The Effervescence of Jewish Printing in Renaissance Italy

November 7, 2019 | Eleanor Foa
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In the 16th century, Italy emerged as the leading center for the printing of Jewish books, often at Hebrew publishing houses owned and operated by Christians. But Jews soon established presses of their own, among them the brothers Foà of the northern Italian city of Sabbioneta. Eleanor Foa, a descendant of one of the brothers, writes:

[The Foàs] were lucky to have lived under the liberal rule of Vespasiano Gonzaga (1531–1591), the duke of Sabbioneta. An enlightened ruler, educated in Greek, Latin, history, Italian literature, the Talmud, and even Kabbalah, . . . Gonzaga wanted to make Sabbioneta a capital of the mind. He not only permitted the rise of the Foà printing house but also remained an enlightened protector of the Jews. In fact, . . . Gonzaga welcomed and respected Jews . . . at a time when other [Italian] cities created ghettos and forced Jewish printers to close.

They were also fortunate that Rabbi Tobia Foà, a man of exceptional culture and good deeds, established the press. According to David Amram, author of The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy, “No Hebrew press of the century was more fortunate in the number and quality of its workmen.”

[A]lthough Jews helped finance Johannes Gutenberg’s 1450 invention—first used to print a Bible in 1455—they were not permitted to join German printing guilds. So German Jews took their knowledge to Italy where, as early as 1470 in Rome, Christian and Jewish publishing houses were established. [But] even in Italy, the privilege of printing books was never conferred upon a Jew. Only members of patrician houses could establish presses. This explains why Jews partnered with families like the Gonzagas. Even so, licenses to publish Hebrew books were granted and revoked at the whim of local rulers and the pope. In fact, only a short window of time existed during which the Church allowed Jewish printers to pursue their trade in Italy.

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