Italy: Project launched to digitally reconstruct historic Florence Ghetto

Detail of a 1584 map of Florence by Stefano Buonsignori, showing the ghetto

Detail of a 1584 map of Florence by Stefano Buonsignori, showing the ghetto, with its well and arched gate


The Medici Archive Project (MAP) has recently launched a major, multidisciplinary project to virtually “reconstruct the architectural and demographic-economic features of the ghetto of Florence, one of the oldest ghettos of Europe.”

The MAP is a research institute whose work is centered on the millions of documents included in the Medici Granducal Archival Collection in Florence. The Ghetto Mapping project falls within its Eugene Grant Research Program on Jewish History and Culture in Early Modern Europe, established in 2013.

The Florence Ghetto, the third-oldest in Europe, was established in 1570 by Cosimo I de’ Medici, the first Grand Duke of Tuscany and stood intact until the late 19th century. The Mapping Project description on its web site states that:

While officially erected to gather all the Jews of the Grand Duchy and conform it to the principles of Counter-Reform Church, the ghetto of Florence was in fact the product of a very well planned private real estate investment of the Medici family. As explicitly affirmed by the five magistrates commission whom Cosimo I had appointed to conduct a detailed survey of all the Jewish population in Tuscany as a preliminary phase of the construction of the ghetto, confining the Jews in a small and overcrowded area, and banning them from any real productive activity, would have soon forced its residents to ask for a number of services that the state could provide upon payment of lavish fees. The ghetto of Florence, in sum up, was not only the expression and result of a widespread and substantially omnipresent anti-Jewish feeling but also the produce of a major, very rewarding investment plan.

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

Jews were emancipated and granted full rights of citizenship in 1861, and the city’s current synagogue, an imposing, Moorish-style domed building, was dedicated in 1882 in another neighborhood.

The Ghetto was razed in1888 as a part of major urban renewal project that transformed and modernized parts of the city center: the area is now occupied by the vast Piazza della Repubblica.

According to the description, the Mapping Project’s first phase

is to create a virtual model of the ghetto by elaborating and combining together into a 3D model architectural information we obtained from several detailed and comparative surveys of the ghetto prepared for the Medici, together with archival documents such as paintings, watercolors, archaeological surveys from other Florentine collections. As one of the first examples of planned, semi-public housing project in modern Europe, the ghetto is of primary importance for architects, urban planners and sociologists working on modern Europe.

The second phase focuses on Ghetto economies, as “the ghetto was part of the grand ducal private properties and as such the entire area, its inhabitants and anything contained or happening in it was carefully described and recorded.”

The Medici’s administration produced over a period of circa 300 years (approx. 1588-1888) hundreds volumes on the ghetto, providing us with an unprecedented quantity of economic and financial information, ranging from the cost of house and shop rents to minor and major investments done by its inhabitants or by external Christian fellows. Describing the economic features of the ghetto means answering a crucial question in the study of early-modern Italian and European Jewry: how profitable – or not – was the ghettoization of the Jews?

The third phase will focus on Demography and history. The Medici documents

offer what seems to be one of the richest, most exhaustive and chronologically most extended set of Jewish demographic data. These will allow us not only to know precisely how many Jews lived in the ghetto in a specific moment of its centennial history but also to trace back family ties and outline genealogical branching.


Click here for the project’s web site, to see further details and illustrations

There are presentations of this project:  March 23 in Florence and April 6 in New York.




One thought on “Italy: Project launched to digitally reconstruct historic Florence Ghetto

  1. Bit by bit broadening historical perspective,especially the costs-benefits or somewhat bitter “the ghetto economics “,whatsoever the “mosaics” beginning to radiate by all kind of colors.
    my gratefulness for such kind of work,to revive the past!

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