When Jews were exiled en masse from Spain in 1492, a great number of them took refuge in Italy, where they were given protection by King Ferdinand I of Naples. Don Isaac Abravanel was even granted a position at the Neapolitan court, which he retained under the succeeding king, Alfonso II.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews were also well received in Ferrara by the Duke Ercole d’Este I, as well as in Tuscany. However, in Rome and Genoa, they experienced hunger, poverty, and disease and many were forced to accept baptism in order to escape starvation. In a few cases, the new arrivals exceeded in number the local Jews, often casting the decisive vote in matters of communal interest. During the period between Pope Alexander VI and Pope Clement VII, the popes held a more tolerant attitude towards the Jews. The popes themselves, and many influential cardinals, openly violated one of the most severe dictates of the Council of Basel: one that prohibited Christians from employing Jewish physicians. The Jewish communities of Naples and Rome received the greatest number of fleeing Jews, but many of these eventually moved on to Ancona, Venice, Calabria, and later, to Florence and Padua. Venice, emulating the odious measures of the German cities, assigned to the Jews a special quarter (ghetto).
It is estimated that by 1492, Jews made up 6% or more of the population of Sicily. Many Sicilian Jews first went to Calabria, where a Jewish community had existed since the 4th century. In 1524, the Jews were expelled from Calabria, and subsequently, in 1540, from the entire Kingdom of Naples, as these areas fell under Spanish rule and became subject to the edict of expulsion by the Spanish Inquisition.
Many Jews headed to the Ottoman Empire, others to Ancona, and still others to Ferrara, where they were well received by Duke Ercole II.
Throughout the 16th century there was a gradual movement of the Jews in Italy from south to north, with conditions worsening for Jews in Rome after 1556 and Venice in the 1580s. Many Jews from Venice and the surrounding area migrated to Poland and Lithuania around this time.
After the death of Pope Paul III (1534–1549), who had showed favor to the Jews, there followed a period of strife and persecution, also including the expulsion of the Jews from Genoa.
On the Jewish New Year’s Day (9 September) in 1553, there was a burning of all the copies of the Talmud in the principal cities of Italy, including the printing establishments of Venice. In 1555, Pope Marcellus II attempted to exile the Jews of Rome on a ritual murder accusation. He was restrained from the actual execution of this scheme by Cardinal Alexander Farnese, who succeeded in bringing to light the true culprit.
Marcellus’ successor, Paul IV, confirmed all the previous papal bulls against the Jews and added other more oppressive measures, containing a variety of prohibitions designed to condemn Jews to abject misery, depriving them of the means of sustenance, and denying them the exercise of all professions. The papal bull Cum nimis absurdum of 1555 created the Roman ghetto and required the wearing of yellow badges. The Jews were also forced to labor on the restoration of the walls of Rome without any compensation.
In one instance, Paul IV secretly gave orders to burn the Jewish quarter during the night. Alexander Farnese again succeeded in preventing it.
Many Jews abandoned Rome and Ancona and went to Ferrara and Pesaro. Here, the Duke of Urbino welcomed them, in the hope of directing the extensive commerce of the Levant to the new port of Pesaro, which was, at that time, dominated by the Jews of Ancona.
Paul IV was followed by a tolerant pope, Pius IV, who was succeeded by Pius V, known for restoring all the anti-Jewish bulls of his predecessors—not only in his own immediate domains, but throughout the Christian world. In Lombardy, the expulsion of the Jews was a threat and although not carried out, they were persecuted in countless ways. In Cremona and Lodi, Jewish books were confiscated. In this same year, the pope directed his persecutions against the Jews of Bologna, a rich community and an economical target.
Many of the wealthiest Jews were imprisoned and tortured in order to force them into false confessions. When Rabbi Ishmael Ḥanina was being racked, he declared that should the pains of torture elicit from him any words that might be construed as casting reflection on Judaism, they would be false and null. Pius V decided to banish the Jews from all his dominions, and despite the remonstrance of some influential cardinals, the Jews (in all about 1,000 families) were expelled from all the Papal States, excepting Rome and Ancona. While a few became Christians, the majority found refuge in other parts of Italy, e.g. Livorno and Pitigliano.
Popes Paul IV and Pius V reduced the Jews to the utmost humiliation and managed to diminish their numbers. In southern Italy, there were almost none left; in each of the important communities of Rome, Venice, and Mantua there were about 2,000 Jews left, while in all of Lombardy hardly 1,000. Gregory XIII continued the fanaticism of his predecessors. Upon noticing that, despite papal prohibition, Christians employed Jewish doctors, he strictly prohibited the Jews from attending to Christian patients and threatened with the most severe punishment Jews and Christians alike.
Gregory also instructed the Inquisition to burn the Talmud and other Hebrew books. Special sermons, designed to convert the Jews, were instituted, with at least one-third of the Jewish community being forced to attend. The sermons were usually delivered by baptized Jews who had become friars or priests. Occasionally the Jews were forced to listen to such sermons in their own synagogues. These persecutions forced many Jews to leave Rome, thus further diminishing their numbers.
Under the following pope, Sixtus V (1585–1590), the condition of the Jews improved somewhat. He revoked many of the edicts of his predecessors, permitted Jews to reside anywhere in his realm, and gave Jewish physicians freedom to practice. The Jews of Mantua, Milan, and Ferrara, taking advantage of the favorable disposition of the pope, sent him an ambassador with a present of 2,000 scudi, to obtain permission to reprint the Talmud and other Jewish books, promising at the same time to expurgate all passages considered offensive to Christianity. Their demand was granted.
The reprinting of the Talmud had barely begun, when Sixtus died. Clement VIII (1592–1605) renewed the anti-Jewish bulls of Paul IV and Pius V and exiled the Jews from all his territories with the exception of Rome, Ancona and Avignon. The exiles took refuge in Tuscany, where they were welcomed by Duke Ferdinando de’ Medici. Surprisingly, under Philip II, the Jews exiled from Spain were tolerated in the duchy of Milan, under Spanish rule. Such an inconsistency of policy was designed to work against the interests of the Jews.
The Mantuan Jews suffered gravely during the Thirty Years’ war. The Jews exiled from the papal dominions had repeatedly found refuge in Mantua, where the dukes of Gonzaga had accorded them protection. After the death of the last Gonzaga, the right of succession was contested and the city was besieged by German soldiers. The commander-in-chief, Altringer, forbade the soldiers to sack the ghetto, thereby hoping to secure the spoils for himself. The Jews were ordered to leave the city.
The victories of the Turks in Europe, incited further the Christian population against the Jews, who remained friendly to the Turks. In 1683, the Jews of Padua were in great danger, because of the agitation fomented against them by the guild of cloth-weavers. Violence broke out, threatening the lives of the Jews. With the greatest difficulty the governor of the city succeeded in rescuing them, in obedience to a rigorous order from Venice. For several days thereafter the ghetto had to be especially guarded.