Portugal in Rome: glimpses of the Portuguese New Christian representation in Rome

Portugal in Rome: glimpses of the Portuguese New Christian representation in Rome


The document shown - a contract drawn out for the sale of spices among three Portuguese men in the mid Sixteenth Century in Rome - identifies some key figures of the Portuguese New Christian network which passed through the Eternal City pursuing personal gain but also in a concerted effort to counteract the establishment of a tribunal of the Inquisition in Portugal. The document, preserved in the archive of the notaries of the Auditor Camera in the State Archive of Rome, helps to flesh out the iter of a still little known group of individuals active in the Rome, the agents of the Portuguese New Christians, who, from the decade of the Thirties of the Sixteenth Century, were in the city to serve the interests of the New Christian nation in various ways.

On August 23, 1545 Ludovicus Reydettus, a notary of the Apostolic Chamber, made out a contract between «Petrus Furtado et dominus Iacobus de Fonsecha, layci Lamacensis» describing them as «domini et patroni unius aromatarie existentis in quadam apotheca sita in Urbe proper ecclesiam Sancti Augustini et puteum Corvium». The purchaser of the spices was one «Didaco Diaz Portugalensi». The folios of the notary’s document which follow indicate that Diaz had intended to use the acquisition of the spices in order to be able to marry the daughter of one «Ioannes Vallenus de Aragonia, sartor in Urbe prope Sanctam Salvatorem de Lauro». Such a contract was, of course a normal occurrence and should not have attracted special interest if the individuals in question were not, at the same time, key players in a still obscure episode of social and communal organization at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century. The two proprietors of the apothecary which was situated, as the document states, between the church of Saint Augustine and a fountain were, at the time of the sale, well established representatives of the Portuguese New Christians in the Eternal City. Pedro Furtado and Jacome Fonseca were both descendents of Portuguese Jews who were forcibly converted in 1497 under the orders of King Manuel I (1469-1521) who hailed from the same town in the north of Portugal, Lamego. Both were ostensibly in Rome, apart from pursing personal gain as part of a Portuguese New Christian network which was created as a result of the introduction of a tribunal of the Inquisition in the realm by King John III (1502-1557) first fledgling and unsuccessfully in 1531, then with some further setbacks in 1536 until its definitive establishment in 1547.

The story of the individuals who presented themselves, whether legitimately or not, in Rome as the representatives of the New Christians in Portugal against the royal efforts to root out what was, allegedly, heretical adherence to Jewish belief and practice among the descendents of Portugal’s Jews in the Sixteenth Century has not been told in a systematic manner. The Nineteenth Century Portuguese historian, Alexander Herculano (1810-1877) dealt with the matter at length in his still fundamental work on the early years of the tribunal in Portugal, the History and Origin and Establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal, basing himself on a myriad of archival documents which he had at his disposal in Portuguese archives.

Researches in the archives of Portugal, Italy, the Low Countries, Spain and the Vatican have increasingly shed light on the social organization of the network constituted by Portuguese New Christians in the wake of the menace of the creation of the Inquisition and in the Early Modern period, a network which very quickly extended itself to the Ottoman Empire and the New World. The State Archive of Rome constitutes a veritable unfathomable source for information about the individuals who passed through the city as part of the negotiations for the creation of the Inquisition in Portugal both on the part of the Portuguese crown and the New Christians in the crucial decades of the tribunal’s inception in the Iberian kingdom. In particular the rich holdings of the notaries of the Apostolic Chamber contain important elements to be able to get to know the activities of those individuals during their stay in Rome.

Both Furtado and Fonseca were already noteworthy representatives of the New Christians in their Iberian homeland before leaving Portugal very likely around the same time. When the short lived tribunal of the Inquisition was established in Lamego in 1541 (it ceased to exist in 1548) Furtado, a prominent doctor, entrusted at one point with the children of the bishop of Lisbon was likely one of the first to be apprehended. Accused of observing Jewish religious practices and of holding heretical beliefs by members of the townspeople it would seem that he was imprisoned by orders of the tribunal. The next events are unknown although quite possibly a papal Brief dated June 20, 1542 made out by Paul III (1468-1549) which demanded his release from prison and a revision of the proceeding of his trial may have weighed heavily in his favor. In any case a deposition which was taken in Lamego on October 3, 1543 clearly states that on that date he was no longer in the city.