Israeli study sheds light on organised gang rape of Jewish slaves in 17th-century Italy

May 20, 2022 by JNS
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A Tel Aviv University historian has unearthed evidence of the organised gang rape of Jewish slave women and girls in 17th-century Italy.

Italian Harbor with Ships and Slave Market, Nicolaes Berchem, oil on canvas, circa 1655. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

According to Professor Tamar Herzig’s research, the rape was organised by Dr Bernardetto Buonromei, “a high-ranking state official at Livorno’s slave prison, who was also able to silence any complaints and effectively erase the memory of the victims’ suffering,” the university said in a statement.

Buonromei, who served as Livorno’s first mayor before his appointment at the slave prison, is still honoured today as one of the city’s founding fathers. A street in Livorno is named after him, and a figure commemorating him is paraded in the annual processions celebrating Livorno’s elevation to the status of a city.

The study was published in the prestigious journal American Historical Review.

“In the summer of 1610 Buonromei ordered the assignment of a group of enslaved female Jews, newly arrived from North Africa to the men’s quarters in the slave prison, contrary to the customary separation of women and men in different sections. This order resulted in the multiple-perpetrator raping of the enslaved Jews by Muslim slaves, and Christian forced labourers. One report notes that one of the victims lost her mind and attempted to throw her young [granddaughter] out of the prison’s window and commit suicide,” according to the statement.

At the time, representatives of Livorno’s influential Jewish community sent protests decrying the unprecedented sexual abuse to the Tuscan authorities, “but all complaints and testimonies were soon silenced with the help of the grand duke of Tuscany, who backed Dr Buonromei,” the research found.

“The grand duke accepted the doctor’s claims that his actions had been aimed at increasing the Tuscan state’s profits from the slave trade by ensuring the future payment of high ransom fees for enslaved foreign Jews by the local Jewish community in Livorno. Buonromei kept his job as the physician in charge of the slave prison, and when he died a few years later the grand duke paid for his tombstone at Livorno’s main church,” it said.

The statement noted that Livorno’s Jewish community in the 17th century was one of the wealthiest and most influential Italian Jewish communities and that its relationship with the rulers of the Tuscan state was usually strong.

“Professor Herzig found that the rulers of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany employed the gang-rape incident as a grand spectacle of violence, using it to exert pressure on the Jewish community so that they would agree to pay exorbitant ransom fees for Jews captured in North Africa and forcefully transported to Livorno,” said the university.


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