Roman Empire to 12th Century

After leaving Judea in 70 CE, the Jewish Diaspora spread outward. The ancestors of the Varsano Family possibly lived in Rome or other parts of the Italian peninsula during this period of the Roman Empire. Eventually, those early Varsanos made their way west along the Mediterranean coast.  It’s difficult to ascertain the timing and the route of their migration, but they settled near the Var River in Provence around the 12th Century. More than a millennium of history passed while making this journey through the Old World. Provence is a short journey by land from the northern Italian Peninsula and a short journey by boat from the southern region. More than a millennium of history passed while making this journey through the Old World. Continues in Provence.

Kingdom of Naples: 15th Century Arrival to 1541 Departure

italy-Abraham Ortelius. Italiae novissima descripto. Antwerp-1579

The simplified story of the Sephardic Jews is that they flourished in Spain until the Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand exiled them. They were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire where they lived peacefully for over 400 years. My family told me that our ancestors left Spain in 1492 just before Columbus sailed to America. They sailed east along the Mediterranean Sea to the relatively friendly confines of the Salonica and Sofia. While this may have been true for many Sephardic families, including some Varsanos, it was a different journey for others.

1492 is a historically important date for many reasons but it represents the final departure date for Jewish families from Spain. Many Jewish families left much sooner due to being religiously persecuted and seeking better economic opportunities. When the Sephardic Jews on the Iberian Peninsula were caught between the Moors and Crusaders, the Jews became a convenient scapegoat. The Spanish Massacre of 1391 (a.k.a. Pogroms of 1391) against Jews in Castile and Aragon caused many Jews to flee the area and seek safer regions. I don’t know for certain when my branch of the Varsano left Spain and where they went, but a recent DNA test through offers some clues.

My North Africa ethnicity estimate is 1%, but it can range from 0—5%. My Southern Italy ethnicity estimate is 21%, but it can range from 8—37%. These DNA results trace back for approximately 500 years. Therefore, it’s seems plausible that some of my ancestors were in North Africa for a brief period after leaving Spain. The North African DNA is very faint, so it’s also possible that there was some back and forth with Spain prior to exile. The DNA results for Italy are far more conclusive, however. There was always speculation in our family that we had Italian heritage, but it was merely based on the Varsano name sounding Italian. The name is not Italian, it’s Spanish (Ladino), but the DNA says that I’m up to 37% Italian. That discovery was a surprise to me, so I researched the history of Jewish families in Italy during this time period to try to bring more clarity to the notion of the Italian Varsano Family.

According to the current DNA results, about 40% of my father’s total ethnicity is Southern Italian based on my results from 2022. Initially, the data showed a smaller percentage of Northern Italy DNA, but the figures were revised to Southern Italy only at a slightly higher percentage. In the late 14th Century and throughout the 15th Century, the Ottomans were not the only society that welcomed Jews, the Kingdom of Naples also offered sanctuary to the wandering Sephardim. There is some written evidence that the Varsano surname existed in Southern Italy during this period of history. The regions of Apulia and Calabria are the most likely areas that the Varsano family lived.

One source states that the Varsano name originates from Conversano in Pulia (Puglia), Italy. While Conversano sounds similar to Varsano, it is a different name with an “ver” rather than an ‘var”. It also has the “con” prefix and family names were typically not shorten versions of a common word, but named after a town or place of origin. Some Varsanos may have been Conversos (or Conversanos), who were secret Jews but forced Christian converts. However, there is ample evidence that many Jews from Spain did relocate to Puglia, so it’s very possible that some members of the Varsano family lived there. Puglia, along with much of the southern Italian peninsula lies directly between east coast of Spain/Catalan and Salonica where we know the majority of the Varsano family eventually settled.

The exiles from Spain and Portugal contributed to a short-lived renaissance of Jewish learning in Apulia. Don Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel composed notable works during his time in Monopoli, Apulia including the commentary on Deuteronomy and  Zevah Pesah (“Passover Sacrifice”), and wrote, at the request of his youngest son Samuel, who was studying in Salonica, Nahalat Avot (“The Inheritance of the Fathers”). In addition to the great writings of Don Isaac, Apulians had their own dialect and folk songs.  Exiles from Otranto, another Puglian city, were numerous enough to maintain their synagogue in Salonica, as were Puglia, Calabria, Provence and others. These Southern French/Spanish/Italian Jews brought there unique culture to every land they inhabited.

Regions of Italy
Regions of Italy
Southern Italy

In nearby Calabria, the Sephardic Jews sought refuge in a similar manner as the Apulians. Since both regions were part of the Kingdom of Naples, the Jewish Calabrians persecution and exile mirrored that of the Apulians. The fairs of Calabria attracted large numbers of local and foreign Jews. In 1465, the Jews coming to the fair of Maddalena di Cosenza obtained the privilege of having to answer only to the king’s official and to no other person in charge of the market. Reggio Calabria is a notable city in the region where Abraham Garton pioneered the mass production printing of the first set of Hebrew books in the Rashi Script in 1475.

According to Cecil Roth in the History of the Jews of Italy, there were approximately 50,000 Jews living in the Kingdom of Naples in 1481. Jews added lots of tax revenue to community and were money lenders as dictated by the kingdom. By the 1490s, there was a Hebrew printing press in Naples which helped Jewish community grow and thrive. As Ferdinand and Isabella continued to conquer more lands and expel Jews, the remaining Kingdom of Naples absorbed those Jews from Sicily, Sardinia, and other nearby lands. In 1495, the French King Charles VIII occupied the kingdom of Naples and the Jews of Apulia were again persecuted; looting and war levies dissipated their resources within a few months. On October 26, 1496,  there was a royal edict expelling Jews from Naples. In 1498 in Calabria, synagogues closed and Jews had to wear a badge. Cosenza’s “Cafarone” area, the Jewish living quarter between via Padolisi and Corso Telesio (near the Monastery of the Virgins) was destroyed. However, Jews remain for 50 years more but only a remnant.

From 1501-1509 Gonzalo da Cordova, “the Great Captain,” acted as military leader for the King. He helped defend Jews which delayed deportations. However, the deportations continue to spread throughout the kingdom. On November 19, 1510, the order to banish all “declared” Jews from Calabria and Apulia was issued by the new Viceroy Raimando de Cardara. Most of the Jews were to leave by March 1, 1511 and must take all possessions with them except gold and silver. Those precious metals which were cherished by the Jews would be seized by the kingdom. However, 200 Jewish families were allowed to remain in exchange for payment of 3000 ducats per year. The wealthy Italian Jewish family Abrabanel led by three brothers Isaac, the financier, philosopher, and exegete; Jacob the Naples Jewish community leader; and Joseph a grain and foodstuff dealer, all paid to stay longer. Was the Varsano family willing or able to pay the king’s ransom?

With most of the Jews deported and the few remaining Jews being exploited financially, the rulers of Southern Italy turned their hatred to the Jews that converted to Christianity but may have secretly still observed Jewish customs. The Marranos, or secret Jews, were subject to new inquisition. Despite religious purity measures, practicality and tolerance also had their place. In 1513, many Christians of Jewish stock (Neofiti) were allowed to stay. In 1515 the Neofiti were also expelled. In Calabria and Apulia, New Christians were living as Jews and maintaining semi-public synagogues. By 1520, the continued absence of most Jews, hurt the economy for everyone. The Jewish moneylenders were replaced by Christian lenders who charged a much higher interest rate on loans.  Consequently, there was a relaxation of the rules against Jewish lenders. Jews were also allowed back for annual fairs. Unfortunately, the relative tolerance of Jews only lasted another two decades.

In the 1540’s, the Roman Church wanted to stamp out all heresy and reform movements. In the Pope’s eyes, the Jews appeared to be the allies of the Protestants. Starting in Italian cities, Jewish communities were confined to ghettos which were a place of depravation and isolation. The xenophobic practice of banishing Jews to clearly defined ghetto areas quickly spread throughout Italy, then throughout the rest of Christian Europe.

In May 1541, an edict to banish all Jews was issued. By November 1541, all Jewish families left including the Varsano family.  The Abrabanels went to Ferrara while other families went to Rome, the Papal States, central and northern Italy, and Palestine. Some of these fleeing families were desperately sailing on the Medditarrian Sea looking for safety, but they would be intercepted by Ragusar pirates and taken prisoner in Marseilles. The remaining members of the extended Varsano family living in Southern Italy, if any, relocated to the Ottoman Empire. It is believed that they first settled in the port city of Salonica. Other Jewish families from Puglia migrated to Istanbul, Edirne, Salonica, Arta, Valona, and Corfu, where they founded separate Pugliese dialect and customs. Some of those living on the Adriatic Coast had been in contact with the Venetian Republic. The wealthier ones moved to Venice or to the Venetian  Islands. Corfu was another favorite destination because of its geographical closeness to Apulia and its close ties to Venice. Calabrian Christians suffered from loss of Jews for centuries, where the impoverished still feel effects today. Continue to the Ottoman Empire.

Northern Italy: 16th Century to 19th Century

Some Jewish families that fled Spain in the 15th Century moved to Northern Italy and a few families founded safety in the north after the 1541 expulsion decree in Naples. Since 1583, there is documentation of Jews in the Livorno region, mostly around the city of Pisa. There is also evidence of a back and forth across the Adriatic Sea with the Ottoman Empire. The Medici family, led by Fernando de’ Medici in 1593, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, allowed new immigrants to live in Livorno. Many Jews took advantage of this opportunity and enjoyed the rights and privileges of the citizens. In 1603, a synagogue was built in Pisa while the Jewish community became an official autonomous group.

The rabbinate of Livorno were well-regarded and had a close relationship with the Sephardic community of Amsterdam and London. A collection of Jewish religious books printed in Amsterdam and Livorno in the 17th and 18th Centuries was recently for sale at auction. One of the collections refers to Ovadia Varsano as “presumably, the author of Chazon Ovadia, Salonika 1775.” Although there is reference to Salonika in the Ottoman Empire in 1775, the book signed by Ovadia Varsano is Chiddushei HaRitva, on tractates Eruvin, Taanit and Moed Katan printed in Amsterdam in 1729. Although the evidence is scant, it seems to imply that at least some members of the Varsano family lived in Livorno, the Ottoman Empire, and Amsterdam at various points during their lives in the 16th to 18th Centuries.

The Modiano Family tree and history traces the prominent Sephardic Family back to the 19th Century. The family lived in Modena, Italy and Salonika in the Ottoman Empire and enjoyed the spoils of both Italian and Turkish culture. The family tree lists Varsanos that married Modianos and Abravanels. Elie Varsano appears to have married to Sol Abravanel who was the son of Regina Modiano and Salomon Abravanel, both born in the 1880s.  Naava Varsano and Reviva Varsano appear to be either children or sisters of Elie.

20th Century

At the beginning of the 20th Century, many of the Jews that fled the Kingdom of Naples in 16th Century were again suffering through an unstable political situation. After several centuries of relative tolerance for Jews in the Ottoman Empire, Bulgarian and Greek Independence movements led to the Balkan Wars. Jewish Families living in the Balkans had enjoyed a back and forth across the Adriatic Sea into Italy for many years. In 1920s and 1930s, the Fascist Italian consuls in Salonica encouraged descendants of Jews from Italy many centuries before to apply for or retain Italian Nationality.  The political turmoil of the early 20th Century caused at least one member of the Varsano family to reestablish himself on the Italian peninsula.

From the book Memorie di Famiglia 2020, blessed and cared for by Giordana Menasci and Anna Orvieto, the story of Samuele “Sami” Varsano discusses his Italian adventure. Sami was born on 13 April 1910 in Salonica. After the great fire of Salonica in August 1917, many Jews fled the city and took refuge in Naples. As a seven year old boy, Sami and other Jewish families from Salonica (Thessaloniki) embarked on October 3, 1917 on the Italian ship Bosforo to Naples, Italy. Sami would plant roots in Italy where he was married in 1938, raised children, survived the Holocaust, and became a well-respected chemist, mathematician, and nuclear physicist. Read more about his story.

Name Samuele Varsano

Award Aug 31 1972
Award granted Medaglia d’argento al merito della pubblica finanza
Rank Ispettore Generale Chimico Delle Dogane

Sami and his family lived amongst other Sephardim that made Naples to Ottoman back to Naples journey. Registration in the community having not been made compulsory in 1935. 55 names from Salonica and 125 Sephardic Jews represented a significant portion of the Jewish population of Naples. Prominent Jewish Families from Salonica were included in this group Abrabanel and Naar – Coffee, Modiano – Oriental rugs, Beraha – medical and dental equipment, Bivash – hosiery, Benusiglio -knitwear, Gattegno -ties, and medical doctor Moshe Modiano.

Varsano Immigrants from Italy to New York.

Antonio Varsano, a 34 year old  barber, and 22 year old Theresa (de Grallico?) Varsano from Italy gave birth to a baby boy, named Antonio on April 5, 1905.

Name Be…Ino Varsano

Brandeis? Beirndino? Beiradico?

Gender Male
Birth Circa 1872
Arrival Apr 9 1913

  New York, New York, United States

Ship Taormina
Age 41
Last permanent residence
  Venepsturo, Italy
Nationality Italy
Marital status Married
Relative in country of origin Maria (Wife)
Relative joined in the U.S. Pasquale Varsano (Brother)

On April, 5, 1920, Diamandi Eskenazi, a 60 year old woman, Eastha (spelling?), a 56 year old woman, and Asser (spelling?) Varsano, a 29 year old man, arrived in New York from Naples, Italy on the ship Giuseppe Verdi. The group of three immigrants with Sephardic Jewish surnames were on records for Aliens Held for Special Inquiry. All three names were crossed out with a note saying “See SS Pannonia.”