Jewish History from the Archives of Florence and Cremona Part II: Cremona

Fact Paper 38-II

© Samuel Kurinsky and Francisco Bontempi, all rights reserved

CREMONA, a communications hub of northern Italy during the period 1380-1597. During that period the Jews of Cremona and its environs were a major factor in its cultural and economic development. The Romans founded Cremona in 218 C.E. at the head of the Via Postumia at the junction of an east-west road between Aquileia and Genoa, and because it was situated between the confluences of the main waterways, the Po, the Adda, the Seric, and the Oglio rivers (See map below). Trade with the Near East and Slovenia (the former Yugoslavia), with Spain through Genoa, with France and Germany though Ventimiglia and Turin, with Switzerland through Chiasso, with Austria-Hungary through the Brenner Pass, and with the Balkans and the Near East through Venice and Ancona (a port city further down the Adriatic coast).

Cremona and the Jews

Father Franco Bontempi, a correspondent of the Hebrew History Federation Ltd., undertook a to ferret out the facts about Jewish life in Cremona, Italy from 1380 to the date of their expulsion, 1597. The region of Cremona is contiguous to that of Brescia. Bontempi's previous documentation of the Judaic contributions to the province of Brescia was reported on in HHF Fact Paper 34, The Jews of Brescia, Iron and Star.

Bontempi's research resulted in a new work, Cremona e gli Ebrei, ["Cremona and the Jews"]. In it Bontempi documents the impact the Jews from divers provenances have made upon the Cremona region. He undertook a difficult task. The archaeological and documentary evidence was sparse; historical misconceptions were ingrained.

Brescia and Cremona were linked culturally and industrially. The links were typified by the history of the Bachis, a wood- and iron-working family apparently originating from Khazaria. Their presence provides a valuable footnote to the history of the demise of the obscure Judaic/Khazar empire.1

The family's history also reflects Jewish involvement in the early development of the organ and of the violin, instruments for which Brescia and Cremona became renowned the world over to the present day.

The Bachi Family

In presenting the history of the Bachi family Don Franco begins by reminding us that the Judaic community of Brescia is very ancient. They established themselves in the region during the time of Caesar and left many inscriptions during the Roman period. This evidence of their presence is now archived in the Roman Museum of Brescia.

The area was involved in iron mining and smithing. The mines closest to Lake Garda are in the Val Seriana. The valley's flanks were penetrated by substantive mines, and a metal-working industry flourished in its villages. The Judaic participation in the region's iron-working industry is evidenced by inscriptions on gravestones and by the frequent occurrence of surnames of obvious Judaic origin like Sabati and Sabatino...In addition the surnames of the artisans bore [what were at the time] typically hebraic names such as Colombo, Vecchi, Della Rocca, Azzano." Jewish participation in the ferric industry is [likewise] attested by smiths in numerous workshops on Corsetto Sant'Agata, a street on which many Jewish residences were located. "

The Bachi family first appears during the early Renaissance in Voltino, a village in Val Seriana in connection with iron-working. It can be affirmed with some certainty that the Bachi family were of Khazar origin. The name, Bac derives from the Khazar language. The word designates a pouch which carries an artisan's or carpenter's tools from place to place. Thus Bachi means "they who carry a woodworker's (or artisan's) tool-pouch." Skilled Jewish artisans were among the Khazars.2 Once the Khazar kingdom fell, the artisans fled westward, seeking an area where their skills were needed.. Some went through what is now Bulgaria, and settled in Transylvania. Others went into Bohemia and Gaul. Don Franco presumes that some of these emigres crossed Slovenia to arrive at Aquileia and continued along the ancient Via Postumia (see map on cover). They found a congenial environment where Jewish artisans were already established in the Brescian Alps and around Lake Garda.

It was a region in which the arts of woodworking and metal-working arts were well advanced. The region was famous for having developed and produced the modern version of the organ. The fabrication of an organ made use of the region's metal-working expertise to produce organ pipes and its woodworking expertise for the construction of a resonant sound box.

The Bachi family moved from Val Seriana, where they were engaged in the iron industry, to a village near Saló. They supplied a resonant wood for Gasparó de Saló, reputed to be the inventor of the violin. The family later moved to Cremona, where the art of violin-making became a tour-de-force of the town.

As a musical instrument, the organ has ancient Judaic roots. The magrephah, the original organ, is described in the Talmud (Arachin tractate) as a bellows-operated pipe-organ with ten different sized reed-pipes, all pierced with ten holes and keyed to a reverberatory box. The magrephah emitted "all the hundred sounds of which our rabbis speak."3

The Babylonian Bible (Tamid tractate), describes one of its uses: A Levite musician "took the Magrephah and sounded itů The priest who heard its sound knew that his brother Levites had entered to sing, and he hastened to come."

After the destruction of the Second Temple, a ban was placed on the use in services of musical instruments giving forth "joyful sounds" until the Temple was restored. Among the many Judaic musical practices the Christians adopted and continued was the use of the organ. Some of the early church fathers campaigned to ban the use of this "Jewish instrument" because it would seduce Christians to the "hated religion." Ironically, some contemporary Judaic religious groups disdain to use the organ in services because of its Christian association.4

The modern version of the organ was invented by the Antegnati, a family of the area of Brescia. A type of wood growing in the region happened to be particularly suited for the production of effective musical sound boxes. It supplied one of the four important elements for the perfection of the organ and then for the invention of the violin:

  1. An especially resonant wood.
  2. The seasoning of the wood in a special way.
  3. The invention and use of a special varnish that would enhance the quality of the sound.
  4. A sounding chamber of a special design.

Evidence of the involvement of Brescian Jews in applying these attributes in the design of new musical instruments were found in the Escorial archives in Spain. The documents were in Spanish governmental archives because, at that time, the region was under the domination of Spain. Permission to form a new enterprise, the right to market new materials or inventions, and commercial activities in general all had to be submitted to the Spanish overlords for registration and approval. The invention of a varnish that enhances the tonal qualities of an instrument was thus registered. The use of such a varnish became a well-preserved secret of the region through the ages.

The violin was invented in the Brescian region during this period. The first reference to the producer of a violin is to a certain Gasparo da Salò of whom nothing more is known. Salò was an important and bustling Judaic cultural and industrial center on the banks of Lake Garda. One of the earliest town documents, drawn in 1320, records the sale of a handwritten bible by the scribe, Mosè ben Abraham Sefardi. Saló was also the home of Nathan, the renowned Jewish poet, and of many other scholars. Jews founded the first paper making factory in Italy in the outskirts of Salò, supplying the Jewish printing presses of the region.

Gasparo da Salò comes to attention because the Bachi family of nearby Val Seriana was the supplier of the special wood for his violin production. Toward the end of the fourteenth century the Bachis established themselves in Vestone, a village close to Salò, evidently because of their association with Gasparo.

The Bachi family subsequently moved to Cremona. Violins were first produced by the Cremona's skillful lute-makers soon after the Bachis settled in the town. Andrea Amati (1511 (?)-1577), scion of the renowned Amati family, was then resident in Cremona. The earliest violin signed by an Amati dates to 1564. Little is known of the Amatis, but it is significant that the Amati name is traditionally Jewish, as Don Franco points out and as the studies of Professor Santoro demonstrate. The Amati violins, and those made by subsequent violin-makers of Cremona became most renowned. A violin with an Amati imprimatur, needless to say, is of inestimable value.

The Bachi Family left Cremona toward the end of thefifteenth century. They went to Prague, where they founded a printing establishment. The Bachi's printing aptitude was connected to the places where the Bachi family had lived. In fact, it was from Toscolano on Lake Garda that a Jewish papermaking factory supplied the Jewish printing industries of the region. Cremona and many other towns of the region were the among the first and most productive centers of printing in Italy.

Researching Jewish History in Cremona

History does not mirror what existed but only what has survived. In Part 38-I of Jewish History from the Archives of Florence and Cremona, it was reported that research into the economic and cultural contributions of the Jews to Tuscany is facilitated by the massive Medici archival files.5 They delineate the life of the Jewish elite of Tuscany in considerable detail over several centuries.

Father Franco Bontempi was at a disadvantage in researching Jewish life in the Brescia/Cremona region, for no trove of information of the magnitude of the Medici files was available. The region of Cremona was not continuously under benign Gonzaga administration but also fell under Venetian and under Milanese hegemony. An intense campaign was launched against Jewish presence and influence during the Counter-Reformation. After Cardinal Caraffa became Pope Paul IV in 1555, persecution began to take a virulent form throughout Italy with the issuance of a Papal Bull. It attained a climax in Ancona, where many of the Sephardim who had fled the Inquisition in Spain were tortured and some were burned at the stake. The burgeoning campaign of persecution led the Milanese court to expel all Jews from territory under its rule in 1597.

Judaic literature and archival material was put to the torch or otherwise destroyed. Much of what survived suffered a similar fate during the Nazi occupation of northern Italy.

The Missing Journals of the Cremona Community

Ordinarily, the history of a community's activities is largely derived from the records of the community itself. Almost all of the records of the Cremonese Jews, however, were destroyed during and after the expulsion. A pitifully few documents were recovered and published by the eminent historian Professor Simonsohn.6

Bontempi summarizes the Simonsohn material, and adds a mass of valuable new evidence, including much from governmental official records. They cover a broad range of Jewish activities, literature and personalities. They add up to a testimony to the thoroughness with which the history of the Jewish community was expunged., for it becomes obvious that the Jewish contribution to the economy and culture of the region was far greater than that previously accredited to them.

Governmental records are valuable notwithstanding that much of it is not by the Jews but about them. Unfortunately, the bulk of this material deals with criminal acts or civil transgressions by or against Jews. The skewed picture of Jewish life thus obtained requires considerable interpolation. Valuable information about Judaic economic and cultural activity can nonetheless be culled from such negative legal proceedings.

In researching the history of an area in which his own Jewish progenitors had been prominent for many centuries, Don Franco, as he is affectionately dubbed by his parishioners, gathered disparate bits and pieces of the Judaic presence that heretofore never had been noted. Intrigued by the archival tips of what appeared to be massive historical icebergs, he gathered and chronicled these surviving historical elements. A pattern emerged, and it became evident that the Jews were not mere money-lenders as reputed, but were seminal to the development of basic industries in the region, and that many earned their livelihood as traders, artisans, and farmers.

The dogged diligence that Don Franco applied to obtain rich results deserve deep respect. I experienced the difficulties facing research into Jewish life of the region in seeking evidence about the origin of the glassmakers of Altare.7 I spent two days at Sabbioneta, a town bear Cremona. It was a Jewish center at which many of the earliest Hebrew books were printed. The town had had a sizable, active, and vital Jewish community under a benign Gonzaga rule. They engaged not only in book-publishing but in the development of the silk, weaving, printing, leather and other enterprises in an otherwise agricultural environment.

In my sojourn in Sabbioneta it became painfully evident that the very existence of a Jewish community is unmentioned by the guides that conduct tours through that historic center of Jewish life. The literature provided on Sabbioneta contain barely a mention of the former existence of what was a highly creative and productive Jewish community. The ghetto, the ancient synagogue destroyed centuries ago, and the contribution of the Jews made to this community pass virtually unmentioned.

After insisting on obtaining information, I was informed that the Sabbioneta archives were at Mantua, and that they might contain "some" documents concerning the Jews. However, I was informed, the library back of the Sabbioneta municipio (City Hall) did have some surviving old Jewish documents. Permission to get to the material, could be attained from the Sindaco (the Mayor). I met with the mayor and after a two-hour conversation he indicated that indeed some material on the Jews was "around." A search turned up a moldering old box of dusty and decaying ancient books and records. The box was dragged out from the underneath a pile of junk, which had been tossed into and stored in a sort of closet.

The gathering and chronicling by Father Franco Bontempi of thousands of documents related to Jewish affairs of the late medieval and early Renaissance periods from some fifty such towns and districts in the region of Cremona, is, therefore, an impressive testimony to his perseverance and scholarship.

In recognition of these attributes, the province of Cremona will publish his new work, Cremona e gli Ebrei.

A draft of the book was submitted to the HHF, and we are privileged to provide our members and subscribers with an pre-publication oversight of his work.

Cremona e gli Ebrei

Don Franco's work, Cremona and the Jews, opens with a quote from a document from the State Archives of Cremona:

"As far as the Jews are concerned, we are discussing a people who are honest, calm, peaceful, and no way devoted to brawling, scandalous behavior, or crime; they are merit-worthy because, whenever necessary, and it often happens, that they don't make demands from the Magnifica Comunitá [a reference to the governing community] for whatever is in their own power, money or other necessary means."8

map of cremona
Cremona, in addition to being located at a crossroads of the Via Postuma, was likewise at the confluence of the Adda, Serio and Oglio rivers with the Po. Jews resided in Cremona and in the villages along all the four rivers. They were strategically situated to participate in the region's industry and trade, and were able to reach their international contacts through the Adriatic Sea.

Don Franco goes on to cover every aspect of Judaic life in the region of Cremona. Each chapter and chapter division is illustrated by documents related to that particular aspect of Jewish life. The documents reveal much about the inner cultural life of the region's Jewish community. Their religious practices, their literature, their rites, their statutes, their eminent scholars, their relations with their neighbors, and yes, their transgressions.

Cremona was founded by the Romans in 218 C. E. on the Via Postumia at a strategic juncture of Roman land and waterway routes, the point at which the Oglio, Serio, and Adda rivers empty into the Po.

"In the road system of Italy, Cremona is placed at the axis of the Via Postumia; it connected [southward] to Central Italy and was the passageway [east and west] between Aquileia and Genoa. This road system became important in the Late Medieval period, both for the outer defense by the Imperial Roman troops, and [later] against the invasions of the barbarians. Cremona was the direct link to the capitol of the empire [Rome]. The influx of functionaries and merchants as a result of the rise of the Byzantine empire made Cremona a great commercial center. It should not be overlooked that [until this time] Judaic merchants, called Rhadanites, had been the only ones carrying precious merchandise from Asia into Europe, jewels, spices and textiles."

Jewish entrepreneurs of Cremona were likewise crucial for international trade, for the Roman hierarchy needed intermediaries in dealing with their Byzantine adversaries.

"...The difficulties of the new governors [of Cremona] to manoeuver in the diplomatic field, above all with Constantinople, required the presence of [such] persons capable of acting as ambassadors."

"...We become witness at the beginning of the tenth century, to a movement of Cremonese to the Orient. Liutprando, Bishop of Cremona and ambassador to the Pope at Constantinople, underlines the presence of Cremonese in the eastern Mediteranean. It is likewise confirmed that the [Jewish] merchants of Cremona of this period had an agreement with the [Jewish] Amalfi merchants."

Amalfi was situated on the west coast of Italy. Thus the Jewish traders of Cremona had access to Mediterranean markets west of Italy as well as access to those of the eastern Mediterranean through the Adriatic.

Documents attesting to such traffic include the following:

"Milan May 16, 1590: The commercial authority of Pizzighettone advises the Minister of Finance that the annual value derived from the Jewish concessions on land and rivers in his region amounts to 100 scudi."

Expedient Location of the Jewish Communities

"The choice of residence, for the Jews, was not casual, but made in response to economic potential of a village at the time when the principal activity, money-lending, would fulfill a financial need... [Jewish settlements] are deployed... around the principal waterways of the region: the Po, the Adda, the Oglio, and the Serio. All four of these rivers... form an integrated web in the manner of a railroad system. The Po and the Adda are the principal means of communication to the Adriatic and the city of Pavia, a capitol in the late medieval period."

"The Serio and the Oglio still have economic relevance. The villages on their banks combine a wealth of agricultural products with the metalwork coming from the two alpine valleys, the Val Seriana and the Valcamonica. Other than iron products produced, great flocks throng the valley in the winter. Although Jews had spread out along the valleys in association with the metalworking industry, in the Renaissance they chose to involve themselves in the large fairs and markets that took place cyclically along the banks of the two rivers. There was therefore, an economic interaction between the Jewish and the Cremonese communities."

"...Aside from a few episodes of ordinary crimes, the relationship [from 1380-1597] between the inhabitants were generally good, a condition that made the expulsions of 1597 all the more bitter."

A 60 page long series of some 1000 [!] citations follow, covering Judaic settlement or presence in no less than 50 [!]towns and districts of the area. They document the ubiquitous presence and activity of Jews along all the commercial routes of the area. A vital element of commerce along these rivers was banking. Jewish banks were established in almost every one of the fifty villages and districts in which Jews resided.

Jewish Economic Activity

"Cremona did not have a ghetto. Retail outlets were scattered throughout the city and were easily reached by their clientele....The church hierarchy constantly expressed suspicion that the [heretical] ideas might be encountered in the contact between the Christian citizenry and the Judaic artisan/ venders."

"The final area in which commercial contact took place was in banking. Inasmuch as loans were made on articles placed as security, at the bank all kinds of products were deposited. The rich brought precious possessions, the ordinary people brought the products of their labor. Inasmuch as Cremona was at the heart of an agricultural zone, food products that could be preserved were also pledged. The lender therefore had to maintain a series of suitable warehouses to maintain these items until they were redeemed. It should not be overlooked that they were in fact often left unredeemed. In such cases the banker had to sell the products for a higher amount than was given in order to recover the amount due."

Up to modern times, the artisan sold his products from his own shop or retail outlet. Thus the vender of a product was generally its producer. In addition to banking and transportation, four types of Jewish commercial activities are prominent in the records of the region of Cremona: the production and sale of jewelry, the production and sale of textiles, tailoring, and commerce in food products. The records also show significant Jewish commerce in imported products such as salt and cotton and of precious metals.

Commerce in Precious Objects

"In general," notes Bontempi, "goldsmiths enjoyed a high social status, as a consequence of the combination of skill and artistry that characterized the work.. This was particularly true during the development of the Renaissance, in which a refined clientele existed."

A list of official entries follow, revelatory of Jewish artisanship:

"Cremona. June 15, 1464: Master Aaron... concluded a two-year contract with the goldsmith Jacob, son of the Master Marco. Under the terms of the contract Aaron rents to Jacob a workshop where he can exercise the art of gold-working."

Some entries have amusing sidelights:

"Cremona 1465: Doctor Vitale loaned jewelry valued at 4 ducati to the Mayor's Deputato (assistant), but the deputato won't give them back."

Other entries draw vivid pictures of the exigencies of life at the time:

"Milan 1550: Joseph and Tarsia, residents of Pizzighettone, registered a complaint with the Duke's governor. A Spanish soldier from the local garrison asked Tarsia to determine whether one of his rings was of solid [gold] metal. During the examination the soldier became violent. An employee of the establishment came to the master's rescue and wounded the soldier. The commander of the fort arrested the employee. The soldier and his friends threatened to kill Joseph and Tarsia and the other Jews [other workers in the goldsmith's shop] Joseph and his wife ask the governor to release him [the employee]."

We are left to wonder what happened next!

Commerce in Textiles

"The production and sale of textiles was a consistent and enduring Judaic activity. Although the traffic in woolens were controlled by Tuscan merchants, the Jews participated in the local marketing of textiles. Documents of the town of Ostiano concerning the Jews refer to valuable garments destined for regal courts and the aristocracy. They deal with an integrated activity that extends from the gathering of primary materials to weaving, and tailoring."

Some entries have interesting connotations:

"Milan, July 18, 1463: The commissioner and the mayoralty of Pizzighettone call up Salomone and require him to compensate Pietro Paolo of Fabriano, a member of the Ducal Palace, inasmuch as the woolen garments he sold to him were damaged. His appearance before the Duke took place as the authorities of Pizzighettone were advised not to harass Salomone."

The fact that the Jews enjoyed the protection of the Gonzagas is evident from the fact that they were not afraid to come to him with complaints about their treatment by local officials:

"Cremona, August 24, 1468: Benedetto of Cremona complained to the Duke that the mayor bought clothes from him and has not paid for them."

See above for the unpaid-for jewelry sold to the mayor's assistant.

Events sometimes took a surprising turn:

"Vigevano, November 1531: A Christian made an accusation against a Jew of Casalmaggiore about some clothes [he had made]. Another Christian intervened to defend him [the Jew] in the course of the dispute and killed the first Christian."

Again, we are left to wonder what happened next!

Other documents relating to the weaving industry deal with carpets. A particularly revelatory document of the times is published in its entirety in Cremona e gli Ebrei. A Jew, Rafael Carmini, wrote to the governor of Milan on July 21, 1574.

His plea begins: "Since the Cardinal of Trento was the governor of this state he needed a lot of funds in your service for the fortification of Guastella, being besieged by the army of the Duke of Ferrara. He gave some of his carpets as a pledge to the Jew, M. Emanuel Carmino, father of your faithful servant, Rafael Carmino, Jew, and to M. Bonaventura da Lodi, his associate, for a loan of 1000 ducati."

"...The carpets were consigned to M. Isaac de Porto, a Jew in Mantua, and have not yet been recovered."

It goes on to relate that Isaac died, and the carpets ended up in the possession of his son, Simone, who resided in Ostiano, then under Gonzaga rule. The sale of the carpets realized a much larger sum than that which was loaned out, and the recovery of the difference or the carpets are being requested. A complicated transaction ensues, involving several noblemen, ending with a request that restitution be made and that Simone be detained despite his having been granted salvocondutto [safe passage] by the Duke!

"Flax-working was a Cremona attribute," writes Don Franco." A large proportion of the Cremona work-force is engaged in the production of linens. This activity was the monopoly of a single company, but the Jews, with their international contacts, nonetheless were significant contributors to marketing its products."

Jewish Farmers

Albeit a large proportion of the citations relate to banking and trade, agriculture was a significant part of a wide range of other Jewish economic activities : For example, two new enterprises were recorded on the same date,:

"January 15, 1400: Manuele Bonventura, son of the late Matarsia da Rofeta and Moise, son of the late Joseph da Spira form a banking company."

"January 15, 1400:Joseph da Spira buys an orchard."

That many of the region's Jews were farmers is evident from the large number of registrations of the purchase of what was denoted as "arable land" by Jews.

For example, as late as 1588, only nine years before the expulsion took place, Jews were still buying arable land in certain areas:

"Lodi, May 17, 1588: The sale of 77 pertiche of arable land to Robecco, and another piece of land of 28 pertiche, a field and another arable piece of land of 15 pertiche, as well as still another of 23 pertiche, for a total of 6500 lire was purchased by Mandelino from Ottolengo, as the attorney for Raffaele Carmini."

Less than two months before the expulsion, a group of Jews applied to Milan for a patent for a watering system that would be of benefit to the region:

"Milano, March 1, 1597, Clemente and Moise Pavia, residents of Lodi, together with their brother Sansone, resident at Voltri, and together with Donato Ottolengo, resident of Venice, asked the governor for a patent for their invention, "a system to raise water for the irrigation of farmland."

"...Cereal production is a specialty of the Paduan plains," Don Franco emphasizes. " The commerce in grains is one of its principal enterprises. It was a massive undertaking in the pre-modern economy, but one consigned to the aristocracy. The transportation of grains put the Jews in contact with the lowlands nobility."

Jewish farming continued under the Gonzagas and the Martinengo barons under Gonzaga protection even after the Jews were expelled from territory under Milanese control The records of such activity end up with a revealing document referring to Jewish activity after the Milanese expulsion of the Jews, but when the Jews uniquely enjoyed the protection of the Gonzagas and other noblemen under Gonazga jurisdiction like the Martinengos:

"Milan, September 17, 1629: The mayor of Cremona was informed that the Jews have established a commerce in grains in favor of the Duke of Mantua."

Glassmaking Around Lake Garda

Brescia and Cremona are situated along the Via Postumia, the Roman road that crosses the Paduan plains to arrive at Aquileia, the great Roman port that connected Rome to the Middle East. Jewish artisans already were active at glass-making in and around Aquileia in north-eastern Italy as far back as the Roman period.9 Their products were dispersed along the Via Postumia. It now appears that glassworking later appeared on the banks of Lake Garda, particularly tn Salò and in Tremosine. Villas with Jewish mosaics employing glass tesserae are in evidence from the late Imperial period.

Don Franco points out that the identity of the glassmakers of the Brescian region is confirmed by the documentation of the extinguishing of glassmaker's furnaces on Saturdays. Such unusual cessations of work can only be attributed to Judaic adherence to God's commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy.

Don Franco also refers to peripheral evidence of glassmaking in the region, citing, for example, Capriola's History of Brescia, in which a Brescian glassmaker in Venice, Giovan Antonio Graffa, is described as an ingenious artisan who could imitate any precious stone or flower in glass. The name, Graffa, Don Franco points out, is an Italianization of Kafra, a North Galilean town. The Galilee was the region from which Jewish glassmakers brought the glassmaking art to Alexandria and to Europe.10

International Trade

In addition to being significantly involved in the business of transportation by internal land and river routes, the Jews of the Cremona area were actively trading in salt, in sugars, in cheese, and in wine, vital elements of both international and local trade. Dispersion into the Diaspora was for the Jews both a bane and a boon. Scattered far and wide without a homeland, they were afforded an exceptional capacity to issue letters of credit that would be honored by relatives or Jewish contacts abroad. The access to international credit placed the Jews in an advantageous position as international intermediaries as well as importers.

International contacts allowed Jews to become knowledgeable about the availability of goods suitable for importing, and equally knowledgeable about the market abroad for locally produced merchandise. Jews had long been associated with the import of spices, for example. Don Franco points out that the Jews were so identified with the import and trade of saffron that its color was adopted for the color of the segno, the sign they were obliged to wear in public in most regions.

Jews and Printing

The invention of the printing press is universally credited to Gutenburg in 1450. Yet six years earlier, in 1444, an agreement was recorded in the city of Avignon between an itinerant German craftsman and a member of the local Jewish community for the cutting of Hebrew fonts "according to the art of writing artificially."11

The contract has survived in the Avignon archives, but neither the Hebrew press nor any of the literature it produced has survived. There can be little doubt that the ensuing persecutions, the destruction of Jewish literature leading up to expulsion of the Jews from the region in 1597 is responsible for that hiatus in history. Only that eloquent agreement has survived to attest to the fact that Jews were printing literature at least six years before Gutenberg borrowed funds from a Jew to begin printing literature with Hebrew fonts!

The fact that Jews were printing literature at an early date is also attested by its practice far afield from Gutenberg.. In the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Jewish presses were clacking away from Portugal to Asia.

Hebrew printing began in Portugal in 1478, and "When the Jews were driven out of that country in 1497, they took their skill and their equipment with them ;and various Hebrew works are extant printed at Fez shortly after - notably an edition of the liturgical guide, abudrahim. This is the earliest book printed in the whole of the African continent. Similarly, the first book printed in the Balkans was the Hebrew Code of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (Constantinople, 1493); and the earliest work printed by the European method in Asia is a commentary on the Book of Esther, published at Safed (Palestine) in 1577/8. At Cairo, where the European press was started only in 1798, during Napoleon's expedition, a Hebrew press had been in operation as early as 1557."12

Gershon Soncino, Meshal ha-qadmoni, wood engraving no. 10, "Teaching the Lion." Sencino's allegorical animals represented opinions that could not be openly expressed. In this illustration, lowly but literate animals (the Jews) are teaching the ruling but illiterate lion (the king).
The presses of the period were not entirely devoted to sacred literature and commentaries on it, nor was the printing done exclusively in the Hebrew language. Scientific works were published. For example, the astronomical tables of the Jewish astronomer Abraham Zacuto were published in Spanish and Latin by "Magister Ortas at Leiras in 1496.

The art of printing was even brought to Brazil, where "...the first printing press was set up in the sixteenth century by a Marrano from Lisbon."13

The printing industry could never have gone far if it were not for the substitution of paper for parchment. Parchment was necessarily expensive, and unavailable in the quantities consumed by printing presses. The art of paper-making was brought from China by the intrepid Jewish international travelers of the Middle Ages. They pioneered the first European paper factory in the thirteenth century in Spain at Játiva, a village near Valencia.14

Paper was then known as a Jewish product For some time the use of paper was decried by church dignitaries out of the fear that literature could thus be easily produced and distributed to infect Christians with heretic ideas. Peter the Venerable, the Abbot of Cluny (1092-1158), registered his objection to the use of paper as "a Jewish production, on which the unbelievers copied their Talmud and other obnoxious literature."15

Jewish Printing in Italy

Jewish presses had already been operating in Italy for some time by 1475. One was established far to the south at Reggio di Calabria. It is credited for the earliest dated book in Hebrew, a commentary on the Pentateuch by the renowned Rashi. Another Jewish press was already in operation in that year at Piove di Sacco, not far from Padua.16

Gershon Soncino, Meshal ha-Qadmoni, wood engraving no. 54, "The Book and the Sun." The illustration attests to astronomical observations that were advanced for its time as being integral to Judaic culture. The paper on which Soncino printed was produced at near-by Saló, where Jewish entrepreneurs had established a paper-making facility, the first in the region.

The early establishment of both a paper factory at Saló, and of printing presses throughout the Cremona region is well documented by Father Franco Bontempi in his new work. A comprehensive array of literature, authored by distinguished members of the rabbinate and others is then categorized and catalogued.

"Studies of the past few years," modestly notes Don Franco, "have brought to light varius aspects of the production of books at Cremona and at other contiguous cities, Soncino, Casalmaggiore, Brescia, Sabioneta, and Riva di Trento We can now construct a fairly accurate picture of book production in the Hebrew language."

Chapter nine of Cremona e Gli Ebrei is entitled "Schools and Typography," thus registering the symbiotic relationship between the teaching and typography. The Pentateuch, the Talmud and the commentaries on them were intended for and were the teaching tools in the Yeshivas, the area's Jewish schools of higher learning.

Most of the literature produced was consumed in the fires of Christian ignorance. The Jews and their literature were both caught in the cross-fires of inner Christian conflict.

At the outset of the Reformation, some amelioration of the lot of the Jews seemed at hand. Luther went so far as to chastise the Papacy for treating Jews as thought they were "dogs, not men," and argued that good Christians might even turn to Judaism in sympathy.

Luther was convinced that his assumption of the Old Testament as a foundation of Christianity would entice Jews to flock to his Bible-based evangelism The Jews, however, were not swayed to convert even to a sympathetic form of Christianity, and Luther became even more vitriolic than the fanatics of the Catholic world. He exhorted his followers to burn the synagogues and treat Jews mercilessly. He urged Christian rulers at every level to expel Jews from their fiefs.

Ironically, the Catholics ascribed the advent of the Reformation to insidious Jewish literature. Among the most fanatical personifications of the Counter-Reformation was Cardinal Caraffa, who became all-powerful at the Papal court. The testimony of Jewish apostates that the Talmud was pernicious and blasphemous led to the burning of Talmudic works. Even the works published under the patronage of the former Pontiff Leo X were consigned to the flames. "In the autumn of 1553, on Jewish New Year, all copies discoverable were burned publicly in Rome. The example was followed all over Italy with the ridiculous lack of discrimination, no exception being made in favor even of Hebrew texts of the Bible itself."17

Cardinal Caraffa ascended to the Papal throne as Paul IV (1555-1559). The burning of Jewish literature in Rome was duplicated in Cremona, where over 10,000 volumes were incinerated in March, 1559. The Milanese expulsions of 1597 were followed by still another campaign of obliteration of works from the Jewish presses of Italy.

The surviving literature is, therefore, poignant testimony to Judaic scholarship of the times. Don Franco begins his registry with the printing of Bibles in Soncino:

1: Bible, early Prophets with the commentary of David Qimchi. Soncino, Joshua Shelomo Soncino, October 15, 1485.

2: Bible, later Prophets with the commentary of David Qimchi. Soncino, Joshua Shelomo Soncino, 1486.

The list continues with commentaries on the Torah and other related works printed in Soncino, Cremona and Riva di Trento. Then Don Franco, elucidating the role of the Talmud as "the second column of Judaic Law," catalogues extant works beginning with: a section of the Babylonian Talmud printed in Soncino by Joshua Shelomo Soncino dated December 19, 1483. Don Franco continues with a comprehensive listing of surviving works of the Cremona area on the Mishnah, on morality, on expositions of faith, on philosophy, on the Cabbala, and on general literary subjects.

A genealogical study of the Soncino family ensues, starting with Moshieh da Spira, 1270, (the town name Soncino was later adopted by the family), through Israel Natan Soncino (1452-1493) to Gershom Soncino (1562).

The report on typography ends with the works of Vincenzo Conti who came to Cremona in 1554 and from 1556 to1576 printed books in western as well as Hebraic characters.

Jewish Marriage and other Norms

The inner life of the Jewish community is delineated in printed literature and in archival documents. Don Franco emphasizes the central and weighty role of matrimony in the daily life of the Jewish community. He points out that Talmudic legal texts regarding marriage rules and customs were among the first books published at Soncino, and a

number have survived.. Four such texts of the Babylonian Talmud, i.e., Massekut Ketubot, Ghittim, Niddah, and Qiddushin, came off the printing presses of Soncino in1487, 1488, and the latter two in 1489.

"A great number of documents regarding the Jews of Cremona relate to the dowry contract. They assumed a particular importance among the bankers, who were obliged to give their daughters a substantial amount...."

A number of such contracts are cited. A typical dowry could consist of 500 or so gold scudi, often with the addition of rings, necklaces, other jewelry, linen and silk vestments and other valuable items.

Don Franco points out that the reverence for marital and familial relationships are expressed in poetry and philosophical works. He refers to the works of Rafael Josef Treves, who served as a rabbi in Sabbioneta and Ferrara. In addition to a commentary on the Song of Songs, Rabbi Treves authored numerous volumes of poetry that survive in manuscript form. In 1549 Rabbi Treves wrote a poignant poem that was dedicated to the wife of Judah Sinai di Colonia, a resident of Ostiano

Don Franco quotes at length from a work authored by Benedetto Frizzi, Doctor of Philosophy and Medicine in Pavia, A Dissertation on Medical Regulations in the Pentateuch. Written in 1788, it is deemed by Don Franco to accurately reflect the marital mores of the Cremonese Jewish community as revealed in the numerous documents he cites regarding the marriage relationship.

Don Franco takes particular note of the basic difference between Christian and Judaic attitudes toward conjugal sex, emphasizing that the difference stems from the fact that the Jews regard such a relationship not as sinful but a furtherance of the divine command to be fruitful.

"The joy of matrimony," notes Don Franco, "is connected to the conviction that every Jewish woman maintains within herself the dream that she might become the mother of the Messiah. Having a son opens a new possibility to accelerate the time for the redemption of Israel."

In the same vein, Don Franco documents all the other aspects of the cultural life of the Jewish community through printed literature and archival documents. The Sabbath, religious rites and holidays, cemetery practices, butchering and kashruth practices, games and sports, the institution of lotteries for the benefit of the poor, the maintenance of hostels for Jews passing through, the rabbinical tribunal and arbitration of inner community disputes, and other facets of the practices of the community are brought into focus.

The Rabbinate

A large portion of Cremona e Gli Ebrei treats with the religious precepts and practices of the Cremonese Jews.

Many of the Cremonese were of Sephardic provenance, but the practices of the community generally followed the Ashkenazi traditions codified by Rabbi Ben Baruch of Rothemberg (1215-1293). The influx of Jews into the Cremonese area from Germany included students of the great rabbi, who recorded his oral teachings and brought them to Italy. The halachic precepts of the great rabbi were generally adopted by the community, and are recorded in much of the literature printed in the area of Cremona.

Don Franco presents a review of distinguished members of the rabbinate and their literary works. The surviving literature produced by an extensive array of the sages of the community is indicative of the vast body of scholarly works that must have been produced. Excerpts from a few of these biographies are as follows:

1: Eliezer be Elia Ashkenazi (1513-1586)

"One of the most important personalities of Hebraic culture of the sixteenth century. Born in Egypt, where he remained until he was twenty-six, functioning then as a rabbi. He maintained correspondence with Josef Caro of the school of Safed. In 1576 he went to Cremona where he published Yosef Lekah, a commentary on the Book of Esther, published by C. Draconi in 1576....."

2: Joseph ben Natan Ottolenghi (died after 1576).

"The Rabbi of Cremona who established the [Cremona] Yeshiva, famous in all Italy. Between 1558 a 1562 twenty of his works were published in Riva de Trento by the typographer Jacob Marcaria..... In 1566 he was arrested by the Inquisition. In 1569, at Madrid, he presented his surgical inventions to the king of Spain... "

3: Abraham Menachem ben Jacob haCohen Porto (1520-1504).

"The Porto family... later assumed the surname Rappaport. Abraham studied in Venice with Elia Levita, and later became the emendator of the Alvise Bragadin typographical works. In 1555 he published a codex of his own invention....From 1584- 1592 he became the rabbi of Cremona where he founded a Yeshiva. His work, Minchah Belulah was published in Verona...."

And so on....

Cremona Jews Practicing Medicine

Judaic medical skills were always held in high regard despite the attempts of the church to prevent Christians from benefitting from their healing abilities. The unique position that Jewish doctors held in the Christian world is borne out again by the documents of the Cremona region.

Bontempi goes back to ninth-century Toledo, citing the scientific and medical background of Sephardic Jews. Such persons, he states, became the foundation of the practice of medicine in the Cremona region.

"...Some doctors, Cremonese residents, became so famous that they became sought after by noblemen of the Italian court." Bontempi then offers a series of documents in which such lords make their respect for Jewish doctors evident. In the early period, for example, the Dukes of both Mantua and Milan demonstrated their respect for Jewish doctors:

"Cremona, Dec.20,1441: Francesco Gonzaga grants residence in Cremona to the doctor Isaac di Salamone."

"Milan, Oct 25, 1464: The Duke grants to master Jacob, a famous doctor, to reside in Cremona. He brought his books from Carpa to Cremona. He was invited by the citizens with the concordance of the duke to practice medicine."

"Milan, December 1471: The Duke affirms that Jacob has experimented with success for a cure for his feet. He asks that the cure be applied to Alessandro Troiolo. In a later letter from Jacob to the Duke, Jacob relates that he has effected improvement of the patient but says that the cure has to be delayed for use of plants that grow only in the summer."

Judaic Banking

As has already been noted, banking was one of the major occupations of the Jews of Italy. The unsavory image of Jewish financiers, typified by the Shylock image is, however, undeserved. In fact, the expansion of the economy of the region can largely be attributed to the support given to private enterprise by Jewish bankers.

This fact is born out in crystal-clear detail by hundreds of documentary citations in Cremona e Gli Ebrei. Whether sustaining a small farmer until his crops came in, or assisting a great lord in his military adventures, the Judaic banker supplied the oil that smoothed the way to success.

Banking sometimes served other purposes. Note these two transactions:

May 17, 1469: The Jews are disposed to pay 2500 ducati for the release of [Jewish] prisoners.

July 2, 1469: The Commandant of the fortress of Milano received an order from the Duke of Milan to accept 2500 Ducati from Elia da Vigevano.

Judaic Music, Dance and Painting

"The city of Cremona," writes Father Franco Bontempi, " is known as the city of music, from which was derived the universal culture of the violin." The attraction of Christians to Jewish music and dance was decried by the apostolic Carlo Borremeo in his visit in 1575, who reported on the transgressions of gullible Christians in a report:

Milan, August-November 1575:

"...Ms Julio... goes to learn dancing with Moise, Jew, who resides near Saint'Elena."

"Marco Marescalco... has been seen with Moise, a Jew dancing and playing a musical instrument in the carnival [that is, the festival of Purim!] with Christian women."

[Borrameo continues with a series of similar citations of Jews cavorting musically with Christian women at the Purim festival in Cremona]:

"During Lent The Jews celebrate their Purim and grill meat with Christians and sing, play instruments, dance, and have a tournament with them."

[The teaching of music by Jews to Christians is also cited, and decried as an undue influence upon Christians For example]:

"A certain Moses maintains a school where he teaches the playing of musical instruments and dancing. The school is also attended by Christians during Lent and other holidays."

Jews could also be found actively participating in Christian as well as Judaic art works. "In the most significant Cremonese work of the Renaissance, edited by Antonio Campi between 1582-1585, some of the illustrated pages carry the signature of David de Laude, hebreus cremonensis. The engravings of the Cathedral of Torazzo and of the Baptistry of Cremona are also credited to him."

Other attestations follow about the great Cremonese pittrice (female painter) cremonese Sofonisba Anguisolla.

It is appropriate to mention that in the city hall of the town of Bienno, a village spectacularly placed on a mountainside of Valcamonica, two huge murals with Judaic connotations are preserved. One shows King Solomon as the central figure of five great wise men of all time. The other depicts the story of Esther, in which the very virginal Esther is shown in the act of being crowned Queen.

The murals were taken from the walls of the fifteenth century house of the Jewish progenitors of Father Franco Bontempi.


Sources for the numerous citations from the typical official and other documents have not been given here for space considerations. References for them and for the several thousand other such items can be had from Cremona e Gli Ebrei, shortly to be published by the Province of Cremona.

  1. HHF Fact Paper 23, The Jew s and the Khazars.
  2. Fact Paper,23, Idem.
  3. Nathan Ausubel, ed. "Musical Instruments in the Bible," The Book of Jewish Knowledge, 1964, pp.319-311.
  4. HHF Fact Paper 8, Jews and Music.
  5. HHF Fact Paper 38-I.
  6. S. Simonsohn Michale, 1972, 274,276 (Hevrew) documents in the records of the University of Cremona/
  7. HHF Fact Papers 24, 25.
  8. State Archives of Cremona:, Fragmentorum 51.
  9. HHF Fact Paper 28, Aquileia, aLost Judaic Community.
  10. HHF Fact Paper 6-II, Glassmaking, A Judaic Tradition.
  11. Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, London 1956, 49.
  12. Roth, Ibid, 49-50.
  13. Roth, Ibid, 50.
  14. Roth, Ibid, 50.
  15. Roth, Ibid, 50.
  16. Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews, Revised edition, Shocken books 1970, 242.
  17. Roth, A History, 246-7.