- Western and central Europe had had Jewish residents since Roman times, and even though anti-Jewish prejudice had led to repeated instances of mob violence, legal discrimination, and pressure for conversion, those communities never entirely disappeared over any broad area and for any extended time, with the exception of Spain and Portugal after the expulsion of all unconverted Jews in 1492 and 1496 respectively. Wherever they lived, Jews constituted separate communities that in the eyes of the law were resident aliens theoretically under the protection of the ruler.Jews were excluded from occupations that required membership in guilds (most of which had a religious element) and also in most regions from ownership of agricultural land. Hence the only occupations open to them were marginal ones, including mercantile activity and moneylending, since trade was regarded as ethically questionable and canon law forbade Christians to lend money at interest. Wealthy Jewish merchants with good business connections and liquid assets were useful to rulers, who relied on them for loans and financial services and hence granted them some protection while in many cases also exploiting the threat of popular violence to extort gifts and favorable terms on loans. Local Jewish communities generally regulated their own religious and family matters.The larger communities often contained learned scholars, usually specialists in biblical interpretation, philosophy, medicine, and such occult arts as astrology and magic. From the second half of the 15th century, beginning in Italy, some Christian humanists became interested in Hebrew language and in several fields of Jewish learning. Prominent examples were Giovanni Pico della Mirandola in Italy and Johann Reuchlin in Germany. In return, Jewish scholars like Yohanan Alemanno of Florence, who had assisted Pico's study of Jewish learning, became interested in the revived Platonism found in the translations and original treatises of Marsilio Ficino. Another prominent Jewish scholar, exiled from Portugal, was Leone Ebreo, whose Dialoghi d'amore /Dialogues on Love explored the Platonic idea of love and tried to relate Renaissance Neoplatonic thought to the Jewish mystical writings known as Cabala.As the large Jewish populations of Spain and Portugal were dismantled by persecution, conversion, and exile, Italy became the principal center of Jewish life in western and central Europe. Rome in particular had a large and highly cultivated Jewish population since the popes, although imposing many limitations, rejected a policy of forced conversion. At Venice, Rome, and other places Jews were permitted to live only in an officially defined ghetto. The pressures of living separate from the rest of society and of constantly facing the threat of having their privileges further restricted may explain the intense mystical developments and the many Messianic prophecies that arose within Jewish communities, especially from the late 16th century.
Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. Charles G. Nauert. 2004.