In the Ghetto ; Rome's Jewish Quarter Has Been a Part of the City for 500 Years. the Architecture Has Changed - but the Vibrant Spirit Remains. Matthew Hoffman Soaks Up the History

By Hoffman, Matthew | The Independent (London, England), April 29, 2006 | Go to article overview
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In the Ghetto ; Rome's Jewish Quarter Has Been a Part of the City for 500 Years. the Architecture Has Changed - but the Vibrant Spirit Remains. Matthew Hoffman Soaks Up the History


Hoffman, Matthew, The Independent (London, England)


Travellers in Italy will be familiar with the Ghetto of Venice, the first in Europe (established in 1516) and the one that gave its name to all the others. Like much of Venice, physically the Ghetto has hardly changed over the years, and you can still visit the original, atmospheric synagogues and, with little effort, visualise the daily life of the former inhabitants as they drew water from the wells in the campo and ran pawn shops from ground-floor rooms. But those who decide to spend time in the Ghetto of Rome will find that a very different place awaits them.

Rome is to Venice what a living organism is to a museum exhibit, and this is emphatically true of the two cities' Ghettos. Rome's Ghetto, although physically transformed to the point of obliteration, remains a vital centre of Roman, and Italian, Jewish life. The city's Jewish community, like Rome itself, is far older than that of Venice, tracing its continuous lineage back to the second century BC, when a community of Jewish merchants from Alexandria set up shop there. Their presence was augmented by slaves brought to Rome by the general (and later emperor) Titus, who suppressed a rebellion in the province of Judea in AD70. The Arch of Titus, which still stands in the Roman Forum, depicts his victory procession in panels of sculpture that show soldiers carrying booty from the sacking of the Temple in Jerusalem. And the community's numbers were further swelled by the expulsion of the Jews, after 1492, from Spain, Portugal and southern Italy.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews chose mainly to live in Trastevere, across the river Tiber from what was, in 1555, to become the Ghetto of Rome. Following the precedent of Venice, but implementing it in a far more brutal fashion, Pope Paul IV ordered all the Jews in Rome to crowd into a small, walled, riverside area, beneath the Capitoline, from which they were not finally freed until 1870, when the Pope's authority in Rome was displaced by the new Italian state. The newly established capital of Italy decided to knock down the old Ghetto and replace its crowded, higgledy- piggledy streets with three blocks of Liberty (Italian for Art Nouveau) apartment houses and a giant synagogue, the Tempio Maggiore, which was designed in a pastiche Assyrian-Babylonian idiom. Although not particularly successful as architecture, psychologically the new synagogue accomplished its purpose: letting a formerly abased people hold their domed head up high on the skyline.

The Tempio Maggiore, has recently inaugurated a permanent exhibition that narrates the history of the Jewish presence in Rome, and also displays numerous precious and beautifully crafted ritual objects, including many fine embroidered coverings for the scrolls of the Torah. Despite the enforced poverty of the Ghetto, the Jews confined there managed to scrape together sufficient resources to ensure that the finest artisans in Italy were employed for such objects. I began my visit to Rome by touring the exhibition at the Tempio Maggiore, which includes a moving documentary film of the rounding-up of Rome's Jews by the Germans, in 1943, before they were shipped off to Auschwitz. After seeing that, the opportunity to visit the main prayer hall of the synagogue has the air of a benediction, a testament to the survival of the living community. The Roman Ghetto is still the symbolic, and to a degree, the actual centre of Italian Jewish life. The same day as my visit to the Tempio Maggiore, the President of Italy, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, stopped by to see the new museum and discuss contemporary anti- Semitism with the Chief Rabbi and other officials from the Jewish community.

Moving outwards from the architecturally transformed site of the former Ghetto, you plunge into the warren of cobbled streets, small squares, Roman remains, Renaissance palaces and Baroque churches that make this area of Rome a delight to explore.

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In the Ghetto ; Rome's Jewish Quarter Has Been a Part of the City for 500 Years. the Architecture Has Changed - but the Vibrant Spirit Remains. Matthew Hoffman Soaks Up the History
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