The Ottolenghi of Italy


Italy has a very special place in Jewish history because there have been Jews there since biblical times and it is the only place in the world, apart from Israel, where there has been uninterrupted Jewish presence since then.

In Roman times Jewish merchants and envoys settled in the Trastevere quarter on the north bank of the Tiber and in the ruins of ancient buildings Hebrew words and letters can still be found. After the destruction of the Second Temple and the defeat of the Jewish revolt by the Roman general Titus, son of the emperor Vespasian, the treasures of Israel were brought to Rome together with 10,000 slaves. The scene is depicted in the triumphal arch of Titus in the Foro Romano. The treasures including the seven-branched candelabra from the temple, went into the imperial coffers and were used to finance Vespasian’s great public works including the Colosseum, which was probably built by Hebrew slave workers. The Jews exiled from Israel and survivors of the Roman slaves dispersed throughout the Roman empire and many stayed in Italy. In the 14th and early 15th centuries many Jews sought refuge in the north Italy from persecution under the French and Germanic barons who fought and invaded each others territories in southern and central Europe.

From an area which is now known as Provence in the south of France, groups of Jews fleeing from pogroms around the year 1394 crossed the Alps and the Vale of Aosta on the Italian side, settling in an area in Piemonte, the province of Alessandria, between the cities of Turin and Milan.  They became known as the Ottolenghi, some say because they Italianized the name of the Germanic Baron von Ettlingen, from whose lands they had fled. Others, notably the eminent Jewish Italian historian Prof. Vittore Colorni opine that the name is a “toponym” derived from the nearby site of an ancient Roman city called Ottalengum. On that site today there are two tiny villages Odalengo Piccolo with a population of around 300 and the much bigger Odalengo Grande with a population of around 700 famous for its annual truffle harvest and festival.

Jews lived in relative peace and prospered in Italy which at that time was not a single nation but a country of independent principalities, duchies, cities, maritime states and the Papal States. The latter, which were the areas comprising a large region in central Italy, were ruled as a temporal domain by the popes since the year 755. In the Papal Bull of 1569 Jews were expelled from the Papal States and confined to ghettos in the major cities. Although they were allowed to continue their Jewish religious practices, they were restricted to two occupations from which they were permitted to eke their living in the outside world – money lending which was prohibited to Christians by the Gospels of the New Testament, and trading in second hand clothing and rags, which was meant to be demeaning.   

The Grand Duchy of Tuscany in north west Italy was ruled by the di Medici family from their capital city of Florence, with Pisa on the river Arno as their trading port. The river however became silted and when sea-going ships could no longer venture upstream as far as Pisa, the rulers chose Livorno, a tiny fishing village in unhealthy swamp land to be their new port. They dreamed of an international port and centre of commerce like the great maritime states of Venice and Genoa but there were no merchants and bankers with overseas connections in the Tuscan population, so di Medici brought in Portuguese Marranos and Conversos – crypto Jews and survivors of the Grand Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They had connections with family members who had established themselves in trading cities of northern Europe like Amsterdam and Antwerp and in the colonies of the north, south and central Americas of the “New World” and in what is today Indonesia. In Livorno, being the only city in Italy which did not have a Jewish ghetto, they were allowed complete religious freedom and they established Livorno as a community following the Portuguese rite. It largely remains so today, as the third major stream of Judaism in Italy with the original Jews from the Land of Israel who follow the Minhag Italki (Italian Rite) which they claim to represent the rite practiced in the temple in Jerusalem, and the Ashkenazim who came from central Europe in the late Middle Ages. The Jews of the Italian colonies in north Africa Tripolitania, Libya and Abyssinia have their own synagogues but they follow the oriental (Mizrachi) rite in some ways similar to that of the Portuguese “Western Sephardim”.

Our own Ottolenghi ancestors lived in Livorno and were previously thought to be descended from the Portuguese Jews who settled there. The Portuguese Jews of Livorno did not, however, relinquish their Portuguese names and adopt Italian ones, so it is possible that our ancestors migrated to Livorno from other regions of Italy in order to flee life in the ghettoes and adopted the Portuguese rite in Livorno, but our research has so far failed to uncover a familial connection to the “Italian Ottolenghi” even those still residing in Livorno.

The first “Italian” Ottolenghi had settled in Alessandria, centred around the town of Acqui Terme where the cemeteries are full of gravestones and mausoleums of Ottolenghi families, The town’s name derives from the hot springs favoured by the ancient Romans. The region has many beautiful synagogues dating from the 1500’s although many of the towns like Acqui, Asti, Cuneo, Moncalvo, Mondevi, and Casale Monferrato no longer have thriving Jewish communities. In Asti there is even a Palazzo Ottolenghi once owned by the family but now a public building housing educational and cultural events.

Palazzo Ottolenghi, Asti
The Synagogue, Asti.

In this section we will look at some of those Ottlenghi families and their famous sons through the ages. My favourite famous Italian Ottolenghi is Joseph Solomon Ottolenghe whose biography I researched for a number of years. He was born and grew up in Casal (today Casale Monferrato) and lived and studied in Livorno before leaving for London in 1732. A collateral descendant of Joseph Solomon is Giorgio Salvatore Ottolenghi, president of the Jewish Community of Casale Monferrato in the late 20th & early 21st centuries.

The modern Ottolenghi families are very conscious of their history and heritage, and the family tree of the descendants of Bellom Ottolenghi who was born in Acqui Terme in 1730, is now in its 8th and 9th generations. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting with many members of the contemporary generations and corresponding with others

By bryanell2020

Occasional genealogist and full-time Ottolangui family historian. 8th generation descendant of the 17th century Ottolenghi family of Livorno, born in London, graduated in Birmingham, lived around the United Kingdom, Israel, and in Rome, Italy. For a short while in Buenos Aires, and currently residing in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where I have been since 2005.

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