Historically, Italian Jews were divided into four groups: the Jews of the 'Italian rite', who have resided in Italy since Roman times; Sephardic Jews, including the Levantine Jews that arrived in Italy from Spain in 1492, from Portugal in 1497, and from the Kingdom of Naples in 1533; Ashkenazi Jews, who live primarily in the northern part of the Italy; and the Piedmontese Jews from Asti, Fossano and Moncalvo who were expelled from France during the Middle Ages. The latter group’s liturgy is similar to that of the Ashkenazim, but contains some distinctive usages descended from the French Jews of the time of Rashi, particularly in their liturgy for the Holy Days.
Today, Italian Jewry also includes Jews of San Nicandro Garganico in Apulia; Persian Jews from Iran, most of whom live in Rome and Milan, and Jews from Libya, who mostly reside in the capital.
Throughout history, these communities often remained separate: a given city often had an “Italian synagogue” and a “Spanish synagogue,” as well as, on occasion, a “German synagogue.” In many cases these synagogues have since amalgamated, although a synagogue often offers services of more than one rite.
Italian Jews can be traced back as far back as the second century before the Common Era, and tombstones and dedicatory inscriptions marking their presence during this period still survive today. At that time, Jews mostly lived in the far south of Italy, with a branch community in Rome, and were generally Greek-speaking.
Ashkenazi Jews have lived in northern Italy since at least the late Middle Ages. In Venice, they formed the oldest Jewish community, predating both the Sephardic and the Italian congregations. Following the invention of printing, Venice became a major publishing center for Hebrew and Yiddish books for Jews across Europe.
The Spanish Synagogue of Venice was originally regarded as the "mother synagogue" of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community world-wide. It was among the earliest to be built, and the first prayer book was published there. Later communities, such as Amsterdam, followed its lead on questions of ritual. With the decline in the importance of Venice in the 18th century, the leading role passed to the Jewish community of Leghorn (Livorno), which acted as a link between the Spanish and the Portuguese.
Italian Jews began to be discriminated against in the 16th century. In 1516, the Jews of Venice were forced to live in an enclosed area known as the “ghetto” which was locked at night. In 1555, Pope Paul IV, who had overseen the burning of the Talmud two years before, issued a decree similarly requiring the Jews of the Papal States, including Rome, to live in isolation from their Christian neighbors in ghettos. Pope Paul IV also decreed that Jews had to wear signs to distinguish them, which meant yellow hats for men and veils or shawls for women. Such Jewish ghettos existed for over three centuries thereafter until Pope Pius IV decided to ban Jews from all his dominions and expel them from all the Papal states except Rome and the port city of Ancona.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, many Italian Jews maintained a trading and residential presence in both Italy and the territories of the Ottoman Empire, and even those Italian Jews who settled permanently in the Ottoman Empire kept their Tuscan or Italian nationality. In the late 19th century, with the establishment of the new unified Italian state, Italy’s Jews obtained full equality.
Between the two World Wars, Libya was an Italian colony and, as in other north African countries, the colonial power found the local Jews useful as an educated élite. Following Libyan independence, and especially after the Six Day War in 1967, most Libyan Jews left either for Israel or for Italy. Today, most members of the "Sephardic" synagogues in Rome are in fact Libyan.
In 1986, Pope John Paul II visited the Great Synagogue in Rome, marking an important moment in the warming of relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community. On January 17, 2016, Pope Francis similarly visited the Great Synagogue after laying wreaths, at memorials, respectively, to Jews murdered in the Shoah, and to the memory of a two-year-old boy killed in a 1982 terrorist attack on the synagogue.
Italian Jews have long been fully integrated in Italian political and cultural life. Two Jews served as the country’s prime minister: Alessandro Fortis in 1905-1906, and Luigi Luzzatti in 1910-1911. Ernesto Nathan was mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913. More recently, Emanuele Fiano, a former director of the UCEI and past president of the Milan Jewish community, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Rita Levi-Montalcini was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Prominent Italian Jewish writers include Carlo Levi, author of Christ Stopped at Eboli, and Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, author of If This Is a Man. Jews were even active in Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement, and a Jew, Guido Jung, who was eventually baptized in 1938, served as Minister of Finance from 1932 to 1935.