- Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis
In this outstanding new book, Edward Goldberg examines a wide range of archival materials to offer a nuanced view of Jews and magic in seventeenth-century Florence. Because of the richness of the sources utilized and the broad contextualization furnished, this volume provides a good deal more than the study of an intriguing and infrequently discussed chapter in early modern Jewish history and Jewish and Christian relations. Making careful use of police files, judicial records, legal contracts, government deliberations, and letters found in the Medici Granducal Archive, among other materials, Goldberg investigates the complicated relationship between the Jewish scholar and businessman Benedetto Blanis (ca. 1580–ca. 1647), who resided in the Florentine ghetto, and Don Giovanni dei Medici (1567–1621), a complex and intriguing—and, at times, politically influential—legitimized child of Cosimo I and well-off member of the ruling family. Benedetto served as Don Giovanni’s librarian, exchanging letters about and sharing interest in many esoteric topics, from alchemy to kabbalah. The Benedetto that Goldberg reconstructs is trapped between the worlds of the ghetto and the court, relying frequently on his patron for a host of political favors.
Goldberg profitably situates the study within the context of the Florentine court and Medici rule, revealing a ruling family both autocratic and, at times, accessible. Goldberg narrates Don Giovanni’s rise, his success as a military engineer, and his artistic and literary interests, especially in the “occult,” a passion he shared with his uncle Don Antonio. Goldberg also recounts Don Giovanni’s reckless and boisterous behavior throughout his life, best characterized perhaps by his long-term relationship with Livia Vernazza, the daughter of a Genoese mattress maker, who possessed a tainted and suspect reputation and who Don Giovanni would marry in 1619, much to the chagrin of his family. Benedetto’s initial interaction with Don Giovanni was commercial; in the course of their relations they engaged in a variety of scholarly discussions as well. Benedetto, for his part, offered valuable skills as an individual with some knowledge of both Hebrew and Latin, and some familiarity with Jewish mysticism. [End Page 360]
Goldberg traces the Blanis family from its early beginnings in Iberia to the height of its fortunes, along with Jewish communal involvement in Italy and eventually in the Medici state. On the eve of the construction of the ghetto in 1570 there were more than seven hundred Jews in and around Florence— approximately four hundred decided to remain and enter the ghetto confines, while many others, often of significant means, chose to move elsewhere. This left the Blanis family as one of the most important in the new Jewish community. Pushed from banking and choosing not to practice medicine, Blanis’s grandfather moved into textiles and joined the Silk Guild in 1572. Here, the process of integration into the city and the opportunities to engage in broader society are rather surprising, given the very creation of the ghetto itself. And yet, within the context of Florentine history and the story narrated by Goldberg, such interactions were more common and robust than have been typically perceived. Goldberg notes that the Medicis in many ways developed the ghetto as a real estate venture, motivated, perhaps, more for reasons of state than religious zeal. While special clothing demarcating individuals as Jews was imposed, for example, numerous special exemptions—presumably to families such as the Blanises—made this a requirement tied closely with the lower economic classes of Jews, revealing the Medici stance on the Jews to be fairly pragmatic. As in other cities, Jews were ghettoized unwillingly, but once confined they maintained a fair amount of internal autonomy. The Jewish community was clearly hierarchical, dominated by the wealthiest members, who could hold office and be held accountable for the financial needs of the community. According to Goldberg’s reconstruction, some Jews apparently had a great deal of freedom of movement. Many others appear to have interacted socially with non-Jews...