Noc­turne, from First Venice Set (“Venice: Twelve Etch­ings,” 1880), James McNeill Whistler, Har­ris Bris­bane Dick Fund, 1917.

The year 1492 is com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Christo­pher Colum­bus’ voy­age to what has become known as the Amer­i­c­as. But in the his­to­ry of Euro­pean Jew­ry, this is the year which marks the Jews’ expul­sion from Spain. In the records of Flo­rence it marks the death of the great art patron Loren­zo the Mag­nif­i­cent’ de’ Medici, while in Catholic his­to­ry 1492 is the year that Rodri­go Bor­gia ascend­ed to the papal throne. In short, it is a year that we now look back on as the begin­ning of upheaval in Europe and beyond. This con­junc­tion of events is the start­ing point for my new book, The Beau­ty and the Ter­ror. From the start of plan­ning I was keen to include the sto­ry of Italy’s Jews, whether they came as refugees or had been long-stand­ing residents.

The Renais­sance is very often told as a pos­i­tive sto­ry in the his­to­ry of Euro­pean Chris­ten­dom. To this day, tour groups cir­cu­late through Ital­ian gal­leries and church­es to appre­ci­ate the won­drous art of Leonar­do da Vin­ci, Michelan­ge­lo, and Raphael. Yet the cul­tur­al elite who com­mis­sioned these works exist­ed in a broad­er con­text, one char­ac­terised by war­fare, per­se­cu­tion, and cam­paigns for church reform. Jew­ish his­to­ry is entan­gled in this world, not least because this is the soci­ety that in 1516 cre­at­ed the Venet­ian ghetto.

Alexan­der VI — the new­ly-elect­ed Bor­gia pope — allowed Jew­ish refugees to come from Spain to Italy. Born in the Span­ish king­dom of Aragon, Alexan­der was labelled a mar­ra­no—a pejo­ra­tive term for a con­vert­ed Jew — and his son Cesare was called a Jew­ish dog.” These tales of the Bor­gias were pre­cur­sors to the lat­er Black Leg­end” of Spain, pro­mot­ed by Protes­tant pro­pa­gan­dists who used Spain’s long his­to­ry of coex­is­tence between Jews, Mus­lims, and Chris­tians to imply that the nation was back­ward, super­sti­tious and cru­el, and might nev­er be ful­ly Christian.

The atti­tude of the Chris­t­ian major­i­ty in the Ital­ian states — Italy was not uni­fied until the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry — was one of reluc­tant accep­tance of Jews, amid peri­od­ic per­se­cu­tions and expul­sions. The Venet­ian ghet­to offers an exam­ple of how those atti­tudes played out. The back­ground to the ghet­to’s cre­ation was Venice’s defeat by the French at the bloody bat­tle of Agnadel­lo in 1509. In its after­math numer­ous refugees fled Venice’s main­land ter­ri­to­ries for the safe­ty of the island arch­i­pel­ago, and the law bar­ring Jews from long-term res­i­dence in Venice was lift­ed. Wartime was con­ducive to excep­tions to the rules.

Once the con­flict eased, how­ev­er, Chris­t­ian preach­ers began to call for new restric­tions, or even out­right expul­sion. The ghet­to was a com­pro­mise, defend­ed on the basis that Jew­ish money­lend­ing was essen­tial to Venice’s econ­o­my. Although the large banks of Italy were Chris­t­ian-run (the inter­dict that Chris­tians could not loan mon­ey was aban­doned in the inter­ests of prof­it), small­er loans were typ­i­cal­ly pro­vid­ed by Jew­ish lenders, on whom farm­ers and small busi­ness­es depend­ed. As the six­teenth cen­tu­ry went on, how­ev­er, Catholic reform­ers pro­mot­ed city-run pawn­bro­kers, known as the mon­ti di pietà” or mounts of piety”, as a Chris­t­ian alter­na­tive. One such bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, is still in oper­a­tion today.

The ghet­to was a com­pro­mise, defend­ed on the basis that Jew­ish money­lend­ing was essen­tial to Venice’s economy.

A few Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­als made careers in Italy, among them Giu­da Abar­banel, known as Leone Ebreo (mean­ing Leo the Jew”). Orig­i­nal­ly from a high-rank­ing Por­tuguese fam­i­ly, he had been exiled first to Spain, and then to Naples and Genoa, where he wrote his Dia­logues on Love, a text explor­ing the rela­tion­ships of God, the uni­verse, and human beings via the con­cept of cos­mic love. Notable for its engage­ment with Jew­ish tra­di­tion, it was pri­mar­i­ly received as a con­tri­bu­tion to court­ly lit­er­a­ture, and Chris­t­ian writ­ers empha­sized its Pla­ton­ic and Aris­totelian ele­ments; it went through mul­ti­ple edi­tions and is quot­ed in Cer­vantes’ Don Quixote.

As the Catholic Church strove to empha­size its ortho­doxy in the face of com­pe­ti­tion from Protes­tantism, Pope Paul III briefly expelled the Jews from Rome. They were read­mit­ted but con­fined to a ghet­to from 1555 under Paul IV, whose decree pro­hib­it­ed the con­struc­tion of new syn­a­gogues and required Jews to wear a blue hat or oth­er iden­ti­fy­ing mark­er. Paul IV was noto­ri­ous for his hos­til­i­ty to Jews. He had encour­aged the pub­lic burn­ing of the Tal­mud in 1553, in an event timed to coin­cide with the Jew­ish New Year; he had also presided over a pogrom in the papal town of Ancona on the Adri­at­ic coast. Fur­ther expul­sions and ghet­toiza­tion fol­lowed across the Ital­ian states in the sec­ond half of the six­teenth century.

By weav­ing these dif­fer­ent strands of Ital­ian his­to­ry togeth­er, we gain a rich­er and more com­plex image of the late Renais­sance. It’s pos­si­ble to spot, for exam­ple, the par­al­lels in the Ital­ian states’ treat­ment of pros­ti­tutes and Jews: both groups were required to wear iden­ti­fy­ing cloth­ing; both were acknowl­edged to pro­vide a social­ly-use­ful but stig­ma­tised ser­vice (sex on the one hand, money­lend­ing on the other).

These nar­ra­tives, how­ev­er, are often mar­gin­al­ized in pop­u­lar his­to­ries of the Renais­sance. To under­stand why we can look back at the long devel­op­ment of this his­to­ry, both out­side and with­in the acad­e­my. The Renais­sance was con­struct­ed as a crown­ing moment for west­ern civ­i­liza­tion;” it marked the revival of the best of the ancient world, after its loss dur­ing the Dark Ages, to be super­seded only by the Enlight­en­ment to come. That sto­ry tends to omit acts of per­se­cu­tion, enslave­ment, and oth­er oth­er less savory aspects of the Renais­sance. On a hol­i­day in Italy, or tour­ing the Renais­sance jew­el-box­es, it’s always tempt­ing to high­light the bright and spec­tac­u­lar instead of the uncom­fort­able. But we get a fuller, rich­er pic­ture of the Renais­sance when we also con­sid­er its less glo­ri­ous side.

Cather­ine Fletch­er is a his­to­ri­an of Renais­sance and ear­ly mod­ern Europe. She is the author The Beau­ty and the Ter­ror: The Ital­ian Renais­sance and the Rise of the West, recent­ly pub­lished by Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, and of The Black Prince of Flo­rence, also pub­lished by Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press and new­ly out in paper­back. She teach­es His­to­ry at Man­ches­ter Met­ro­pol­i­tan Uni­ver­si­ty in the UK and has held research fel­low­ships in Lon­don, Flo­rence, and Rome.