ABSTRACT This essay focuses on the “rhetoric of paternal affliction” that late eighteenth-century Italian Jewish merchant patriarchs employed in letters and supplications addressing threats to their intertwined paternal and commercial authority, particularly when filial disobedience or apostasy was involved. I examine this rhetoric as an emotional style that illuminates Jewish merchant masculinity. Although the image of a suffering father seems to deviate from known early modern models of hegemonic masculinity, within the context of the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility this rhetoric emphasized Jewish patriarchs’ honesty and righteousness, beseeching male compassion and sympathy. By performing vulnerability vis-à-vis Jewish associates, as well as Jewish and state authorities, the vocal expression of paternal affliction was meant to reinforce threatened mercantile patriarchal power. This complicates our understanding of early modern fatherhood, demonstrating that a sentimental display of masculine helplessness went hand in hand with better-known notions of hegemonic paternal authority.
The port of Livorno in Tuscany was a successful example of mercantilist policy at work, from which its Jewish community reaped great benefits in the early modern period: Jews were granted special prerogatives on the grounds of their economic usefulness, gaining liberties precluded to most Jewish communities elsewhere. However, these economic privileges had conservative implications as well. In this essay, I argue that, at the onset of “modernity,” the exceptional nature and economic system of Livorno, together with the long-standing conception of Livornese Jews as commercially useful, contributed to the preservation of traditional structures and norms and prevented the full application of enlightened equalizing policies championed by the Tuscan government. Instead of furthering political integration, the deeply engrained “discourse of Jewish utility” encouraged the permanence of a widespread view of the Jews as an autonomous corporate collectivity protected by the continued benevolence of the sovereign. The article includes a comparison of the Tuscan situation with the better-known French and Prussian cases.1