Reggio Emilia, synagogue, 1856, Emilia Romangna


The Jews’ return to medieval servitude after the Italian restoration did not last long. The Revolution of 1848, which convulsed all of Europe, brought great advantages to the Jews. Although this was followed by the restoration of the Papal States only four months later, in early 1849, the persecutions and the violence the past had to a large extent disappeared.


In 1859 most of the Papal States were annexed into the united Kingdom of Italy under King Victor Emanuel II. Except in and near Rome, where oppression lasted until the end of the papal dominion (20 September 1870), the Jews obtained full emancipation. The Jews sacrificed life and property in the patriotic campaigns of 1859, 1866, and 1870. The names of the Jewish soldiers who died in the cause of Italian liberty were placed along with those of their Christian fellow soldiers on the monuments erected in their honor.


Edgardo Mortara (1851-1940) with his mother


Between 1848 and 1870, Italian Jews gained civil and political equality. The vast Jewish participation in the Italian unification process engendered their gradual integration into all spheres of the new Italian kingdom. As staunch supporters of the new political ideas, filled with a strong national sentiment, they made fundamental contributions to the construction of the new state. Throughout this process anti-Jewish sentiment was non-existent in the ruling classes. Jews were active in political life, in the cultural world, in the public administration and in freelance professions, industry, and commerce. A new field of work for emancipated Jews was insurance: Assicurazioni Generali of Trieste, with branches all over the world, was a Jewish company. Jewish integration into Italian society also signified a gradual adaptation of practices and customs of the majority. In the political arena, Jews chose, like other Italians, diverse paths: they were liberals, socialists, and nationalists. In Rome Jews continue to live in the former ghetto. Smaller Jewish communities with ancient histories started shrinking, as many Jews were attracted by larger cities and their opportunities.


Even in the captivity of the ghettos Jews had always pursued studies; once they became Italian citizens with equal rights, their intellectual level was superior to that of others. In 1861 while 64.5% of the general population was illiterate, among Jews, that figure dropped to 5.8%. Most Jews also read Hebrew. In no other country in Europe was the contribution made by Jews to national culture as great as in Italy.


Vessillo Israelitico, founded in Livorno in 1904 as continuation of L’Educatore Israelita (1853), Renato Maestro Library, Venice


Many ancient communities were dismantled, others consolidated or expanded. The Jewish community of Bologna – which had continued to exist illegally even after the expulsion of Jews from Bologna in 1836, was re-established in 1864 and officially recognized in 1911. The Milan community was established and poised to become an important center of Jewish life, the one in Genoa had an ever-increasing influx of Jews from Piedmont and Livorno; the one in Naples, which began to organize around 1831, rebuilt its synagogue after the expulsion of the Bourbons.


Italian cities acquired imposing synagogues, the most beautiful, in Moorish style, in Florence, the largest in Europe in Trieste. In Turin, the Mole Antonelliana was conceived as a synagogue, symbolizing the liberation of the Jews from slavery through its skypiercing dome. In Rome, the Tempio Maggiore, was erected along the Tiber, on the edge of the former ghetto.


(The Jewish press was blossoming with by the weekly ‘Israel’ in Florence, formed by the merger in 1915, the ‘Corriere Israelitico di Trieste’, which was founded in 1862, and the ‘La Settimana Israelitica’ (Jewish Week). The first Jewish magazine printed in Italy: ‘La Rivista Israelitica’ of Parma, was founded in 1845, while ‘L’Educatore Israelita’ in Vercelli, founded in 1853, changed its name to ‘Il Vessillo Israelitico’, was published up to 1922. The Monthly Review ‘Israel’ was considered the best Jewish magazine of the Latin countries.)


This was also a period of flourishing and expansion of the Jewish press, with periodicals and magazines in many important cities.


In the second half of the 19th century, a new kind of anti-Semitic hostility developed in Europe. The traditional Catholic anti-Judaism combined with new accusations aimed at the Jews’ presumed power in society after their emancipation.