|Italy is of course the home of the Roman Catholic Church, and it has so many remarkable churches that no human being's lifetime would last long enough to visit them all. Italy is also home to the oldest collective in the Jewish Diaspora. This "community" was founded during the Roman Empire, when no less than seven percent of the Eternal City's population was Jewish. During that period, small enclaves were established in what is now Sicily, Campania, Apulia, Romagna and Lombardy. The fortunes of these people and the many other communities which later appeared seriously deteriorated with the affirmation of Christianity in the 4th century. Since then, they have been at the mercy of local rulers and Popes. Some of these took it upon themselves to protect "their" Jews, either benevolently or by confining them to walled ghettos that were supposed to guard their safety. For many centuries their activities were strictly monitored and they were forced to wear distinguishing marks (hoop earrings for women, yellow circles on lapels for men).||
in Monte San Savino
Not surprisingly, Italy's Hebrew places of worship are rarely the kind of extravagant hard-to-miss monument that springs to mind when we think of "churches in Italy." Many of them actually are elaborate, but only on the inside. Except in a few instances, they exist in obscurity behind nondescript façades, and most are used only on major Jewish holidays. There are dozens of them, however, and some can be visited by appointment. As you will see if you enter any of them, they do have one thing in common with their Christian counterparts: they have been relentlessly sacked, bombed and looted by generations of barbarians.
Here are a few interesting synagogues you might be able to visit:
| Asti, Via Ottolenghi 8, tel. 0141-53281. You can attend services here, which are conducted in a very rare liturgy called Appam. This is one of the loveliest small synagogues in Italy, with marble columns, tiled floors and an elaborate gilded ark whose doors conceal a small room full of antique Torahs. To schedule a visit, please contact the Jona family, tel. 0141/594-271, Via M. D'Azeglio 1; Donato Montalcini, tel. 0141/593-094, Via Gobetti 15; or Gruppo di Cultura ebraica-CEPROS, tel. 0141/593-281, Via M. D'Azeglio 42.
Casale Monferrato, Vicolo Salomone Olper 44, tel. 0142/71807. Built in 1595, it is a lavish example of Piedmontese Baroque and was recently declared a national monument.
Cuneo, Via Mondovi 18. Most recently renovated in 1884, it has a gorgeous Venetian Baroque Ark and rare depictions of the sacrificial instruments used by priests in the Temple of Jerusalem. There is also an unexploded Napoleonic bomb under the pulpit.
Ferrara, Via Mazzini 95, tel. 0532/47004. A thriving community lived in this city from the 13th through 15th centuries, largely because the Este family extended bona fide protection to them, even going so far as to defy the Popes' edicts of expulsion. When the last Este died, a spiral of persecution began that ended only after World War II, when a mere five Jews returned to the city that Giorgio Bassani described so poignantly in The Garden of the Finzi Contini. The synagogue has some lovely marble decorations.
Florence, Via L.C. Farini 4, tel. 055/245-252. Surrounded by a beautiful English garden, this Moorish-style building is covered with mosaics and frescoes on the inside. The Ark still bears the axe marks laid there by Nazis, who also set mines throughout its structure. Later, the floods of 1966 damaged numerous ancient Torahs and volumes in the library. Vists can be arranged April through September, Sunday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-5 p.m., and Friday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; and October through March, Monday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-5 p.m., and Friday and Sunday 10 a.m.-1 p.m. You can also request a visit to the cemetery at viale Ariosto 14.
Livorno, Piazza Benamozegh 1, tel. 0586/896-290. The modern structure is extremely uninteresting, to an American eye, but it houses several precious relics which survived the World War II bombing and total destruction of what had been considered the most beautiful synagogue in Italy.
Mantua, Via Govi 11, tel. 0376/321-490. The Norsa Synagogue, an 18th-century gem resplendent with Baroque stuccowork, has an interesting story. Its name recalls Daniele Norsa, a prominent 15th-century banker who purchased a house with a likeness of the Madonna on its façade. With the permission of the local ecclesiastical authorities, he had the image erased. This infuriated the local citizens, so Marquis Francesco Gonzaga ordered Norsa to demolish his house and build a Christian church on the spot. That church is Santa Maria della Vittoria. If you visit it you'll see a fresco depicting the Madonna, a priest holding the model of the church, and the Norsa family with their yellow circles. The synagogue is partially dedicated to them.
Milan, Via Guastalla 19, tel. 02/4830-2806. Almost totally demolished by a bomb in 1943, it has been rebuilt.
Rome, Lungotevere Cenci, tel. 06/6830-4648. Don't be put off by the police guarding this monumental building: they have been posted there since a PLO terrorist shot at the emerging congregation in 1982, killing a young boy. Inside you will find a huge temple which manages to combine extravagance with deep spirituality. This was the first Jewish place of worship ever visited by a Pope, in 1987. To learn more, you can visit Rome's ghetto with a specialized guide.
Siena, Via delle Scotte 14, tel. 0577/284-647. Built in 1756, it is one of the oldest extant synagogues in Italy, and boasts Corinthian marble columns which came from Jerusalem. This is a twist, because generally it has been the Italian relics which have been removed to Jerusalem for safety.
Trieste, Via San Francesco 19, tel. 040/376-446. This city had four beautiful ancient temples, all of which were destroyed. The present one was built in 1912 and consecrated in the presence of Prince Hohenlohe. Above its doors are the symbols of the Jewish community: a crown, the breastplate of Aaron, palms and a sheaf of corn. Inside are gilded friezes, marble walls, and an imposing organ. There is also a mikveh (ritual bath) in the basement.
Turin, Via Pio V 12, tel. 010/669-2387. This monumental 19th-century building was demolished - except for its four onion domes - by a bomb that fell in 1942. It has since been extensively restored.
Venice has more synagogues than any other city in Italy. Perhaps the most interesting is also the oldest, the Great German Synagogue, which occupies the top floor of an anonymous building in Campo Ghetto Novo. Also of interest is the Scola Levantina in Campiello delle Scole (you'll recognize it by the charming enclosed balcony on its upper floor). It dates back to the 16th century and is very elaborate, with a masterful wooden Tevah (reading platform). The Oriental-style grating on the women's gallery conceals the occupants. You can visit three synagogues on a private walking tour with a specialized guide.
by Jacqueline Knight, Los Angeles
If you would like to visit any of these synagogues we strongly suggest you contact them before your trip. You will find more information about some of them in our Ethnic Italy issue, and by clicking here.