Palazzo Ducale, Pesaro, 13th century
Jews settled in Pesaro by the early 15th century. Money lending to the poor was the most conspicuous, but by no means the most important of the many activities of Jewish bankers. Jews supplied floating capital to local artisans and merchants and provided financial support to farmers in anticipation of the crops. Jews also lent large amounts of money at low interest rates to local municipalities, eminent personalities, and noblemen. In the second quarter of the 16th century, a few Levantine and Portuguese merchants settled in Pesaro and engaged in international and regional commerce in wool textiles and leather.
When the Jews were expelled from the Kingdom of Naples in 1541, a branch of the Sarfati family, related to the Abrabanels, settled in Pesaro and engaged in local commerce and financial activities. They described themselves as Neapolitan Jews and joined the local “Italian” congregation. In 1549, when the duke of Ferrara expelled all the recently arrived Jews from his city, Manoel Bichacho persuaded the Duke Guidobaldo of Urbino to allow some of them to settle on his lands. In 1550, Manoel was allowed to include up to 35 merchants in his condotta. This was the rather unusual beginning of the Portuguese Nation in Pesaro.
In March 1558, Guidobaldo, overwhelmed by diplomatic pressure from the Church, decreed the expulsion of all the former Marranos, including those who had already been living in Pesaro. Italian Jews, however, were not persecuted and even enjoyed a period of prosperity. Sephardic Jews were later readmitted and continued to engage in trade with the Levant. They built a richly decorated synagogue officially designated as “Spanish and Levantine,” but commonly called “Portuguese.”
After the expulsion of Jews from the Papal States in 1569, several refugees found shelter in Pesaro. In 1631, when the Duchy of Urbino fell under papal rule, the oppressive legislation applied within the Papal States was extended to Pesaro. In 1634 Jews were segregated in a ghetto and compelled to wear a yellow badge. The new regulations forbade the Jews to own real estate, and drastically reduced their commercial activities to the arte strazzaria (secondhand clothes trade). Jews were not allowed to employ Christians. Jewish physicians were no longer licensed to practice medicine among Christians. As a consequence, many Jews left the city. Their number shrank from 630 in 1628 to barely 500 in 1656. The Jewish population continued to decrease in the following century to only 406 persons in 1747. However, in the 18th century, the enforcement of the oppressive legislation was somewhat relaxed. Several bankers obtained, for a price, special licenses enabling them to establish commercial offices and residences in the center of the city, outside the ghetto. In 1797, when French forces occupied Pesaro, the gates of the ghetto were opened. The Jews were declared full citizens. When the French army withdrew from the city, a mob attacked the Jewish quarter and ransacked the synagogues.
As the rule of the Church was fully reinstated, the old restrictions were renewed, at least nominally. Nonetheless, several Jews where permitted to engage in various commercial and industrial activities. Besides a few rich families, most others were impoverished and received financial help from the Jewish community.
After his ascent to power Pope Leone XII (1823–29) vigorously reinforced the oppressive rules. All previous concessions were revoked. Jews were compelled to sell any real estate they had acquired. Many rich families left the Papal States and moved to more hospitable places. The sons of Zaccaria della Ripa settled in Florence, where they had already established the headquarters of their banking activities. However, they kept their house and their offices in Pesaro and continued to support the local Jewish community, which faced serious economic problems as it had been deprived of its wealthiest members.
In 1860 Pesaro was annexed to the kingdom of Italy and the Jews were emancipated. Many families moved to the center of the city. At the beginning of the 20th century the Jewish population of Pesaro numbered only 60.
During World War II no Jews were deported from the city of Pesaro. A few Jews joined the partisans and fought in the war of liberation against the occupying German army. Small groups of foreign Jews lived scattered throughout the large province of Pesaro in internment camps and confinement areas.
In 1944 Pesaro was liberated by the Allied forces. The 7th British Army included an all-Jewish unit: the Jewish (“Palestinian”) Brigade. There were scenes of deep emotion in Pesaro, as everywhere else, when the surviving Jews met the soldiers displaying the Magen David and the word “Palestine” on their shoulder straps. The Jewish soldiers reopened the Sephardic Synagogue and celebrated religious services – the last ones to be held in a city with almost no Jewish population left.