What is a diaspora and what are the ways in which the condition of diaspora can be lived out? From the Greek diaspora means the condition of being dispersed or scattered, of having to leave one’s homeland to settle somewhere else on account of coercion, duress and persecution, be it real or imagined. Members of a diaspora can constitute veritable communities in the places they choose to settle or can be silent individuals who, unbeknownst to the fellow dwellers of the places they live in, settled their because they could no longer remain in the place they hailed from.
Rome has often been evoked as the Patria Communis, the centre of the world which accepts everyone and the city in which everyone is welcome and everyone can fit it. For years I have worked on the life stories of the men and women from Spain and Portugal who settled in Rome at least in part as a result of their Jewish origins, a faith that their ancestors had forcibly converted from in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, known as conversos. Despite descending from people who embraced the Catholic faith and ostensibly living as Christians in the Iberian Peninsula they were singled out for exclusion due to the origins of their “tainted” blood or on account of suspicions of heresy due to their alleged continuous attachment to some form of Jewish belief and practice. These Iberian denizens were migrants on several levels. They were descendants of people who migrated from one faith to another. They themselves chose to migrate to the Eternal City for several reasons. Some did so to escape from real persecution or social exclusion. Others did so in order to get a new lease in life, in order to tell their stories in a different way, to fashion and craft their images anew. Both for ordinary Romans and, more often than not, for their fellow Iberians living in the city this “stained” family past was not an issue. It was something which could be obviated or was not considered, all the more so in a period in which conversion from Judaism was often flaunted and instrumentalized in Rome for the prestige of the Catholic Church.
Rome was not just any other city in which they could find refuge. As the seat of the Catholic Church, it was there in which they could publicly affirm their credentials as stalwart, faith-abiding Catholics as a response to possible suspicion about their true religious adherence. A stay in Rome could serve those who may have wanted to come and go, those who decided to remain in the Eternal City or their families back home. It was also the city with its classical past and storied civic institutions which fired the European imagination and hearkened back to the days of old. It was also a city which offered prosperity and power due to niche markets connected to the Catholic Church. Some chose to be innocuous, to blend in with the city and its inhabitants and remain anonymous. Others, through art and cultural patronage, made a point of standing out, as prominent Catholic Spanish and Portuguese citizens of the city with, at times, important links to the Church or involvement in the city’s civic institutions. Throughout the seventeenth century there were several individuals and whole families who, faced with the dilemma of their converso past in Spain and Portugal, settled in Rome.
Prof. James W. Nelson Novoa
Balsdon Fellow (January -March 2020)