Edward L. Goldberg. Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011. xiv + 331 pp. $70.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4426-4225-6.
Reviewed by Roni Weinstein (University of Pisa)
Published on H-Judaic (September, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Benedetto Blanis: A "Bad Jew" in Early Modern Florence?
In the year 1619 Benedetto Blanis, a Florentine Jew, was summoned to Inquisition interrogation. The chief investigator, Monsignor Cornelio Priatoni, a figure of frightening stature, threw the accusation in his face "that I was a bad Jew, which offended me deeply." Shortly later the reason for this allegation was clarified, "I was a bad Jew, he [i.e., Monsignor Priatoni] said, because I went from one condition to another and did not stay Jewish. That, he said, was his definition of a bad Jew. So, I really don't know where all of this is leading, and I am confused" (p. 187).
It is indeed a telling incident of the change in inquisitorial policy and its expanding intrusion in Jewish life, in tandem with its increasing control of family life and individual consciousness of Catholic believers. Blanis is supposedly a "bad Jew" not because he previously converted to Catholicism--which he did not, but due to the fact that he kept on blurring the cultural and religious borders between Jews and Catholics. In baroque Italy, including Tuscany and the city of Florence, such a phenomenon became an ever menacing threat to social control and religious orthodoxy.
This event is one of many described by Edward Goldberg, focusing on the life Benedetto Blanis, and his special contact with Don Giovanni dei Medici, the illegitimate son of the Duke of Tuscany. Blanis, the Jew, ran various errands for Don Giovanni and his mistress and later his wife. Yet the main mutual interest lay in the knowledge he was supposed to own: alchemy and secret Kabbalistic lore. Occasionally he gave Don Giovanni Hebrew lessons as well. Alchemy and secret lore never ceased to fascinate and attract the young Don Giovanni. For a very long period Benedetto Blanis stayed in contact with Don Giovanni, thus getting to know him and other eminent figures of the late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Medici court well. Their intrigues and personal events, as well as Blanis and his family ,are richly documented in the Medici archive, and furnish the basis for this book. Practically nothing was known about Blanis prior to the publication of Goldberg's fine book. The Blanis family was among the ultra-montani families who immigrated to northern Italy during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Benedetto, like most of his family members, was no rabbinic scholar, nor an acumen of Jewish Kabbalah or philosophy. Yet his cultural and personal contacts among the Jewish community in Tuscany enabled him to procure for his patron the Jewish books and the secret knowledge in which he was interested. His contacts with Don Giovanni went beyond running errands for him--including transferring his library (an exceptionally important testimony for the history of European libraries, in general, and their mode of organizations), but extended to long-lasting years with his family and cultural entourage. The fact that he remained a Jew did not set insurmountable limits on his activities at this stage.
Among the incredibly rich archives in Italy, the Medici Archive, currently managed by the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, is exceptionally rich in both quantity and variety. Undoubtedly Goldberg is one those who possess deep acquaintance with this archive, due to his deep involvement in the Medici Archive Project. This familiarity is evident in the book which along with the personal story of Blanis weaves additional information on various aspects of Jewish-Italian life and culture during the baroque period.
Thus we get to hear of daily life, family patterns, marriage rituals, religious activity, and community management. Ghetto life in Florence did not prevent a group of local Jewish youths from going to the neighboring city of Cascina to participate in festivities of dancing and music, carrying with them a musical instrument called a tiorba (p. 141). This information was worth recording due only to some legal complications involved in this case. It implies the existence of an active juvenile sub-culture, shared by both Jews and Catholics in contemporary Italy.
The evidence used by Goldberg contributes to illuminating certain aspects of Jewish life in Tuscany in general and in the city of Florence in particular. The involvement of local Jews in court life, their knowledge of alchemy and magical practices is but scantly documented in other Jewish testimonies. Yet, like most modern historiography of Jewish-Italian culture it follows the all too easy dichotomy between testimonies originating from "Christian" perspective--either legal, religious, political, on the one hand--and Jewish documents originating from rabbinic literature or community ledgers, on the other. Negligible is the current research that confronts this double documentary perspective. Goldberg's book is no exception to this rule. Nor does he refer to similar documents of other Italian places, accumulated, for example, in the series Documentary History of Italian Jews, directed by Shlomo Simonsohn.
To illustrate my point, Blanis writes in his letters that in addition to copying a Kabbalah book, he replicated "a small book in Hebrew in rabbinical script titled Book of Ramón Llull Regarding the Secrets of the Philosopher's Stone" (p. 123). A quick search of the catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts at the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem--undoubtedly the most comprehensive and professional catalogue--would show that no such book is known to have survived. It is a unique testimony of the interest in Jewish context in Lull's scientific and philosophical oeuvre and not only in his medical works. Early modern thinkers have shown increasing interest in the corpus of Lull's works, mainly due to their suggestion of comprehensive and encyclopedic perspective. Do we face here a Jewish counterpart to this global phenomenon? The question is not raised in the book.
Blanis, to refer back to the menacing inquisitorial words, was "a bad Jew." Yet neutralizing the judgmental view of the father inquisitor, it does show that even after the entrance of Jews into the ghetto in Florence and the increasing Catholic hostility, the mutual cultural and religious interest (could we even say fascination?) between Jews and Catholics did not cease. The figure of Benedetto Blanis, so impressively described in the book of Edward Goldberg, is a further testimony of this assertion.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Roni Weinstein. Review of Goldberg, Edward L., Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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