Jun 30, 2022
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Women had few rights and little protection in most of the world four centuries ago, and Jewish girls and women had even less. Subjugated by a Christian prison doctor in the port city of Livorno, Italy in 1610, a group of 14 enslaved Jewish women who were brought against their will from Morocco endured gang rape and even suicide – and the prison doctor responsible who later became the city’s first mayor who later was memorialized by statues and a city street named for him.  

Historian Prof. Tamar Herzig, vice dean for research at the Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University (TAU) has exposed previously unknown evidence of such a shocking event on the western coast of Tuscany at the beginning of the 17th century. The rape was organized by Dr. Bernardetto Buonromei, a high-ranking Christian state official at Livorno’s slave prison, who was able to silence any complaints and effectively erase the memory of the victims’ suffering. 

The first slave prison constructed in continental Europe, it would remain the largest and most active one in the Italian peninsula throughout the early modern era. 

A series of food shortages and plague outbreaks devastated Morocco at the turn of the 17th century. In Tétouan, conditions deteriorated in mid-1610 after the city’s governor rebelled against Morocco’s sultan, Muley al-Shaykh. The revolt, which exacerbated the economic crisis, convinced some impoverished Jewish families to depart for Tunis, where the political situation was more stable.  

On August 17, the Knights of St. Stephen seized the vessel carrying 14 Tétouanese Jews and 59 Muslims. 


According to the documents studied by Herzig, 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. This was 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 Christian forced laborers and Muslim slaves.  One report notes that one of the victims lost her sanity and tried to throw her young daughters out of the prison’s window and commit suicide.

Photo of Prof. Tamar Herzig, credit to Noga Shahar of Tel Aviv University

Representatives of Livorno’s influential Jewish community sent protests denouncing the unprecedented sexual abuse of their enslaved fellow Jews to the Tuscan authorities, but all complaints and testimonies were soon silenced with the help of the grand duke of Tuscany, who supported Buonromei. The grand duke accepted the doctor’s claims that he intended to increase the Tuscan state’s profits from the slave trade by ensuring the future payment of high ransom fees for enslaved foreign Jews by Livorno’s local Jewish community. 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.

Herzig’s monumental study, entitled “Slavery and Interethnic Sexual Violence: A Multiple Perpetrator Rape in Seventeenth-Century Livorno,” was published in the prestigious journal American Historical Review with 175 references backing up her claim. She hopes that exposure of her findings in the Italian media will lead to a change in the commemoration of Buonromei, a man who made his fortune from the slave trade and was personally responsible for the horrendous abuse of enslaved Jewish women and girls.

Buonromei, who had served as the city’s first mayor before his appointment at the slave prison, is still honored 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. 


Most studies on slavery in 17th-century Italy focused mainly on male galley slaves who supposedly suffered from harsher treatment than enslaved women. Scholarship has also focused on rivalry between Christians and Muslims during this period as the main motivation for the respective groups’ engagement in enslaving one another. But so far, very little research has addressed the place of Jews as victims of the slave trade in Italy at that time. Herzig’s study is the first to reveal the attitude of representatives of the Italian regime toward Jewish women from North Africa, captured by Italian forces and brought to Italian ports as slaves – an attitude that significantly impacted the relations between local Jews and Christian in Italian cities.


Historical studies of slavery have demonstrated that enslavement, understood as the masters’ ownership of slaves’ bodies, put both female and male slaves in danger of sexual abuse,” wrote Herzog, who last year received an award from the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies  for her contribution to the study of premodern history and especially of the Italian Renaissance. “Nonetheless, the ensuing risks of pregnancy and childbirth, as well as perceptions of honor that depended on women’s sexual reputation, have led historians to designate rape as a distinguishing feature of the female slave experience.” 


Slaveholders across the globe resorted to sexual coercion for their own gratification and also as a means of increasing the gains elicited from the expropriation of slaves’ bodies. The historically specific manifestations of bondwomen’s sexual abuse, however, changed in tandem with variations in the ideological justification and political economy of slavery in different societies.


Female household slavery ceased to be the dominant form of bondage in the Italian peninsula in the 16th century, following the decline of the Black Sea trade and the rise of male galley slavery, noted the TAU historian. After the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Italian states assumed important roles in slave-hunting, which became a major instrument in the military and political conflict between Christianity and Islam in the Mediterranean. 


An analysis of the violent attack on Jewish slaves in Livorno also draws attention to a minority group that has been largely neglected by historians of early modern slavery, Herzig wrote. “Although enslavement was justified as a key element in the confrontation between Catholic and Muslim powers in the Mediterranean, anyone captured on board enemy vessels or during coastal raids could be enslaved, including members of minority religious groups.


Uncovering the female and Jewish aspects of the Italian slave trade is “very important,” commented Herzig, “because these topics have largely been neglected in historical scholarship on the 16th and 17th centuries. I hope that by raising awareness about the phenomenon of Jewish women’s enslavement, my research will lead to a reconsideration of the current commemoration of slavers such as Bernardetto Buonromei, thereby attaining some historical justice for the victims.”