners, like Tullo Massarani, whose father was a lawyer. The particular case of Giacobbe and his son Tullo Massarani, discussed here by Maurizio Bertolotti through a dialogue between the two generations, explores the important role of landowners and modernisers in the development of new agricultural techniques by some Jewish Italian families, who lived also in Friulis and in Veneto during this period.33
Only two of the figures discussed here came from modest families, closely linked to the Jewish communities to which they belonged: Bernardo Dessau and Alfonso Pacifici, both of whom were actively involved in Zionism, though in very different ways.34
Retracing the lives of these six Jews living in Italy, from the dawn of the Risorgimento to the advent of Fascism, allows us to better understand the social, institutional, and above all the cultural contexts of the Liberal and later Fascist Italy in which these individuals interacted. We must, however, always remember the difficulties entailed in the biographical approach of emphasising the originality of the experience on the one hand, and on the other hand sympathising too much with the object of study.35
The authors of the essays published here confronted themselves with the various thematic and methodological approaches required for a modern biographical study.36 The essays demonstrate these different approaches by addressing topics such as: education within a civil and political emancipatory context, and its diverse reception amongst men and women; family links across generations, marriage strategies and networks; the relationship with the traditional Jewish faith in a secularised society like Italy, and the fascination of conversion demonstrated by the generations studied here. The essays also discuss the revisited cultural significance of cosmopolitism; types of political engagement, and different modes of expressing patriotism; the central topic of women emancipation; the transformation of the traditional Jewish solidarity into a more general notion of philanthropy, aimed at society in general and not just the Jewish community.
What emerges is a general picture of an Italian Jewish presence which was very flexible: linked to the traditions of its region of origin on the one hand, as can be seen by the relations between Tullo Massarani and the Mantuan notables, but intellectually able to overcome every boundary due to a cosmopolitan education and, in the majority of cases, a keen awareness of one’s Jewish origins. This Jewishness was proudly proclaimed even during the Fascist period, as Ruth Natterman demonstrates in her discussion of Laura Orvieto’s refusal, in 1929, to comply with her Jewish editor Bemporad’s request that her work be censored in accordance with Fascist views.
The six essays collected here span three generations of Jewish men and women in Italy who lived during a period of great change which challenged the traditional world of Jewish communities and, as a consequence, the institution of the family. The civil and political emancipation granted by the House of Savoy in the Piedmont and Sardinia to Protestants, Waldesians and Jews with the Albertine Statute of 1848 was the true turning point for Italian Jews.
The life of David Levi, as outlined by Alessandro Grazi, moves from the very beginning of the process of Italian unification, discussing Levi’s involvement with the Masonry and with Grand Orient of Italy, of which he was a founding member, an involvement shared by Tullo Massarani and by many other Italian Jews engaged in the political life of the country.37 The lodge was in fact a place where people could meet without religious barriers, and it was an leveller for the liberal middle class of the period.38
After the struggle for the Unification of Italy, the Jewish middle class was largely moved by a profound patriotism, linked particularly to the figure of the King and to the House of Savoy, and Jews were largely well integrated in the fundamental elements of the State: the army, educationParliament and bureaucracy39. David Levi and Tullo Massarani were worthy examples of the politically engaged, integrated, progressive Jew, and they were engaged on both a local administrative level and a national political level. The authors of these two profiles, Grazi and Bertolotti, have both chosen to focus on Levi and Massarani’s process of formation and intellectual orientation, omitting the development of their political activities in Parliament. Given the wide experiences of these two figures, it would be impossible to do justice to all areas of their lives in such a brief space, especially when one considers that both men were also writers, poets and well-known journalists.
During the second half of the nineteenth-century, Jews were really active in Italy: they were closely linked to liberal politics, motivated by loyal patriotism, faithful to the ideas of progress and reassured by the anti-clerical stance of the Italian State. This climate, which was so idyllic when compared to the situations of other Jews in Europe, who were troubled by the enduring presence of anti-Semitism, suffered its first setback as a result of the first echoes of the Dreyfus case in France and the birth of political anti-Semitism. This setback was first felt by the more forward-thinking Italian Jews, including David Levi, who gave an important, though never published, interview to young Jewish students from Turin for the “Vessillo Israelitico”, the Italian Jewish newspaper,40 in which he expressed strong concerns about the campaign of anti-Jewish political propaganda. Political anti-Semitism reached Italy in 1911, as a result of the war in Libya.41
The years before the First World War were unsettling for Italian Jews, and full of cultural and political changes. In place of David Levi and Tullo Massarani’s generation came a new one, more tormented by their intellectual and political choices, since they were the children of such tempestuous years. Alfonso Pacifici, whose life during precisely these tumultuous years is discussed by Sara Airoldi; and Bernardo Dessau, whose life is presented by Marco Bencich - two young historians not by chance fascinated by the lives of these outsiders - allow us to cast our gaze over the small, but complex world of Italian Zionism, and its journalistic production. Internally divided into various currents, but predominantly favouring a philanthropic bond to the national Jewish movement, this was however an important place of exchange for young Jews, who, thanks to the Florentine group led by the Rabbi Margulies, to which Alfonso Pacifici also belonged, created discussion and exchange groups which promoted the rediscovery of Jewish language and culture.42 The Rosselli brothers also belonged to this young circle in Florence, and their mother Amalia Pincherle Rosselliwas great friend of Laura Orvieto, as Natterman discusses in her article.
There is, however, one final aspect on which I would like to focus the reader’s attention while concluding this short introduction: I believe it is useful to underline the desire for self-representation demonstrated by some of the people analysed here. David Levi, Tullo Massarani and Laura Orvieto all wrote autobiographical works,43 which reveal their desire of auto-representation, and by the first person narrator, their firm intention to transmit the most significant moments and reflections of their lives.44 And this in itself: autobiography’s use amongst the Jews of liberal Italy, could be an area for future studies stimulated by these essays.
While in the final stages of the preparation of this eighth issue of the journal, we were reached by the saddening news of David Cesarani’s premature passing on October 25.
His career developed through posts at the University of Leeds, Queen Mary University of London, and the Wiener Library. Later he was professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton from 2000 to 2004, and finally research professor in history at Royal Holloway College - London since 2004.
David was a brilliant and prolific scholar: his scholarship on the Holocaust and its memorialization, as well as his contributions to Jewish history– especially on Anglo-Jewry as well as on the peculiar phenomenon of port-Jews – had significant impact on the evolution of international historiography. His contributions to scholarship and the influence of his research will certainly deserve to be discussed more in depth in the near future. His research is known to all in the field, but his notoriety was by no means limited to specialists alone. His intense and passionate public engagement – from newspaper columns, to advisory roles for governmental agencies, to the work done for some very successful televised documentaries – made him a prominent public intellectual in the UK and beyond.
David was one of the first colleagues and friends to whom we illustrated the idea of creating an online journal devoted to the history of Jews and anti-Semitism in the modern world. As we discussed our project he proved, once more, to be perceptive and insightful. He was then an active member of our Editorial Advisory Board since the first issue of ‘Quest’, and repeatedly offered us his invaluable support, his discernment and his constructive criticism.
His generosity, his vibrant intellectual curiosity and his irony will be missed.
How to quote this article:
Tullia Catalan, Cristiana Facchini, "Introduction" in Portrait of Italian Jewish Life (1800s-1930s), ed. Tullia Catalan, Cristiana Facchini, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n. 8 November 2015
La sezione italiana di Quest sarà online entro breve!
The italian section of Quest will be soon online!