Sunday, May 15, 2011




OCTOBER 2011 (Release Date)
University of Toronto Press
ISBN 978-1-4426-4383-3
448 pages; Clothbound
$85 (Cover Price)




You are sitting in the vast Reading Room of the Florentine National Archive, one of those indeterminate spaces from the 1970s— office, factory or parking garage? Generically functional desk lamps illumine row after row of sturdy formica-topped tables. On the smooth grey surface in front of you lie two massive volumes—square-edged, sharp-cornered and stiffly bound.

Each bright new sheet of acid-free paper holds a manuscript letter, fixed on a hinge like an oversized postage stamp. Some are long and some are short. Some are written with care and some in haste. Some are distinct and some are faded. But most were penned by the same hand and signed with the same name: Benedetto Blanis hebreo. Benedetto Blanis the Jew.[1]

You page through these letters one by one… What strikes you first is their utter normality— as physical objects, that is to say. With their good paper, standardized handwriting and regularized spelling[2], they could have come from any official at the granducal court— but in fact, they were produced in a one-room apartment in the Florentine Ghetto, then a holding cell in the Bargello Prison.

Benedetto did his best to get these things right and he used the same models as the Medici secretaries—indeed, the same models as the Medici themselves. On 22 March 1620, he undertook a relatively mundane task for his patron Don Giovanni dei Medici—tracking down a copy of Marcello Scalino da Camerino’s best-selling manual of calligraphy, Regole nuove…co’ quali potrà ciascuno senza maestro imparar facilmente a scriuer bene (New Rules By Which Anyone Can Easily Learn To Write Well, Even Without a Teacher).

On Friday, I was ordered to go to Your Most Illustrious Excellency’s library to look for that book by Marcello Scalini that teaches how to write but I couldn’t find it. I assure you that I know this book very well, since I formerly had one myself but my nephews more or less  destroyed it.[3]

Benedetto’s nephews presumably destroyed this book in the course of their own lessons —learning to write correct Tuscan in a fine Italian hand in the heart of the Florentine Ghetto. A few decades earlier, Benedetto must have gone through a similar course of instruction himself, using Scalino’s text or one of its predecessors.[4]

Benedetto Blanis (c.1580-c.1647) was librarian to Don Giovanni dei Medici (1567-1621), the illegitimate son of Grand Duke Cosimo I (1519-1574). Don Giovanni  made a distinguished career as diplomat, courtier and military leader, traveling throughout Italy, the Netherlands, France and central Europe. From 1615 through 1620, Benedetto managed the library in his patron’s Florentine palace— organizing and cataloguing its contents, acquiring books from various sources and sharing his patron’s most recondite interests, including alchemy, astrology, and the Kabbalah.

There are occasional words of Hebrew (eleven to be precise) in Benedetto’s nearly two hundred letters to Don Giovanni dei Medici.[5] He presented these in large square characters with points (vowels), which could be sounded out by anyone who had a smattering of the language.[6] Far more frequent are the passages of Latin, mostly Old Testament quotes from the Vulgate Bible—Psalms, Prophets, Proverbs, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes and Kings—all in the version that Benedetto’s Christian patron knew best.


On 20 June 1615, Benedetto Blanis launched his correspondence with Don Giovanni dei Medici —only a few hours after his patron’s departure from Florence.

When Your Excellency left… I was so overcome with anguish as to be rendered speechless. Seeing myself deprived of your noble and divine presence, I felt my heart burst from my breast and my soul depart from my body, leaving me drained of my very lifeblood. Aided, however, by imagination and memory, I summoned the glad hope that you would make me worthy of your service and that I would fully experience your favour. That encouraged me to take up my pen and write these few badly composed lines, which do not deserve to be read by Your Excellency unless Your Excellency, in your graciousness and goodness, renders them worthy by reading them. In this way, I hope for a return to life by way of your kind reply, informing me of your happy arrival at your destination.[7]

Even by the standards of baroque hyperbole, Benedetto’s rhetoric is often feverishly ingenious in tone—but as the Jew knew well, he was playing the old game of princely favour-broking against daunting odds. Few of his neighbours in the Florentine Ghetto could more than dream of an inside connection at the Medici Court.[8]

Don Giovanni dei Medici was an eminent public figure, supreme commander of the Venetian  army during these years. He was also a virtuoso of the arts and sciences, with a strong inclination to “natural magic” and the arcane.[9]  Benedetto Blanis was a Jew with a traditional rabbinical education and he and his people were perceived as an uncanny race,  intrinsically connected to the world of the occult. Benedetto tirelessly cultivated this aura of mystic empowerment—proposing “curious and forbidden books”[10],  Kabbalistic paraphernalia[11] and privileged access to practitioners from the Jewish side[12].

Don Giovanni was also an aristocratic consumer of luxury goods, and Benedetto could get him almost anything wholesale, turning yet another Jewish stereotype to his own advantage. Over the years, he produced a constant supply of silk and linen, ribbons and lace, cording and trim, gold and silver thread—all with the best Ghetto discounts.[13]

Meanwhile, Benedetto asked and received a great deal in return— a continuing run of favours and special breaks. In Florence, usury was strictly illegal but only sporadically prosecuted and Benedetto was one of the city’s most notorious loan sharks—operating, however, with a unique advantage. He had a member of the granducal family watching his back, for a few short years until his luck ran out.[14] 


On 3 February 1620, Benedetto Blanis announced the latest incursion of the Florentine police in his home in the local Ghetto.

For the love of God, I am on my knees once again, imploring Your Most Illustrious Excellency to render me whatever essential help you can. As you see in the enclosed memorandum, I am being injured by a Jew who has become Christian. Now it is four hours after sunset [around 9pm] on Monday night and my house is full of constables… They  are searching through all of my writings and letters and taking them away …including the letters that I was keeping for reference from Your Most Illustrious Excellency and from Your Most Illustrious Lady. [15]

Only one of Don Giovanni’s many letters to Benedetto Blanis survive, returned  to sender on 11 July 1620. “Messer Benedetto Blanis is in secret solitary confinement, so I am sending the letters for him back to Your Excellency.”[16] Meanwhile, we have a nearly complete run of letters in the other direction, 196 in all.

What impelled Benedetto to put so many compromising matters in writing and send them through the mail? Week by week, he recorded his latest adventures in alchemy, astrology and the Kabbalah, his trafficking in “curious and forbidden books”, his illegal usury and his skirmishes with the Inquisition. On 20 June 1615, when Don Giovanni left Florence for Venice, Benedetto faced a stark choice—he could let his Medici connection dwindle and die or he could build a whole new relationship on paper. The Jew was a gifted writer with a sharp eye and a well-tuned ear, so his letters are always vivid and engaging, designed to seize his patron’s attention at every turn of post. Along the way, Benedetto never lost sight of the business at hand—what he could do for Don Giovanni and what Don Giovanni could do for him.

How could these letters have been allowed to survive, with their bizarre revelations from inside the Medici Court and their dramatic evidence of  Don Giovanni’s complicity? When Don Giovanni died on 19 July 1621, his estate was hastily purged by Niccolò Sacchetti, the Tuscan Ambassador in Venice. Sacchetti dispatched box after box of  troublesome material—military and  political, heretical and occult— to Florence, where it was presumably destroyed. On 28 August, the ambassador warned Granducal Secretary Curzio Picchena, “I am sending you a long sheet of vellum full of figures and mysterious Hebrew characters. This can only be a curious item of some kind.”[17] A few weeks later, he unloaded  “a quantity of superstitious writings… having to do with the Kabbalah or magic or perhaps both… These are distressing items that could contaminate anyone who comes in contact with them.”[18]

Much was destroyed, but much else was overlooked—including Don Giovanni’s letters from Benedetto Blanis. These were subsumed into the vast Medici Granducal Archive, where they remained out of sight and out of mind for nearly four centuries.


There are 220 documents in the Blanis series in Mediceo del Principato 5150: 196 letters from Benedetto Blanis to Don Giovanni dei Medici, one from Don Giovanni to Benedetto Blanis, two from Benedetto Blanis to Don Giovanni’s consort Livia Vernazza, fourteen from Salamone Blanis (Benedetto’s younger brother) to Don Giovanni, five from Salamone Blanis to Attanasio Ridolfi (Don Giovanni’s Secretary) and one from Israel Hebreo (a Jewish businessman in Venice) to Don Giovanni. There is also a commercial petition forwarded by Benedetto to Don Giovanni on behalf of a third party[19].

These letters were organized by an early archivist who evidently failed to decipher Benedetto’s dates. The Jew wrote well but his numbers are sometimes problematic, especially his 8s and 9s, which are often indistinguishable.[20] The original sequence was further disturbed in 1978-79. For centuries, the Blanis letters—mostly on bifolios—had been nested in quires in a single volume.[21] Then, in the course of restoration[22],  they were separated out, attached by hinges to new supports and rebound in two parts with a single call number.[23] 



Quando si sa, basta sapere. “When you know, knowing suffices”—this is the direct translation of  an old Tuscan proverb. “It’s damned obvious, once you figure it out!” better conveys the ironic sense.

Reading through the letters of Benedetto Blanis is a strange and often bewildering experience—we are hearing only one side of an intense conversation, full of fleeting references to people, places and events. Benedetto and  Don Giovanni already knew what they were talking about. Meanwhile, we are snatching clues from an essentially private exchange.

In Benedetto’s letters, there is also a thick layer of intentional obfuscation, particularly when it comes to naming names.The Jew combined astounding frankness with calculated opacity, exacerbated by the epistolary conventions of his time. In early seventeenth century Italy, it was bad style to indicate people directly—especially grand people in public life.

Some identifications are simple and straightforward, as explained in the footnotes to the present edition:

I Padroni (“The Bosses”) refers to the granducal family, the Medici rulers of Tuscany.

Il Padrone (“The Boss”), without further qualification, is the reigning Grand Duke, Cosimo II dei Medici.

Madama Serenissima (“Most Serene Madame”) is Dowager Grand Duchess Christine de Lorraine dei Medici, widow of Ferdinando I and mother of Cosimo II.

L’Arciduchessa (“The Archduchess”) is Grand Duchess Maria Magdalena von Habsburg dei Medici, wife of Cosimo II.

Other identifications are more or less problematic, since they involve initials and abbreviations. PDC for example, can be construed in context as “Principe Don Carlo”—a younger brother of Cosimo II.[27] Fo and Bo both indicate Bartolommeo da Filicaia, a prominent murder suspect—derived from “Il Filicaio” and “Bartolommeo”, respectively.[28]  There is a long and puzzling run of references to Lro and Lzo, complicated by Benedetto’s inconsistent formation of the letters “r” and “z”. Lro is Lessandro (Alessandro) da Cesena and Lzo is Lorenzo Ettorri da Cesena—two criminal conspirators often cited in the same letters.[29]

Titles and epithets are frequently used in place of proper names—l’Amico (“the Friend”), il Gentilhuomo (“the Gentleman”), il Cavaliere (“the Knight”), il Capitano (“the Captain”) and so on… Five anonymous Amici figure prominently in Benedetto’s correspondence: State Secretary Camillo Guidi (Amico but also il Cavaliere)[30]; Cosimo Ridolfi, an aristocratic adept of the arcane (Amico)[31]; Doctor Samuel Caggesi from Fez, a Jewish magus (Amico)[32]; Antonio Maria Milani, Chief Constable of Florence (Amico, il Capitano and il Bargello)[33]; Don Orazio Morandi, Father General of the Vallombrosans (Amico and il Generale)[34].


On 26 September 1620, Salamone Blanis—Benedetto’s younger brother— added an urgent postscript to his letter to Don Giovanni dei Medici. “While I was writing, I received a note from Messer Benedetto. I enclose it here and I commend it to Your Excellency’s attention.” [35]

After Benedetto’s arrest and imprisonment in the last days of June 1620, Salamone struggled to maintain this essential channel of communication while forwarding whatever “notes” they managed to smuggle out of jail. Unfortunately, many of these missives ended up in the hands of the Florentine authorities and eventually the Inquisition—becoming part of the case against the ill-fated Jew.

On 8 August 1620, Canon Francesco Maria Gualterotti—one of Benedetto’s most virulent enemies—addressed this matter with Don Giovanni dei Medici.

I am quite well informed regarding the Blandes case, and I do not understand how Your Most Illustrious and Excellent Lordship can declare him innocent. They found the terms of his agreement with that baptized Jew written out in his own hand and various letters regarding the execution of their plan. He might have tried to argue against this evidence but they intercepted other letters that he wrote in prison. I know this, the entire city knows this and Their Most Serene Highnesses have held the very documents in their own hands.[36]

The Blanis letters are exceptional—perhaps unique—in the context of surviving Jewish documentation.[37] They bring us extraordinarily near to some aspects of Benedetto’s life during a few crucial years, but they do not tell the entire story.

While writing Jews and Magic in Medici Florence: The Secret World of Benedetto Blanis (University of Toronto Press, 2011), I came upon a varied range of supporting material. In the Florentine National Archive, I discovered letters to and from Don Giovanni and other members of the Medici family, administrative records of various kinds and—perhaps most intriguing of all— the local police files, which are full of references to Jews and Jewish affairs. In the Archepiscopal Archive in Florence[38] and the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e., Inquisition) in Rome[39], I found remnants of the official documentation from the Blanis case.

In the notes to Jews and Magic, I track my archival peregrinations step by step. Readers, I hope, will revisit these sources and then widen the search. Many surprises still await us, regarding the life and times of Benedetto Blanis—and other Jews in other ghettos, in Italy and abroad.


[1] The Blanis series fills the first two-thirds of ASF, MdP 5150. The remaining third consists of letters to Don Giovanni from the actor and theatrical impressario Flaminio Scala.
[2] Benedetto’s spelling is that of an educated Tuscan writer of his time, with a relatively narrow range of variations and inconsistencies (perhaps most evident in names). Jewish writers often adopted a hybrid Italian that incorporated Spanish, Portuguese, French, Venetian, Piedmontese and other usages. For examples of more eccentric spelling in contemporary letters, see Documents 39 and 109 in the present edition.
[3] Archivio di Stato di Firenze (ASF)  Mediceo del Principato (MdP) 5150, f. 347 (Document 186). On 16 March 1620, Don Giovanni requested this book from Benedetto, by way of his maestro di casa Cosimo Baroncelli (ASF Alessandri 2: f.424).
[4] Scalino’s Regole Nuove first appeared in Venice in 1584. Before that, there were other writing manuals like Giuliantonio Hercolani’s Lo scrittor utile et brieue (Bologna, 1574) and Giovanni Francesco Cresci’s Il Perfetto Scrittore (Rome, 1570).
[5] Words in Hebrew occur in Documents 19, 55, 82, 84 and 120.
[6] Don Giovanni seems to have had a fair knowledge of Hebrew, as Benedetto testified before the court of the archbishop of Florence on 19 January 1621/22 (ASF MdP 5159, f.681r).
[7] ASF MdP 5150, f. 9 (Document 2).
[8] In his letters to Don Giovanni, Benedetto Blanis plays heavily on his Jewish identity. He combines exagerrated (perhaps orientalizing) courtesies with frequent quotations from the Old Testament and mysterious references to the occult. His basic mode of expression is unmistakably Florentine but generally closer to spoken Florentine than cultivated or literary Florentine. Within this idiom, Benedetto was an easy and accomplished writer, developing long and effective passages of first person narration. Sometimes, however, he felt the need to rise to occasions with laboriously constructed set-pieces, like the one cited above.
[9] Don Giovanni’s was also highly influential in the realm of the theatre. From c.1613 until his death in 1621, he was the mainstay of the Compagnia dei Comici Confidenti, an important acting troupe.
[10] Benedetto often uses the expression “libri curiosi”. In  Document 181, he refers to “libri curiosi e prohijbite”.
[11] For example, Document 28 and following.
[12] The most striking case was his promotion of Doctor Samuel Caggesi from Fez in 1616 (Documents 30-47).
[13] For example, Documents 59, 168, 198 and 217.
[14] Benedetto often discusses his crypto-usury with Don Giovanni with notable frankness, (for example Document 19). Don Giovanni played an important role in Benedetto’s moneylending activity, using his authority and influence to pull the Jew’s debtors into line (for example, Document 22).
[15] ASF MdP 5150, f.364, (Document 176).   On this particular occasion, Benedetto’s “letters and writings” were returned to him (Document 180).
[16] ASF MdP 5147, f.600, 11 July 1620 (Cosimo Baroncelli to Don Giovanni). This presumably refers to Don Giovanni’s letter to Benedetto of 4 July 1620 (Document 201) which responds to Benedetto’s letter of 28 June (Document 199) (ASF MdP 5150, f.420). On Benedetto’s letters, there are rare notes for Don Giovanni’s replies (Documents 83, 90, 94 and 102).
[17] ASF MdP 3007, f.325r, (28 August 1621). Presumably, this was the Tree of the Sephirot that Benedetto copied from an original belonging to an uncle in Lippiano (Document 28 and following).
[18] ASF MdP 3007, f.388r; 18 September 1621 (Niccolò Sacchetti to Andrea Cioli).
[19] Document 152.
[20] This is a recurring challenge for the researcher, because  Benedetto composed many of his letters in 1618 and 1619.
[21] The Blanis series fills the first two-thirds of ASF MdP 5150. The remaining third consists of letters to Don Giovanni from the actor and theatrical impresario Flaminio Scala.
[22] The restoration protocol is described on the inside front cover of each of the two volumes of ASF MdP 5150.
[23] This is described on the first fly-leaf of each of the two volumes.  “Durante la fase di restauro del registro, pur lasciando invariato l’ordine delle lettere, sono state riunite per ciascuna di esse le carti comprendenti il testo, l’indirizzo, gli eventuali allegati, i quali nella antica legatura erano, nella maggior parte dei casi separati l’uno dall’altro. A seguito di tale operazione la vecchia numerazione risulta alterata.”
[24] After many false starts, I printed microfilms of the entire series and laid them out on the floor of my living room in evident chronological order—with hundreds of post-its noting the developing storyline. It took many months of sorting and resorting before the last pieces fell into place.
[25] See Document 58.
[26] Cosimo Baroncelli was major-domo in Don Giovanni’s Florentine palace; his letters are mostly found in ASF Alessandri 2.
[27] Document 10.
[28] Documents 110 and 111.
[29] Beginning in Document 73.
[30] For example, Documents 8 and 10.
[31] Document 21. The identification of Cosimo Ridolfi is highly probable but not certain.
[32] For example, Document 30.
[33] After Benedetto’s trip to Venice in 1618, his code name for Antonio Maria Milani shifted from l’Amico to il Capitano (See Document 110).
[34] For example, Documents 161 and 190.
[35] ASF MdP 5150, f.391 (Document 210).
[36] ASF MdP 5141, f.991 (8 August 1620).
[37] I am not aware of other similarly extensive runs of letters from Jews in early modern Italy (or elsewhere), particularly letters that form a regular series from a single writer to a single recipient.
[38] A document in the Archivio Arcivescovile in Florence is probably a remnant of the Blanis case file, which is now lost: TIN 17.10 , 6 January 1623, “Lettera del commissario del S. Uffizio, Filippo Maria: Comanda che non si rilasci Blanes ebreo”.
[39] We can track the progress of the Blanis case through the findings of the Cardinals General of the Inquisition: Rome, Archive of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:  Decreta 1621; Decreta 1621/22; Decreta 1622; Decreta 1623; Decreta 1624. However, the supporting documentation is apparently lost.

- Archivio di Stato di Firenze, storage facility.
- The two volumes that contain the letters of Benedetto Blanis to Don Giovanni dei Medici: Archivio di Stato di Firenze (ASF) Archivio Mediceo del Principato ( MdP) 5150, parts 1 & 2.
- Sketches on the outside of a letter from Salamon Blanis including the head of a bearded Jew; ASF MdP 5150, f. 32 verso.
- Letter from Benedetto to Don Giovanni, including the name of God in Hebrew; ASF MdP 5150, f. 205 recto.
- Extract from the Psalm 20 in Hebrew, written by Benedetto Blanis; ASF MdP 5150, f.43 recto.
- A Jewish Pedlar rendered in water color by Giovanni Grevembroch, from Abiti dei Veneziani…; Museo Civico Correr, Venice.
- Portrait of Don Giovanni dei Medici, attributed to Ludovico Cardi “il Cigoli”; Luigi Koelliker Collection, Milan.
- The Alchemical Laboratory of Grand Duke Francesco dei Medici by Giovanni Stradano; Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
- Embroidery, gold thread on silk; early seventeenth century, probably Florentine; Museo Pecci, Prato.
- detail from ASF MdP 5150, f. 32 verso.
- detail from ASF MdP 5150, f. 32 verso.
- detail of annotation from Joseph Abraham Gikatilla’s Portae Lucis; Biblioteca Marucelliana, Florence.
- detail from ASF MdP 5150, f.205 recto.
- detail from ASF MdP 5150, f.205 recto.
- detail from ASF MdP 5150, f.205 recto.
- Grand Duchess Maria Maddalena von Habsburg and Grand Duke Cosimo II dei Medici with their son Grand Duke Ferdinando II dei Medici, by Justus Suttermans, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
- Marriage of  Ferdinando I and Christine de Lorraine (etching) by Jacques Callot.
- The Festa dell’Arno of 1619 (etching) by Jacques Callot.
- Detail from ASF Otto di Guardia e Balìa 252, f.39 recto.
- Detail from ASF Otto di Guardia e Balìa 252, f.39 recto.
- ASF Otto di Guardia e Balìa 252, f.39 recto.
- The Mercato Vecchio in Florence (fresco) by Giovanni Stradano; Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

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