This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history. Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.
There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities. Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality. It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.
Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real. The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period. Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative. This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.
Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance. And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.
Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book. Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it. And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies. The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.
There’s a lot going on throughout the book. We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other. And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace. We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.
A brief summary from Wikipedia:
In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.
I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day. The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest. France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months. That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.
Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.