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Personal Physician to Marie de Medici
? - 1616



DR ELIAHU DA LUNA MONTALTO was a New Christian who returned to Judaism. He fled Portugal at the end of the 16th century. As a distinguished doctor and scientist, he was invited to serve as the personal physician of Marie de Medici, the wife of Henry IV, king of France.  Later he accepted a post at the University of Pisa, teaching medicine. He then, spent some time in Venice, where he published several medical treatises and eventually returned to France and remaining at the service of the Queen until his death, in 1616.

While in Venice, he formally declared himself a Jew and became a zealous defender of the Jewish faith, endeavouring to convince other conversos to renounce their Christian faith and return to Judaism. He wrote a number of letters to Pedro Rodrigues and Isabella da Fonseca, a sister of his wife, who had escaped from Portugal and settled in Southern France, entreating them to follow his example and affirm their Jewishness.

Here are some excerpts from the letters Montalto sent to Rodrigues from Venice, in the year 1612:

"The present captivity and the violent tyranny with which the kings of France, Castille, Portugal, England and other kingdoms, force the Jews to adore their false gods and their idols of wood and stone? Of what other sect does Scripture speak, if not of the erroneous one which you follow? and which you entered, not out of conviction, nor by Divine inspiration, but through the compulsory force of kings Dom Manuel and Dom Juan. Indeed, you are not a true Christian, because your father - who lived and died as a secret Jew - acted only out of fear. He did not reveal to you this family secret, when you were a child, and because of that, you have become used to these errors?

The Lord has led you to a free country in order that you may recognize the truth and free yourself from the abominable blindness and the torpid idolatry in which you have lived up till now, in order that you may come to know and to follow the true God: Creator and not creature, spiritual and not corporeal, most sublime and not subject to human miseries and weaknesses? My soul is extremely pained about your misfortune and your losses. Everything I can do or that the Lord gives me, shall always be yours, because I love you like my soul. Do not get discouraged, because the Lord will remedy everything. May He keep you and comfort you?"


The Staff of The Medici Archive Project (with thanks to Nick Wilding who discovered the document.)  asked why a distinguished Portuguese physician should suddenly disappear from the Florentine Court and then reappear as a Jew in the Venetian Ghetto?

PRESENTED BY:    DATE:    29th December 1607
FROM:    Medici Envoy Asdrubale Barbolani di Montauto
PLACE:   Venice
TO:    Granducal Secretary Belisario Vinta
PLACE:    Florence

Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Mediceo del Principato 3000, ff.254-5(Entry 14561 in the "Documentary Sources" database.)

Montalto, the Portuguese medical doctor, is in the Ghetto here in Venice, with his yellow hat and a determination to remain there and practice the profession of medicine. I carried out Your Lordship’s order and spoke with him all by himself, letting him choose the time and place. He professes and manifests himself to be the Grand Duke’s [Ferdinando I de’ Medici] most humble, obligated and devoted servant and he says that he went off on his own for the sake of his personal interests and out of religious zeal.

For this reason, he felt compelled to leave the way of life, the comforts, the material advantages and the hopes that he enjoyed while living under the title of a Christian and he has resigned himself to a life under his own law that is poor and abject, without comforts and with few hopes. Nonetheless, he hopes that the Grand Duke will be inclined to pardon and excuse him and continue to number him among his servants, albeit in the last place. He asserts that he was not motivated by anyone’s persecution or urging and that such things were not even a factor. He also promises that he has no intention of persuading anyone to leave Tuscany, as he has done, to come live here in Venice. He asserts that he has never done this nor even thought of it and he will give any pledge or undertaking that we might wish. I frankly admit that he presented his motives, his feelings and his reasoning so effectively, humbly and modestly that I found myself highly edified, in so far as one can be edified by a matter of this sort.

He then described how a great number of families were preparing to leave Portugal, some for Flanders, some for France, a few for Venice and many for Livorno and Pisa. Some of these will come as Jews at the outset and some with the title of Christians. If things work out for them in Livorno and Pisa, they will be followed by as many others as we might wish, if not indeed more. It thus seems advisable to leave everyone free to come and go, in order not to discourage them while they still entertain doubts. As to why so many are ready to leave Portugal, he said that the Office of the Inquisition had previously withheld its full rigor from the Jews because they paid such large sums of money to the King. They are now beginning to imprison and act more harshly because those officials who had previously made a fortune with their prisons full, have seen what it is like when they are empty and want to fill them up again. They cannot accomplish this, however, without mass suppression and a long, continuous process of destruction. Therefore, those who are able to flee want to do so as soon as they safely can.

He thinks that one of his fellow Portuguese there in Florence might have planted this idea in order to put him [Montalto] in low esteem with the Grand Duke and that of the world at large and to keep himself in favor so that we will not discover that he is in fact tarred with the same brush and is entertaining the same ideas. Perhaps they wish in this way to determine His Highness’s inclination and his view of the situation. In conclusion, he [Montalto] admitted that he would be undeserving of his reputation for skill and accomplishment had he not recognized and considered the circumstances, the danger that he faced in diminishing others and the danger of eliciting the just indignation of so great a prince to whom he is so highly obligated. In the course of this long discussion, my impression was that he might have wished for or nurtured some hope of obtaining [Girolamo] Mercuriale’s chair, due to a direct or implied promise from some quarter. His disgust at not obtaining it might well have hastened his decision if not persuaded him outright. I hear that all of his possessions together are not worth 300 scudi and he has children to support. However, the fact of the matter is that he won’t lack earnings and material advantages in this ghetto. In addition to other possible ways of making a living, there must be 6 or 7 thousand people there and apparently no one now really skilled in the medical profession.





The Medici Archive Project