Anna and Tranquillo

by Kenneth Stow, Yale, £20

In May 1749 Anna del Monte, a young Jewish woman, was escorted by papal police to the Roman House of Converts. Over 13 days, vigorous attempts to convert her to Christianity proved futile and Anna was allowed to return home.

At this period, an average of 10 Jewish people every year were exposed to the methods of the Casa: a versatile mix of preaching and instruction, cajolement and threat. A strong majority of those who entered the House of Converts went on to be baptised, so Anna’s story was unusual; and she also stands out because of the intimate account she wrote of her experiences. It was only circulated decades later, during the 1790s, by Anna’s brother, Tranquillo, as part of his campaign to expand Jewish rights in the Papal States. With new freedoms arriving for Jews in post-revolutionary France and America, Tranquillo articulated a legitimate “animus against the absurdity of Roman Jewish life at the end of the 18th century”.

Stow regards the diary as a powerful indictment of “the ills of the confessional state at its worst”. Interest in converting Jewish people in Rome had ebbed and flowed over the centuries, but by 1749 it had entered one of its more obsessional phases. For Stow, a papacy buffeted by the storms of intellectual and cultural change and criticism was eager to secure victories.

Stow’s fascinating slice of microhistory is placed into rich and detailed context. We learn a great deal about life in Rome’s Jewish ghetto and the liminal cultural status of the convert. Complex legal debates about Jewish rights are also explored. In the end, though, it is Anna who will live in the memory. Tranquillo wrote of a joyful homecoming and sought to give his version of Anna’s story a happy ending. Stow suggests that Anna was likely to have been “permanently scarred” by her experiences, debilitated by the physical and mental toll, always worrying if the authorities would come calling again. As best as we can tell, they did not.

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