Italy has a unique place amongst European nations in Jewish history. The legacy of Jewish culture in Italy spans over two thousand years – from the early recorded Roman period to today. The country contains some of the oldest communities of Jewish citizens in Europe – over the centuries, Jewish communities in Italy have absorbed and welcomed Jewish groups expelled from Spain and Portugal, Eastern Europe, France and Germany.
Their presence has contributed significantly to Italy’s development throughout the ages, with Jewish culture playing an important social and economic role throughout Italy’s turbulent history, from the Dark-ages to fascism in the 20th century.
History records that the first Jewish settlers arrived in southern-Italy from Judea (part of modern day Israel) long before Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman empire. In the early years of the Roman Republic a thriving Jewish community lived in Rome with at least 10 synagogues to worship. Then, in 160 B.C. the Jewish leader Simon Maccabeus sent an embassy to Rome to strengthen the alliance with the Romans against the Syrians. The ambassadors received a warm welcome from the Roman Senate and from the existing Jewish community in Rome at the time. Although, the treatment of the Jews in Rome did fluctuate, they were allowed to live and worship, relatively free from harassment until Christianity was established as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine I in 313 AD.
After that historic moment the position of Jews in Italy and throughout the empire declined rapidly. They were oppressed considerably until after the fall of the Roman empire, after which the dark ages yielded some respite for Rome’s, and indeed Italy’s Jewish communities. During the Dark Ages they were pockets of Jews in Rome, Milan, Genoa, Palermo and Messina in Sicily. When Milan came under the control of the Lombards, Jews were left to live in peace in the territories under their rule. Although the Lombard families embraced Catholicism, Jews were not persecuted and Pope Gregory I showed them respect and consideration. Although anti-Semitism began increasing throughout Europe from the 8th century, leading to great migrations of Jews from other European nations to Italy, Italian Jews enjoyed comparably high standards of living.
In the Middle Ages, Rome’s Jews started to prosper as permission to trade and run businesses was given them. The majority of Rome’s Jews lived in the Trastevere neighborhood during this period, a district found on the west bank of the river Tiber, south of Vatican City. Despite the increasing anti-Semitism from the Church at this time, towns such as Venice, Florence, and Genoa realized that their commercial interests were of more importance than politics of the Church and accordingly the Jews found their condition better than ever before.
Sadly this prosperity for Italy’s Jewish population would not last, by the early 16th century the Catholic church was fighting rising Protestantism and turned its attention to anything deemed a “heresy” or simply not contrary to the Catholic faith, including Judaism. In 1516, the first ghetto was established in Venice and Jews were forced to live there, under harsh conditions. Poverty was rife and the resident Jewish community was striped of most of their rights and privileges.
Then, in 1555, Pope Paul IV established a ghetto in Trastevere, forcibly moving all of Rome’s Jews into a cramped space on a few acres of land. They could not own property or run businesses and conditions were dire, many died of disease and starvation. Similar ghettos were erected around Italy and conditions didn’t improve dramatically until the 19th century. In 1848, after Napoleon had successfully taken and occupied Rome, the ghetto walls were torn down and the inhabits were allowed to move freely in the city.
After the Italian unification in 1870, Jews across Italy were granted full rights as Italian citizens. However in the 20th century, the rise of fascism in western Europe spelled dark times for Italy’s Jewish population, although they did not suffer as much as the German and Polish Jews. The Italian leader Mussolini instituted many anti-semitic laws as he allied himself to Hitler. The situation worsened after Mussolini was deposed, as the Nazis occupied southern Italy late in the second world war, and began instigating measures to deport the countries population to concentration camps. However, they met with resistance in many cities – in the Umbrian town of Assisi, Father Rufino Niccacci, sheltered 300 Jews during the war and gave them new identities and lives. Overall over 7,000 Jews became victims of the Holocaust.
Today, the Jewish population in Italy has recovered from the darkness of the mid 20th century and have left an incredible cultural mark on Italy’s towns and cities. Although the current community is relatively small, an estimate of around 45,000 – they are most definitely an important part of the Italian social landscape. The ghettos of Rome and Venice, the Jewish museum and synagogues all attract many visitors each year.
We start our tour with the birthplace of the Jewish arrival in Italy – Rome. The eternal city has over 22 centuries of Jewish heritage, which in addition to the classic sites of Rome – the Vatican, the colosseum, add up to an incredibly varied and almost overwhelming cultural experience. Although after the fall of the Roman Empire, Rome became the center of the Christian world, the Jewish community played an important role in Rome’s history. The oldest synagogue in Rome and possibly Italy, can still be visited. Then there is the ghetto, the largest in Italy and the Ponte Fabricio, not to mention the wealth of Jewish shops, kosher restaurants and guest-houses.
I’d suggest starting your Roman tour on on the east bank of the rive Tiber, near the Isola Tiberina (Island in the Tiber). This district, known as Trastevere houses the majority of Rome’s Jewish cultural attractions, including the synagogue and of course, the ghetto, constructed in the 16th century by Pope Paul IV. Although when Italy was unified in 1870 the ghetto was largely demolished, some of the streets remain as they were and make for a fascinating viewing, a leisurely stroll is the best way to sample Rome’s Jewish ghetto. Take a walk down Via del Portico d’Ottavia, the main through ware of the ghetto and notice kosher restaurants proudly serving carciofi (artichokes, a Jewish Roman specialism) and shops of fine, locally produced Judaica. On Via San Ambrogio, there is also a small art gallery, promoting the works of young Israeli artists, well worth a detour. If you get peckish then check out the Jewish bakery on Piazza delle Cinque Scole.
You have already seen many wonders of the Jewish legacy, but before you leave make sure to visit the “Synagogue of Emancipation”, built after the ghetto was dismantled and completed in 1904. It is beautiful! Highlights include the impressive dome, painted with the colours of the rainbow and the museum. It contains historically significant artifacts, many of which were created by some of the finest artists at the time, as Jews were not allowed to be craftsman during the 16th-17th century.
A tour of Jewish Italy could continue with Venice, beautiful in its own right, Venice can lay claim to having the oldest Jewish ghetto in Europe and a wealth of Jewish historical legacies. By the 12th century, Venice was an independent city-state, and through its control of the spice and silk trade from the East, became one of he riches trading nations in Europe, wealth that the Jewish business community helped to generated. Step back in time as you visit the ‘Scole’ or Synagogues of the Venetian ghetto that were constructed in the mid 17th century, each representing a different ethnic group that settled there. Today, the Ghetto is still the focal point for Venice’s Jewish community and contains several welcoming guest houses and kosher restaurants. Another highlight is the Renato Maestro Library, founded in 1981 it contains a wealth of resources on Judaism and it a must see for any Jewish visitor. Not to mention The Jewish Museum of Venice, founded in 1953 which gives visitors a fantastic insight into the Jewish communities in Venice over the centuries; how they have evolved and contributed to the great renown of this magical city.
The eager visitor, after marveling at the wonders of Venice should head to the small town of Ferrara, one of Emilia-Romagna’s greatest walled towns. It has a special significance in the region, as there has been a continuous Jewish presence from the Middle Ages to today. Jews were welcomed in the 15th century by the Duke of Ercole I d’Este and have left an impressive cultural legacy. There are three synagogues, contained within Ferrara’s ghetto, which were constructed in 1627 and was the obvious focal point of Jewish life in the town. There is also a wonderful Jewish museum, which although fairly small, houses many artifacts and exhibitions on Jewish culture through the ages. Access to the synagogue cannot be gained from the museum.
After Ferrara head for Bologna, capital of Emilia-Romagna and one of Italy’s most prosperous cities. Bologna has an impressive cultural heritage that includes a rich Jewish legacy that dates back to the Middle Ages. In the mid 14th century the Jewish population was enclosed in a ghetto by the authorities, but by the end of the 14th century they owned houses in all parts of Bologna and ran thriving businesses. Another example of how the importance of Jewish community to the commercial success of a city superseded the religious dogma of the time.
Well worth a look is the restored ghetto, containing craft shops with Jewish prints and other hints of new life in the old Jewish neighborhood. Restaurants and cafes abound, if you need a well earned pitstop! The only synagogue in the Bologna ghetto is another big draw for visitors, as is the recently opened (1999) Jewish Museum. It celebrates with colourful art and displays the history of Jewish community in Bologna and Italy, there is also a well stocked book and kosher store.
Of course no visit to Italy is complete without a tour of Tuscany. Our next port of call is Florence, a monument to the Renaissance, the artistic and cultural reawakening of the 15th century. During this time Florence was the cultural and intellectual heart of Europe, its cosmopolitan atmosphere and wealthy patrons, such as the Medici, providing the impetus for a period of unparallelled cultural and artistic growth. The early Medici families were good friends of the Jewish community, so there are plenty of fascinating monuments and areas to explore in Florence after you have seen the Uffizi Museum and the Duomo.
A Jewish tour of Florence must start with the imposing Emancipation-era temple and the Jewish ghetto. Built in 1571 by the Cosimo de Medici, most, but not all of Florence’s Jewish population were moved into the ghetto in the 16th century. However, Jews in the ghetto had some freedoms and could build synagogues, schools and other public buildings as they saw fit. The spectacular, Moorish style synagogue in Florence is considered to be one of the finest in Europe. It was opened in 1882, the Moorish facade was based on the designs of the Byzantine cathedral in Constantinople. Jewish presence in Florence over the ages can also be witnessed first-hand in the two Jewish cemeteries (only open the first Sunday of every month) and an excellent Jewish museum and library.
The above is merely a snapshot of some of the main attractions of the Jewish legacy in Italy. However, there is another important aspect to this Italian discussion, which must not be omitted and that is kosher wine. This can be produced from any grape or Italian wine region, but crucially the wine must of course be produced according to Jewish dietary law, know as Kashrut.
For a wine to be certified kosher, a Sabbath-observant Jew must have been involved in the entire wine making process and any ingredient used, must be kosher. Although this was not formerly the case, today many famous Italian appellations and winemakers are making kosher wines, much of it exported as Italy has such a small Jewish population. Some to look out for include: Terra Di Seta Chianti, Chianti Classico, Tuscany; Rosh Aglianico, Campania; Batasiolo Barolo, Piedmont; Araldica Pinot Grigio, Piedmont; Fattoria Scopone Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany.