JHOM - Bookshelf - Italian Genizah

by Prof. Mauro Perani
Part 1:  The discovery

As part of its larger program, Culture, History & Art in Emilia Romagna,[1] the Center for Jewish History ((NYC) sponsored a lecture on October 13, 2004 on the recently discovered Italian Genizah.

Professor of Jewish History Mauro Perani from the University of Bologna shared the recent discovery in Italy of thousands of parchment folia and bifolia dismembered from Hebrew manuscripts that were reused as bookbindings in the 16th and 17th century. These manuscripts came from Italy as well as from Ashkenazi and Sephardi lands. The discovery of these fragments has aroused growing interest and many questions.

After the discovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 19th century, scholars hoped to discover a similar European Genizah. Given, however, the humid European climate and the widespread Jewish custom of burying old manuscripts in the moist earth of cemeteries, this hope seemed utopian; most of the thousands of Hebrew manuscripts belonging to the Jews who had settled in European countries had decomposed over the years.

By a twist of fate, the scholars’ dream of discovering a European Genizah came true in the last two decades. This was thanks to the re-employment of parchment Hebrew manuscripts and to the Inquisitorial confiscations of Hebrew books carried out in the Counter Reformation period.

It appears that the phenomenon of reusing manuscript materials was well known during the entire period of the Middle Ages. A material such as parchment was commonly re-employed for re-writing (after washing the ink of the pre-existing text) or for more humble purposes such as book binding, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thousands of Italian, Greek and liturgical manuscripts underwent this treatment, and Hebrew manuscripts were not exempt.

The 1970s discovery that thousands of medieval Hebrew manuscripts had made their way into the bindings of volumes in Italian Archives and Libraries was of great interest to Italian and Israeli scholars and scientists. In July 1981 the late Professor Joseph Sermoneta zikrono li-vrakah, promoted in Italy a “project for the research, cataloguing, restoration and photographing of medieval Hebrew manuscript fragments found in the bindings of volumes in Italian Archives and Libraries.”

And so we set out, in the early 1980s, to systematically examine a large part of the State Archives, of library collections and other private and ecclesiastical archives, discovering thousands of findings, far beyond our most optimistic expectations. Apparently, while this phenomenon had been present in other European countries, it was more widespread in Italy, as many Jews had immigrated here from other European regions as a result of persecution or expulsion in the 14th and 15th centuries, carrying their manuscripts with them.

Some 1,700 Jewish parchment fragments have been found to date in all the other European countries: about 700 in Germany, 500 in Austria, 170 in Hungary and about 150 in Spain. In Italy at the present state of research – which is far from conclusive – over 8,000 fragments have been discovered. Of this large number 4,800 have been found by this writer in Emilia Romagna alone; others have been found in Lombardy, Latium, the Marches, Tuscany, Sicily, Umbria, Venice, Piedmont, Abruzzi e Molise and Campania.The phenomenon seems to be most common the central and northern ones.

It is important to point out that when we refer now to “fragments from the Italian Genizah, we are speaking almost always, of whole folios or bifolios; in only a small number of cases are they smaller fragments or strips of cutted pages. Moreover, as all of these “fragments” are from parchment folia – paper manuscripts not suitable to be re-employed as covers, they were used to make cardboard book bindings.

Part 1:  The discovery  |  Part 2:   Background information  |  
Part 3:  Research methodology  |  Part 4:  Content of findings


[1] Presented by Centro Culturale Primo Levi, the Italian Cultural
Institute, University of Bologna, and the Italian Association for
Jewish Studies.



The Center for Jewish History and the Centro Culturale Primo Levi in collaboration with the Municipality of Bologna present an evening dedicated to Jewish life, history, art, and cuisine of Emilia Romagna.

This program, which begins Wednesday, October 13 at 6:00 pm, highlights the international interests of the Center for Jewish History and its ability to reach out to scholarly organizations and the Jewish community outside the United States.



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