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The Jewish Community of Ancona, Italy

Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman

Jews were living near Ancona in 967. By 1300, there was an organized Jewish community in the city on whose behalf the poet Immanuel of Rome sent a letter to the Rome community, intimating that as the Ancona community was in economic straits and suffered from persecution, it should not be subjected to heavy taxation (Machberet 24). Jews probably engaged in money lending in Ancona in the first half of the 14th century. In 1427 the Franciscan Giacomo Della Marca, an enthusiastic disciple of Bernardino of Siena, tried to force the Jews in Ancona to wear the Jewish badge and to restrict Jewish residence to a single street. Apparently this attempt was unsuccessful. In 1492 refugees from Sicily began to arrive in Ancona, to be joined after 1510 by others from the Kingdom of Naples. An order to wear the badge was again issued in 1524, but was revoked four years later. Solomon Molcho visited the community in 1529 and stimulated messianic enthusiasm there.

The assumption by the papal legate of authority in Ancona in 1532 had mixed results for the community. As Ancona was about to be declared a free port, many Jewish merchants took advantage of its excellent harbor facilities to trade with the Levant. At first mercantile interests prevailed in papal policy and Pope Paul III invited merchants from the Levant to settle there regardless of their religion. In 1541 he encouraged the settlement of Jews expelled from Naples and in 1547 extended the invitation to crypto-Jews, whom he promised to protect against the Inquisition. Pope Julius III renewed these guarantees, and about one hundred Portuguese crypto-Jewish families apparently settled in Ancona. In 1555, however, Pope Paul IV began to institute anti-Jewish measures in the Papal States. The papal bull of July 12,1555, was implemented in full in Ancona. The Jews were segregated in a ghetto, built the following year, prohibited from owning real property, and restricted to trade in second-hand clothing. Papal opposition to the crypto-Jews proved particularly implacable, and a legate was sent to Ancona to take proceedings against them. Some managed to escape to Pesaro, Ferrara, and other places, but 51 were arrested and tried. Twenty-five were burned at the stake between April and June 1555.

The horrors of the tragedy, mourned throughout the Jewish world, inspired touching elegies, still recited locally on the Ninth of Av. The event moved Dona Gracia Nasi to organize a boycott of Ancona. The boycott, however, caused dissension within Jewry, some rabbis supporting the action while others opposed it, fearing that the Pope might retaliate against Jews living under his jurisdiction. The Ancona tragedy thus occasioned the first attempt by Jewry to utilize economic power as a weapon against persecutors, as well as provoking a debate on the desirability and danger of attempting international Jewish action of this nature. The position of Ancona Jewry, although temporarily improved under Pope Pius IV, again deteriorated under Pius V.

Ancona was one of the cities in Italy, together with Rome, from which the Pope did not expel the Jews in 1569, being tolerated because of their utility in the Levant trade; nevertheless many decided to leave. The favorably disposed Pope Sixtus V afforded some amelioration and Ancona was again exempted when Clement VIII renewed the decree of expulsion in 1593.
However, the Ancona community was reduced to a state of debility that lasted through two centuries. Any temporary improvement that occurred was prompted by economic considerations. A local Purim was observed on Tevet 21 to commemorate the deliverance of the community from an earthquake that occurred on December 29, 1690. As late as 1775 Pope Pius VI again enforced all the most extreme anti-Jewish legislation.

Wedding of Marisa Levy-Minci and Carlo Godelli. The marriage ceremony was performed by Rabbi Elio Tuaff. Ancona, Italy, 1945. Beit Hatfutsot - the Visual Documentation Center

Wedding of Marisa Levy-Minci and Carlo Godelli. The marriage ceremony was performed by Rabbi Elio Tuaff. Ancona, Italy, 1945. The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

During the occupation of Ancona by the army of Napoleon I between 1797 and 1799 the most humiliating provisions were abrogated. The gates of the ghetto were removed, and three Jews, Samson Costantini, and David and Ezekiel Morpurgo, sat on the new municipal council, although the Jews were obliged to contribute heavy war levies. In 1814, after Napoleon’s downfall, Ancona reverted to the Papal States, and the former legislation was reintroduced. The two revolutions of 1831- when the ghetto was opened – and of 1848, generally engendered a more liberal attitude. The Jews obtained complete civic rights in 1861when Ancona was included in the Kingdom of Italy.

Silver door of the Ark of the Law in the Rite Synagogue, built in 1635. Ancona, Italy 1999. Photo: Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman, Jerusalem. From: "Synagogues Without Jews", 2000

Silver door of the Ark of the Law in the Rite Synagogue, built in 1635. Ancona, Italy 1999. Photo: Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman, Jerusalem. From: “Synagogues Without Jews”, 2000

The Jewish population of Ancona numbered 1,400 in 1789 and approximately 1,600 in the 19th century. The size of the community and its widespread connections attracted many noted rabbis and scholars throughout the centuries, including the Humanist Judah Messer Leon (15th century), the physician Amatus Lusitanus, and Moses Basola (16th century), Mahalalel Hallelyja of Civitanova, Hezekiah Manoach Provenzal, Joseph Fermi (17th century), Samson Morpurgo, Joseph Fiammetta (18th century), Jacob Shabbetai Sinigaglia, Isaiah Raphael Azulai, David Abraham Vivanti, Isaac Raphael Tedeschi (19th century), and H. Rosenberg who published several monographs on local history. During World War II, persecutions were more individual than collective in character. The Germans and eventually the Italian Fascists demanded tributes to allow the Jews to live. After the war 400 Jews were left there, and the number had dropped to 300 in 1969.

There are a number of Jewish organizations active in the Jewish community of Ancona today, among them ADEI-WIZO, G’miluth Hassadim, Istituto di beneficenza Ma’ase HaZedaka, and a Talmud Torah. The two synagogues and a Mikveh are located at 10 Via Astagno, and there are two Jewish cemeteries: Monte Cardeto, the old one, and Tavernelle, the new cemetery. The Jewish community of Ancona is also in charge of the synagogues in the nearby towns of Urbino and Senigallia.

Adapted from a chapter of Synagogues Without Jews,
by Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman.
Published by the Jewish Publication Society, the book was a winner of the National Jewish Book Award 2000.