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Law, a Curse and Life in an Italian Ghetto

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Although Alessandro Aldobrandini (1664-1734) was not the first in the long history of Italy’s Aldobrandini family to traverse the cursus honorum of the church’s hierarchy, his record of achievement was substantial: educated first in the Seminario Romano and later in the University of Pisa, where he attained the degree of doctor utriusque juris, he was vice-legate in Ferarra (1701), cleric of the reverend apostolic chamber (1706), governor of Cesi (1707), and archbishop of Rodi (1707); he was made a cardinal in 1730 – the same year that he became legate in Ferrara. He was finally given the important title of the Sancti Quattor Coronati in Rome in 1731.

Regola per Riccavarsi Gl'Annui Aggravi per le Spese, Che Occorrono All'Universita Degl'Ebrei di Ferrara: Et Altre Provisioni. Ferrara, 1734.

The career Aldobrandini followed was a familiar mix of secular and ecclesiastical offices in the Italian church of his day. The Catholic Church itself governed much of central Italy through what were known as the Papal States, administrative regions over which the Church held sovereignty as a secular governor. For his part, Aldobrandini had a hand in the government of the city of Ferrara – a city and province in Northern Italy – for many years. It is as legate of Ferrara, that we encounter him in a work which the Law Library of Congress recently acquired for its rare book collection:

Regola per Riccavarsi Gl’Annui Aggravi per le Spese, Che Occorrono All’Universita Degl’Ebrei di Ferrara: Et Altre Provisioni.. (Ferrara, 1734) is a collection of the statutes of the Jewish Ghetto of Ferrara. Published in 1734, this document contains laws and regulations which the leaders of the Jewish community in Ferrara drafted, approved and printed in order to present them to their sovereign in the person of Alessandro Aldobrandini.

The idiom of the document is self-government under the protection of a patron. The reality, however, was not political liberty. Throughout most of the history of the Papal States the Jewish communities of Italy were forced to live segregated from the rest of the population, often closed off in ghettos, that is, walled, locked enclaves that suffered from overcrowding and extreme poverty. Ferrara came under the control of the Church in 1598. The Ghetto of Ferrara was constructed in 1624 and the Jews of Ferrara were forced to live in it beginning in 1626. The Church forced Jews to wear identifying badges, closed local banks, forbade Jews from entering certain professions and prevented Jewish doctors from treating Christians. Jewish books were censored; Jews’ freedom of travel was curtailed. As in the Roman ghetto, Jews were forced to attend mandatory sermons aimed at their conversion. During Aldobrandini’s time in the government of Ferrara, there was a mob attack on the Ghetto (1705) and a blood libel charge made against the community (1721), both examples of the kind of outbreaks that occurred periodically throughout the province’s history. The Ghetto was liberated in 1797 but it was not until 1860 when Ferrara became part of the Kingdom of Italy that the Jewish community saw a long period free from persecution.

Portion of the text of the curse and formula for excommunication

As the title indicates, the collection of statutes that the Law Library acquired stipulates, among other strictures placed on the community, the amount due in payment to the prince as part of a special tax levied against the Jewish community. But the range of topics addressed by the document is broad. One interesting part of the work is the closing passage, which was written in Rabbinic Hebrew (the rest of the document was written in an early modern dialect of Italian). The passage contains a curse and a formula for the excommunication of members of the Jewish community who transgress any of a handful of particularly important provisions made in the document. This suggests that the stakes of good citizenship for the Jews of Ferrara were extraordinarily high, as they probably were.

The text ends with a blessing of those who obey the law. The names of the leading Rabbis appear below.

For generations, despite the declining fortunes of the community, Ferrara was one of the most important sites of Rabbinic learning in Italy and a crucial inheritor of the traditions of the Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492. The Yeshiva (rabbinical college) of Ferrara was home to many scholars, but perhaps the greatest of these was Rabbi Isaac Lampronti (1679-1756) a leading Talmudist of the 18th Century who is best known for his Talmudic encyclopedia, the Pahad Yitzhak. The curse appended to the statutes of the ghetto was endorsed by the four leading religious leaders of the community – Mordechai Zahalon who was then the president of the Yeshiva, and religious head of the entire community, Shabbetai Elhanan Recanati, Samuel Baruch Borghi and finally Isaac Lampronti. It sealed the law with a quasi-religious imperative for the Jews of Ferrara to obey it closely.

Cardinal Aldobrandini died in 1734, the year the document was printed. It was said that he died of gout. His body was interred at the church of San Girolamo of the Carmelites Discalced in Ferrara. By the time of his death in 1756, Isaac Lampronti was the most consequential and beloved Jewish teacher in Ferrara, but the situation of the community had declined in the intervening years. The year before his death saw a terrible mob attack against the Ghetto. The Jewish cemetery was vandalized and all the memorials were smashed. The following year, the Church forbade Jews to erect headstones on their graves; as a result Lampronti’s resting place was not memorialized.


  1. Bigots still live with us today…against Jews, Blacks, Hispanics and of course the poor… even in Churches, Mosques, Temples…

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