The Familiarity of Strangers:
The Sephardic Diaspora, Livorno, and Cross-Cultural Trade in the Early Modern Period

By Francesca Trivellato

Newhaven. Yale University Press, 2009. 470 pp.

Reviewed by Judith Roumani

This work, which has grown out of a Ph.D. dissertation completed for Brown University in 2004, affords both scholar and non-scholar alike a fascinating glimpse into the lives of Sephardic traders, the descendants of exiles from Iberia, in the Tuscan port city of Livorno, one of the capitals of the Western Sephardic diaspora. The original focus has been broadened conceptually and chronologically, so that the account of the activities of Sephardic merchants and their families based in Livorno from the 1590s extends over the seventeenth , eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A long decline began from about 1715, with the rise of Marseilles as a competing port, but Livorno still enjoyed considerable continuing prestige for another two hundred years. Its synagogue (damaged in the Second World War and demolished soon after) was the second largest Sephardic synagogue in Europe and one of the most beautiful, and even today Livorno, its port a destination on the Mediterranean cruise circuit affording access to Pisa and Florence, has a small Sephardic community well aware of its traditions. In their heyday, the Sephardic traders of Livorno, as the author tells us, connected the Mediterranean with the Atlantic, established a cross-cultural network with Catholics in Portugal and Hindus in India, bartering Mediterranean coral for Indian diamonds. Their story is thus, as Trivellato tells us, “a global history on a small scale” (p. 7). In masterly fashion, she shows trading diasporas linked in networks that include strange bedfellows, such as Sephardim from Livorno and Brahmins in Goa.

The focus on history on a small scale leads the author to bring our attention to two families who formed a business partnership, the Ergas and Silvera families. They operated together over about forty years during the early eighteenth century, Livorno’s most active trading period, until their bankruptcy. The Jewish community of Livorno numbered 3,486 by 1738, and Jews composed between 8% and 15% of the total population. They were not obliged to live in a ghetto. Livorno Jews had rights equal to those of Tuscan citizens and the right to run their own judicial system, a privilege that no other foreign group enjoyed.

The Ergas and Silvera families were highly successful for many years because they combined both a trading diaspora composed of family members and fellow Sephardim living in far-flung cities such as Aleppo, Amsterdam and London, and a trading network with trusted non-Jewish business associates, in Lisbon, Goa or Madras. The triangle was thus more like a many-pointed star, founded on a basis of reciprocity and trust. It is amazing that such a complex system could be maintained over many years on such a fragile and risky foundation.

At their height, these two families, linked by marriage as well as by their joint business ventures, enjoyed the highest social prestige. They imitated Christian customs by possessing coats of arms, carriages, and private boxes at the theater.

Extended family relations were conducted on the basis of “generalized reciprocity” or mutual favors, kinship ties being considered the best assurance for good business conduct. Trust among Jewish merchants was maintained by highly effective mechanisms of “reputation control.” Non-Jews played a part as commissioners or agents, and risk could be minimized there also by reputation control. Ergas and Silvera entrusted their valuable cargoes to Christians in Lisbon and bartered with Brahmins in Goa. Despite the loss of records over the years and destruction of archives, we fortunately have over 13,000 letters written by the partnership over forty-two years, in the form of copies they kept of their outgoing letters. The author analyses their language (often an amalgam of Portuguese, Spanish, and Tuscan Italian, with Hebrew and other languages thrown in) and the etiquette of business letter-writing. Despite their care, the delicate enterprise foundered due to one ill-advised transaction: Ergas and Silvera’s commitment to invest in and sell an enormous diamond from Madras, in collaboration with a Persian Jew by the name of Menasseh. This Menasseh brought it to Europe for them but relations quickly soured. Though one of the largest diamonds in the world and praised as one of the most beautiful (even then reviews could be untrustworthy), in a setting of silver, it proved impossible to sell. It must have had some flaw that Ergas and Silvera never would admit to.

Menasseh, together with their agent, traveled the European capitals, especially Paris, Amsterdam, London and Prague, racking up an enormous expenses account, notably in Paris. Ergas and Silvera felt that Menasseh was not really interested in selling the diamond at all. Though there seemed to be strong possibilities in London, it received no bids at auction. While the “Big Diamond” must have acquired a bad name, their creditors were pressing in on them and they moved with their families to the countryside of Tuscany.

Bankruptcy eventually struck, and our two merchants likewise sued Menasseh for breach of promise; in this phase, too there was no satisfaction to be had, as various courts found in favor of one or the other side. What appeared to be a resolution was soon overturned by another Jewish or secular court decision, in one of those nightmarish scenarios of endless litigation that eventually ruins both sides.

An important point is that the wives of Ergas and Silvera decisively defended their dowries (large sums they had brought to the business enterprise upon marriage) and successfully kept these funds out of reach of their husbands’ creditors, by arguing that in case of divorce the dowry monies had to be returned to the wives, and therefore did not really belong to the husbands. They won this case in a Tuscan court in Pisa.

Ergas and Silvera ended up impoverished, henceforth engaging in only small business transactions, and the families slipped into oblivion over the next century, coinciding with the decline of Livorno as local coral resources were depleted, and the Jewish community lost its special privileges with emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century.

Subsequently, as Livorno lost its importance as a port, it gained in importance by becoming a publishing center for Sephardic communities in the various languages used by Sephardim, a center of Jewish learning and Kabbalah, and for a time the seat of the Collegio Rabbinico for all of Italy.

One hopes that this fascinating and abundantly documented history, through its chosen method of micro analysis, eschewing grand narratives, will bring the early life of the Sephardim of Livorno, with their far-reaching diaspora connections and admirable risk-taking spirit, to the knowledge and appreciation of a wide readership.

Judith Roumani is the editor of Sephardic Horizons

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800