It’s a foggy fall morning, and standing atop Mount Cardeto on the east coast of central Italy, I can barely make out the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea. As I look out toward the cliff’s edge, what I do see is a vast, grassy slope dotted with gravestones. Most of the stones are circular — thick, stubby posts with decorative tops — and are engraved in Hebrew, though some are in Italian. Many are lopsided, having settled part way into the ground over the hundreds of years since they were first erected.
This hilltop cemetery — used continuously from the early 1500s to 1863 — is in the port city of Ancona, which in 2004 completed a massive restoration of its Campo degli Ebrei (Field of Jews). In all, more than 1,000 gravestones were recovered, including hundreds that had fallen into the sea. The information carved on them — name, lifespan, place of birth, occupation, names of other family members, etc. — has been entered into a digital archive that visitors can now search on-site.
The size of the cemetery attests to a once-vibrant Jewish presence in the area. The scope of its restoration attests to something altogether different: a recent interest in, and support for, uncovering and preserving the Jewish past in Italy.
Which is what brings me here. The Primo Levi Center in New York — an organization that supports research on historical and contemporary Jewish life in Italy — along with the Italian tourism bureau, has brought a group of American journalists to two regions in Italy, places where Jewish history and artifacts have often gone unnoticed. On our six-day journey, scholars, curators and Jewish community members guide us through towns in Marche, along the country’s central Adriatic coast, and in Apulia, a southern region that extends through the heel of Italy’s boot.
In Ancona, a city in Marche, Jews played a vital role in the economy, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were merchants and traders of the many commodities that passed through the busy port; they were also artisans, craftsmen and moneylenders. In other Marche towns, Jews enjoyed periods of similar success, albeit with variations due to local economy or rule: Jews in Pesaro and Urbino enjoyed periodic protections under some of the Montefeltro dukes, while Jews in the free port of Senigallia prospered from the Fiera della Maddalena, one of Europe’s largest market fairs.
Despite periods of relative peace and prosperity, Jews in Marche also experienced restrictions, persecution and ghettoization, and in the 20th century, fascism and World War II devastated the Jewish population. Today, Ancona is home to the only remaining official Jewish community in Marche, with approximately 200 members, including Jews who live in nearby Urbino and Senigallia.
Ghettos were created in the 1630s in each of these towns, as they were wherever large numbers of Jews lived, and Jews from smaller communities were forced to move to them. When people left the outlying communities, they often brought sacred objects with them.
This was the case when, in 1633, a ghetto was created in the walled city of Urbino, home to Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s majestic 15th century Palazzo Ducale, or Ducal Palace. The one remaining synagogue of the period, at 24 Via Stretta — just steps from where a gate to the ghetto once stood — now houses dozens of Torah scrolls, most brought by Jews from surrounding areas. It also houses a collection of Torah covers and parochet (ark curtains), made by women in the community and donated to their synagogues to mark a birth or wedding. Embroidered on silk, satin or velvet in rich hues and gold threads, many with lace and beadwork, these textiles reflect a grandeur seemingly at odds with ghetto life.
In the mid-1860s, ghettos throughout the region were opened. Some were subsequently razed, destroying original synagogues. When Ancona’s ghetto area was revamped, the first Levantine-rite synagogue — built in 1569 — was demolished, though some furnishings were preserved. In 1876, using plans from the original building, the synagogue was reconstructed in the heart of the old ghetto, at 14 Via Astagno; it is used to this day.
Its prayer room, like those in many of Marche’s historic synagogues, is a rectangular, airy two-story space, with women’s galleries lining the long sides of the upper floor. Elegant brass chandeliers cast a golden light; gilded decorative elements lend an almost regal air to the room. The 17th century Baroque-style ark was preserved from the earlier building; red-painted wooden columns flank its silver doors — lavishly decorated with Jewish symbols — and an elaborate crown tops the whole structure.
For hundreds of years before Jewish settlement reached its apogee in Marche, there were well-established, learned Jewish communities to the south, in Apulia. Especially between the ninth and 13th centuries, towns such as Trani, Oria, Bari and Otranto were renowned for Torah and Talmud scholarship, while other parts of the region were centers of Hebrew manuscript production.
But this land was part of the Kingdom of Naples, which under Spanish rule became less and less hospitable to Judaism. In 1541, the kingdom issued its final expulsion edict for Jews in all of southern Italy.
In some Apulian towns today, the only remnants of a Jewish presence are place and street names, such as Via della Sinagoga in Lecce. And in some places, Jewish gravestones were “recycled” and used as building materials; in Trani, for example, you can find Hebrew inscriptions on doorjambs and lintels made from old gravestones.
Between 1200 and 1400, there were four synagogues in the Jewish area (giudecca) of Trani; around 1380 they were converted to churches, and today two remain standing. One of these — originally the Scola Grande synagogue, later the church of St. Anna — now houses the museum of the archdiocese of Trani-Barletta-Bisceglie, which contains a Jewish section. Archeological finds and archival documents describe the history of Jews throughout southern Italy, especially in Trani. Displayed within the stone walls and under the soaring domed ceiling of the old synagogue/church, the artifacts include medieval illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, a 13th century mezuzah from the rabbi’s house in Trani, and plans and photos revealing synagogue features no longer visible.
Via Stretta, in Urbino, was a main street in the Jewish ghetto. Photo by Anita Kantrowitz
The second Trani synagogue that still stands is the more modest Scola Nova, which was completed in the 13th century. It was also converted into a church but recently became a synagogue once again. Francesco Lotoro, a musician who has spent many years uncovering and recording music composed in concentration camps, was a driving force behind re-creating a place for Jewish worship in Trani.
A convert to Judaism, Lotoro believes he is descended from Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity. After his conversion was finalized in 2004, and at the suggestion of his rabbi, he reached out to the 40 or so Jews who were living in Apulia — a few Israelis married to Italians, other converts — to join him in re-opening the synagogue at Scola Nova. After successful negotiations with the city, which at the time owned the empty building, Lotero’s group made some alterations to the space and has been conducting services there since 2006.
How appropriate that this was the last stop on our trip, a trip that began in a cemetery. For it is here, in Trani, that a single thread from the 2,000-year-old tapestry of Italian Jewry has been picked up again, and for the first time in 500 years, Jews are once again worshipping in a medieval synagogue in Apulia.