Sixteenth-century Livorno (Leghorn) was a malaria-infested backwater fishing village before the ruling Medici family decided to turn the western Tuscan city into an important free port. The intention was to draw immigrants, specifically Jews from Spain and Portugal, to the city in an effort to rejuvenate the Tuscan economy. In 1548, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici offered an invitation to all marranos (crypto-Jews) to come to Livorno as a sanctuary, but found little success. In 1593, Cosimo’s grandson, Ferdinando I, extended a more successful invitation which promised full religious freedom, amnesty, full Tuscan citizenship, special courts with civil and criminal jurisdictions, as well as exemption from wearing the Jewish badges, and other restrictions, such as restricting Jews to live in a ghetto. These conditions attracted many Jews to the flourishing port so that the Jewish population of the city grew from 114 in 1601 to more than 3,000 in 1689.
Unlike most Italian cities at the time, Jews in Livorno were permitted to pratice trades other than just money lending. The majority of the merchants were Jewish immigrants, and the paper, wine, and coral industries were all dominated by Jewish traders. Livorno also became an important center for Hebrew printing. One of the most significant printing figures in Livorno’s history is Salomone Belforte. By the year 1863, Livorno had become the fifth largest Hebrew printing center in the world, and it’s leading printing company was that of Salomone Belforte & Co.
Salomone Belforte was born to an Italian Jewish family that settled in Livorno in the late 17th century. His ancestors were Sephardic Jews who had been exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century. The charter of toleration that Ferdinando I issued included an essential permission for Jews to own any sort of book in any language, including Hebrew, as long as the books were approved by the Inquisition. This liberty to own books, upon approval, provided the means for the establishment and production of printing houses in Livorno. Belforte began to edit Hebrew prayer books in 1821, and thirteen years later he founded his very own printing house with brothers Moise and Israel Paragi. In 1843, the local government granted Belforte permission to print Italian translations of Hebrew liturgical texts. In 1848, censuring by local ecclesiastical authorities came to an end as a result of the formation of the Republic. The Belforte family continued operation of the printing company well past Salomone’s death. Belforte grew to become the leading publisher of Sephardic Jewish texts, supplying books to Jewish communities all around the Mediterranean basin. The Fascist racial laws (Jews were prohibited form owning publishing houses or publishing books) and World War II nearly ruined the company. In 1961 Belforte sold all of its printing equipment to an Israeli printing company, but in 1964 Belforte & Co purchased modern printing technology and resumed it production on a modest scale.
Today, two of the four Jewish cemeteries that were originally established in Livorno can still be found, and in the one in viale Ippolito Nievo lie the final resting places of the Belforte family. Livorno’s Jewish population stands at around 500, and unlike the early years of the port, few are of Spanish and Portuguese descent. Belforte & Co is still in operation today, printing books on various topics, Jewish and non-Jewish, and running an important bookstore in Livorno, the Liberia Belforte. The Jewish community is perhaps not what it was at its peak, but it remains an important chapter in Italian and Jewish history, with the Belforte name being found worldwide alongside the name of its home city: Livorno.
*Sophie Goldston is a student at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA).