Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy: Umberto (Moshe David) Cassuto

From Firenze University Press: Intellectuals Displaced from Fascist Italy

Patrizia Guarnieri, University of Florence

One of the pre-eminent Hebrew scholars of his day, Umberto Cassuto was Chief Rabbi of Florence until 1925. He was dismissed from his professorship at the Università di Roma, where he had replaced Giorgio Levi Della Vida, one of 12 university academics who refused to swear the Oath of Allegiance to the fascist regime.

Cassuto was, in turn, replaced by Eugenio Maria Zolli (Israel Zoller), Chief Rabbi of Rome until 1945 when he converted to Catholicism. Cassuto went on to teach Biblical Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, despite significant difficulties (he was initially only given a short-term post, on half the normal salary). He remained in Jerusalem, as did most of his family, severely affected by the persecution of those years.

Family and education Born in Florence, on 16th September 1883, into a traditionalist Jewish family, Umberto’s parents were Gustavo Cassuto (1853–1931) and Ernesta Galletti (1859–1941). From the age of 6, Umberto attended the Istituto Rabbinico (later known as the Collegio Rabbinico Italiano), where his teachers were Samuel Hirsch Margulies and Hirsch Peres Chajes. He gained his first rabbinic title, Maskil, in 1901, and was made Chakham ha-Shalem in 1909 .

During these years he also attended and finished high school at the R. Liceo Michelangiolo, going on to graduate in 1908 from the Istituto di Studi Superiori Pratici e di Perfezionamento di Firenze (later to become the Università di Firenze), specialising in Semitic Languages and qualifying as a university professor of Hebrew . At the age of 24, on 23rd June 1907, he married Bice Corcos, from Leghorn. They went on to have four children between 1908 and 1914: first Milka, then Nathan — the longed-for son — and finally Lea and Hulda. The family moved first into Via Giambattista Vico 4 and later into Via Cairoli.

Rejected for military service by the local army recruitment offices and then exempted from military service because he was a religious minister of the third category, he acted as secretary to the Jewish community of Florence from 1906 to 1922. Following the death of Rabbi Samuel Hirsch Margulies (1858–1922) — which occurred while assistant Rabbi Elia Samuele Artom (Cassuto’s brother-in-law) was in Tripoli and Alexandria — Cassuto was appointed Chief Rabbi of Florence and director of the rabbinical seminary, roles he carried out from July 1922 to June 1925.

An academic career first and foremost In May 1924, the university in Florence approved the proposal to appoint Cassuto directly as a professor with full tenure, following the retirement of Francesco Scerbo (1849–1927), ordained as a priest in 1873, and professor of Hebrew Literature since 1903. The Consiglio Supremo della Pubblica Istruzione, however, expressed a «parere contrario alla nomina», opposing Cassuto’s appointment without a competitive selection process, citing insufficient evidence of clear renown.

As a result, the University had to trigger a formal competitive selection process on 25th November 1924, whilst in the meantime giving Cassuto his first annual academic teaching contract. Having heard the assessment given by Paolo Emilio Pavolini (1864–1942), professor of Sanskrit and a known fascist (like his son Alessandro), the University excluded one of the three candidates for the post, Carlo Bernheimer, who appealed against the decision, but to no avail. Thus, the choice remained between Cassuto (the internal candidate) and Salvatore Minocchi (a former priest and modernist, a pupil of David Castelli), who had held the same teaching post in Florence for 25 years: «two completely different types of scholar», each with much to recommend them. The academic selection panel, which included the senior professors Ignazio Guidi and Giorgio Levi Della Vida, along with Alberto Vaccari (a Jesuit professor of the same subject), deliberated that Cassuto should come top of the selection process. Cassuto resigned from his post as Chief Rabbi. In November 1927, after three years during which Cassuto had been without a permanent contract and his entire salary had been paid for by the Università di Firenze, rather than the education ministry, the Facoltà di Lettere, presided over by Pavolini, initiated the process to make Cassuto’s post as professor of Hebrew Language and Literature permanent. In this regard, the minister sought a favourable opinion from the same selection panel in February 1928. In relation to his academic career, Cassuto owed much to Levi Della Vida, as proved by the numerous letters he wrote to him, all concerning the job application process and the other members of the selection panel.

Levi Della Vida’s anti-fascist leanings were already well known at the time and when, in 1931, all university lecturers were being forced to swear an Oath of Allegiance to fascism, Levi Della Vida was one of the twelve academics in the whole of Italy who refused to do so. On 19th November of that year he informed the rector of the university in Rome of his decision, taken «whatever the consequences», even though he realised these would be by no means insignificant for himself and his family, and despite not having yet worked for the necessary minimum number of years in his academic post to retire with a pension.

On 1st January 1932 he was expelled from his post at the Università di Roma. It had already been rumoured that Cassuto would be the one to replace him. Indeed, in December 1931, the chairman of the Consorzio delle Comunità Israelitiche, concerned for the future of the Collegio Rabbinico in Florence, asked Cassuto for clarification. Cassuto denied the rumours and stated that the chair was to go to Professor Giuseppe Furlani. Whether Furlani had been informally consulted and had refused the post, we do not know; nearly a year later, on 15th October 1932, Cassuto’s appointment as professor of Hebrew and Comparative Semitic Linguistics was approved by a majority decision of the members of the faculty committee at the university in Rome. He accepted immediately and «willingly». The ministerial decree authorising his transfer, dated 25th October 1932, stated Cassuto’s acceptance. He took up his post in Rome on 1st November 193217, and expressed his regret to his «good, dear friend» Levi Della Vida; following this their correspondence ceased.

Read Full Text:



The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
University of Florence

The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy