The Exceptional Jewess and the Foolish Jew

The Exceptional Jewess and the Foolish Jew

Attar, Karina Feliciano (Queens College, CUNY)

Paper given at Venice, the Jews, and Italian Culture Conference (2006)

Introduction: My paper is drawn from work-in-progress, which explores how Jews and Muslims are represented in 15th and 16th century Italian novellas, and considers the contemporary anxieties about religious, racial, sexual, and/or and social identity reflected in these depictions. I became attracted to this material because I love reading novellas, but I’m struck by the cultural fault lines that run through them, the ways in which different traditions – courtly love and making fun of Jews, for example, or motifs drawn from the epic tradition and grotesque representations of Moorish slaves, bump into each other uncomfortably. My research into this area became a way of looking more deeply into these narrative problems, and I also became interested in why they have gone largely unnoticed by critics for so long, although that’s not the immediate subject of my talk.

In 1555, Pietro Fortini, a Sienese real estate investor, vicar, and paper industry entrepreneur began composing his two-part collection of novellas Le giornate delle Novelle de’ Novizi and Le piacevoli e amorose notti de’ novizi (initiate). The collection is closely modeled on Boccaccio’s Decameron, and all the narratives elaborate on characteristic motifs of the genre, such as adultery, anti-clericalism, and the ‘beffa,’ or practical joke. Two of the tales, both set in Bologna, recount sexual and romantic encounters between a Christian youth and a Jewess, and offer significant insights into the ways in which Christian writers perceived Jewish identity. Today I will talk about the novella entitled “el nuovo messia” The New Messia, but I will be happy to tell you about the other narrative if you have questions later. In the handout you will find all the excerpts I will cite, plus a few more that I will skip over in the interests of time.

Jews, especially money-lenders, had been attracted to Bologna in large numbers since at least the mid-fourteenth century for its geographical position, its thriving economic life, and the protection afforded them by the city’s rulers, though documented Jewish communities date back to the fourth century. According to a 1387 census, there were 35 Jewish families in Bologna in that year, approximately 200 individuals. In 1555, when Fortini began writing his collection, Bologna included eleven synagogues, a significant Jewish silk weaver’s guild, and several Jewish loan banks. The Jewish community of Bologna flourished in relative peace until 1555, when Pope Paul the Fourth’s bull, Cum nimis absurdum, marked a radical reversal of the traditional papal policy towards the Jews. The bull reproduced several ancient laws ordering Jews to wear distinguishing clothing, and prohibiting them from marrying Christians, having Christian servants, or socializing with them. The 1555 bull added that Jews should live separately from Christians and should not own any real estate. Within six months, all Jewish real estate in the Papal States had been sold for one fifth of its value.

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