The Ghetto at Florence, an 1886 essay by Amy Levy

The complete novels and selected writings of Amy Levy

Beginning in 1886, Amy Levy wrote several essays on Jewish culture and literature for The Jewish Chronicle. The best known is The Ghetto at Florence, presented here. Others in this series included The Jew in Fiction, Jewish Humour, and Jewish Children.

Amy Levy (1861 – 1889) was a 19th-century British novelist, essayist, and poet. She was best known for Reuben Sachs, an 1888 novel that examined Jewish life in Victorian England, a subject that was unusual for its time. 

Despite talent and accomplishment, this promising writer died by her own hand when not quite twenty-eight years old following years of struggle with depression.

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Amy Levy, British poet and novelist

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The Ghetto at Florence by Amy Levy

From a correspondent; dateline: Florence, March 19, 1886: They are going to pull down the Ghetto at Florence; it is an old, old dismantled structure “springing seven stories high,” staring at you with innumerable sashless windows, like the vacant eyes of the blind.

It stands in the old market, where the picturesque busy life goes on buzzing and stirring very much as it did in the days when Tito Melema bought a cup of milk of poor Tessa with a kiss. It is in the very heart of the town; from window, and archway and passage you obtain glimpses of the matchless architectural mass composed by the Duomo and Campanile that many-tinted, many-faceted jewel of which Florence is but the rich and seemly setting.

Long ago, the Ghetto was a palace of the Medici family. It was not till the 16th century that Cosimo I made it over to the Jews, whom he had summoned to Florence to act as a check on the Italian money-lenders; we are left to guess at the extortions of these Christian usurers; we only know that 20 per cent was fixed as a moderate rate of interest for their Jewish successors!

The Jews continued to dwell in the old Ghetto (and very huddled up they must have been, if their rate of multiplication was up to its usual average) until modern toleration set them free, and modern sanitary science declared their dwelling place unfit for human habitation.

Then the great arched doorways, solid and satisfying in their strong curves, were boarded up; the very panes went from the windows; from top to bottom those crazy seven storeys were a squalid and dismantled ruin.

They set up a turnstile at the back of the building, and on payment of half a lire the casual stranger could wander at will amid the endless passages and stairways, the dusky intricacies of Cosimo’s palace, for which more changes were yet in store.

For by the end of Carnival, the poor old structure had undergone a complete transformation. The dingy walls were painted in gay stripes, Eastern rugs hung from the empty windows, coloured lanterns were swinging over the doorways, themselves draped and gilded out of all knowledge.

Great posters announced the fact that the “Citta di Bagdhad” was to be seen in the Ghetto.

All through Carnival week those old courts and archways echoed to the mirth of the masquers, and now quieter folk have taken to drinking their evening coffee in the tricked out Ghetto-Palace.

There is nothing that need remind one of the cramped life that once thronged and huddled and swarmed here, that need call up unpleasant memories of the sordid, struggling, choked existence that went on wearily from generation to generation. It is true that the cells and arches are very close together, but they are hung charmingly with gay stuffs, and the shop-men, with their red caps and Tuscan faces, are more than picturesque.

Actually there are real camels to be seen and real studio-models posing as Orientals in all the glory of turban and fez. Down below the walls are painted so gaily that you forget to look upwards at the gloomy storeys above, at the crowding, empty windows.

But now and then you may find yourself strolling unawares down some tortuous passage out of sight of the lanterns, out of hearing of the band, away from the fuss and stir of a modern pleasure-place.

How dreary, how inexpressibly gloomy it is! Even the moonlight, that wonderful moonlight of an Italian spring, cannot penetrate into these courts and alleys, around which the tall, tall houses crowd so closely.

The air strikes chill and damp; are those human faces, or the faces of ghosts, that peer so wistfully through the grated lower windows? Is it the sound of human footsteps, or the sound heard in a dream, that echoes on the close, irregular pavement, that startles one from the gloom of unexpected angles and archways?

It is only sentimentalists, like ourselves, that trouble themselves in this unnecessary fashion. There are a great many Jews here to-night, evidently quite undisturbed by “inherited memory.”

A sprightly, if unhandsome, son of Shem urges us, in correct cockney, to take shares in a lottery; another, with his wife on his arm, trips gaily from booth to booth; the repressed energy, the stored exuberance of centuries is venting itself with its wonted force.

We ourselves, it is to be feared, are not very good Jews; is it by way of “judgment” that the throng of tribal ghosts haunts us so persistently tonight? That white-bearded old man peering round the corner, surely it was he that Mantegna chose for the model for his famous Circumcision? 30

The Jews have ceased to dwell in the Ghetto, but they have by no means ceased to dwell in the city. They swarm in the quaint streets adjoining the old market, and in more important thoroughfares such names as Dante Levi stare at us in hybrid significance from the shop-fronts.

But you do not here identify the Jew with the same ease and readiness as in England or Germany. There is no doubt, for instance, about the inhabitants of Petticoat Lane, or the Brühl at Leipsic, apart from all accident of locality.

But sometimes, when a dark face peers at you from a doorway of the Mercato Vecchio, and a pair of shrewd, melancholy eyes meet with your own, you are puzzled at the equal suggestion of Jew and Florentine in their glance.

Who knows but that, long ago, those old and mystic races, the Etrurians and Semites, were kinsfolk, pasturing their flocks together in Asia Minor? But this is opening up a very big question, over which wiser heads than our own have puzzled often and in vain.

Let us go back and take our farewell of the Ghetto, where the lights are still shining and the band still playing. Poor old Palace-Prison! this is positively your last appearance; you are very splendid, but it is only a funeral pomp, after all. The lamps flicker, the people stream out, the musicians play louder and louder,

That when he dies he make a swan-like end,
Fading in music.

Note: Here, Levy misquotes Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, III.ii.4345. The correct quote is:

Then if he lose he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.

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