Volume 13, Issue 1 (January 2015) : 155-169|
“Poor Old Palace-Prison!”
Jewish Urban Memory in Amy Levy’s “The Ghetto at Florence” (1886)
Rubric A: Episodes in the History of Ideas
Rubric B: Women Writers
In an 1886 piece of travel journalism written for the London-based periodical The Jewish Chronicle, the Anglo-Jewish writer Amy Levy records some brief, witty observations on the history and current conditions of the Jewish ghetto at Florence. By writing from the narrative perspective of a self-identifying English Jew, Levy addresses in “The Ghetto at Florence” a history of Jewish exclusion and confinement represented by the ghetto, while also using this site to engage her complex attitudes towards Jewishness in the mid-1880s, in London. Rather than an accurate history of place, however, what is foregrounded in her article is self-reflexivity about ways of seeing and the effects of memory. This paper examines her uses of imaginative representation, race science, and the photographic gaze to attempt a tactile and affective encounter with the ghetto. In occupying a vexed space between extreme openness to imagined historical resonances alongside ironic detachment from the inadequacies of the present moment, she embodies the characteristically isolated subjectivity of the flâneur. She does so while contemplating the role of Jewishness in using the past to make sense of modern identity.