Indians and Jews in Italy

Playing Indian in Rome

Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s iconic public spaces, was dressed down for Christmas.  The Piazza’s three renaissance era fountains, two designed by the incomparable sculptor Bernini, were overwhelmed by street vendors selling candy, t-shirts, fried dough and other carnival junk.  Unless you stared hard and myopically at Bernini’s twisting figures, you might think you were in Atlantic City rather than the Eternal one. But the most troubling site on Piazza Navona was the three Italian guys dressed up as Lakota (Sioux) Indians, one of them engaged in an ersatz smudging ceremony.

Remembering Jews in Siena

A few days earlier, on Christmas day, a young Italian Jewish woman gave a tour of Siena’s only synagogue, an unobtrusive building tucked behind the famous Piazza del Campo. As part of the tour, the young woman gave a brief lecture on the history of Jews in Siena.  Jews founded a community in Siena in the thirteenth century and established themselves as money lenders.  In 1348, Jews were blamed for the plague and forced to live outside the city center. Siena’s treatment of its Jewish population varied throughout the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, with some moments of relative freedom and some of greater restriction.  In the 1550’s and 60’s, Cosimo di Medici again clamped down on Siena’s Jews. Desirous of gaining favor with the Church, Duke Cosimo established the Jewish ghetto, required Jews to wear yellow caps and scarves, pay special taxes, and banned them from most professions. (Whatever else he was, Hitler was not original on this score.) Conditions gradually relaxed again for Jews throughout the eighteenth century, and Napoleon granted Jewish people full emancipation in the 1790’s when Tuscany was part of the French Empire. Yet in June, 1799, a group of anti-semitic fanatics ransacked the ghetto and killed thirteen Jews on the Piazza del Campo. Legally, Jews remained equal, but Siena’s Jewish community has never recovered. From its height of roughly 500 in the 1500s, today no more than 100 Jews live in Siena permanently.

plaque outside the Siena Synagogue commemorating the 13 Jews killed in 1799

Fake Indians in Rome; remembrances of anti-semitism in Siena.  What links these events other than proximity in space and time? Both reveal the endurance of stereotypes and their relationship to attempts to erase and eradicate, and each is a reminder of the distinct forms that racial and ethnic subordination take. Disappearing and helpless Indians. Pestilent and reviled Jews. So much can and does change, but the gravitational pull of history’s racial and ethnic subordinations is strong indeed. Remembering the real stories, and telling them over and over again, is some small part of resisting.

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