Sunday, 20 November 2011


On 10 June 1593 Jews received rights in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In showing the Jews more respect than their rival states, the Medici attracted Jewish settlement and commerce to the city of Livorno (then called Leghorn in English). Tuscany quickly became a player in the East-West Mediterranean trade that had formerly been dominated by Genoa and Venice. Regardless of who dominated the seas – Dutch, French or English – the trade still flowed.

I used to think that the decline of this trade was a consequence of all the wars. The Mediterranean was no longer safe for shipping. I begin to wonder if the absolute and relative economic decline of the Ottoman Empire was the real cause. Once, spices and other exotic items came from the eastern Mediterranean. By the 18th Century there were trade routes that circumvented the Ottoman Empire. Perhaps the defeat at Vienna in 1683 marked the moment at which the Turks went into decline. Economic growth in Europe and new markets in the Americas and Asia meant that the Turkish trade became a backwater. For Jews, who operated as middlemen in this trade, the options were to accept this change in circumstances or leave. The Jews of Livorno lived by this trade. Certainly a number of Livornese Jews moved to Amsterdam and London in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. Others seem to have moved to Arab ports such as Alexandria or Tunis, perhaps to use their skills in the local market.

Maybe the last gasp of Livorno as a major port was the Napoleonic Wars. I have seen that Tunis was France’s main market in Africa, and it seems likely that (notwithstanding the British naval blockade) much of this trade passed through Livorno.

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was overrun by the French revolutionary armies in 1799. It was then abolished. Between 1801 and 1807, Livorno was part of the short-lived Kingdom of Etruria, a French client-state. That state was then abolished, and territory became part of metropolitan France. Livorno was made capital of the new département of Méditerranée which, incidentally, included the island of Elba to which Napoleon was exiled in 1814.

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was reconstituted after Napoleon’s defeat. The Government was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1859. Livorno was briefly part of the short-lived United Provinces of Central Italy, but voted for annexation by Piedmont-Sardinia in 1860. Italy was unified around Piedmont-Sardinia. With Italian unification, Livorno became just one of many Italian ports.

The image of Livorno above is somewhat romanticised, but note the two men in the right foreground. One merchant is in European dress and the other oriental.

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