Friday, January 3, 2014

The Jewish Ghetto in Rome

Today's photos:


1. The Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of the Turtles).

2. These plaques and mosaics are reminders of the Jewish culture and religion.

3. The plaque which recalls the round-up of the Jews on October 16, 1943.

4. Remains of the Portico d'Ottavia built by Augustus in the first century B.C.

5. Three surviving columns from the portico.

6. The name of the piazza in front of the portico recalls the infamous round-up.

7. The synagogue as seen from the Tiber Island on a cold day in winter.

8. The Theater of Marcellus, only partly visible from the Ghetto.


When I say to Americans who are visiting Rome: "Let's go to the Ghetto", if they are not familiar with the city, they are somewhat taken aback because the word "ghetto" has a negative meaning in English. And indeed, the Jewish Ghetto of Rome was for many centuries a terrible place, an open-air prison, where thousands of Jews were required to live in a very confined area and in an extremely unhealthy environment. Today, this same area has become a popular stop for tourists and Romans alike who come here to learn and experience its rich history, as well as  to dine in one of its many famous Kosher restaurants.


The Jews in Rome


But let's start our brief visit at the beginning. The Jews pre-date the Christians in Rome, having settled here long before the birth of Christ, not in this location, but on the right bank of the Tiber river, in the Trastevere neighborhood. In the 1300's' they moved to the left bank, just across the Tiber Island, into what soon became known as the Jewish Ghetto, another way of saying the Jewish neighborhood.


Jewish-Christian conflicts


Until modern times, the Christians blamed the Jews for the death of Christ, which created a feeling of hostility between the two religions. In 1555 Paul IV decided to segregate the Jews within the overwhelmingly Christian city of Rome. The pope ordered that the area be surrounded by walls which originally contained three large gates. The Jews were required to live within these walls. The gates were closed and locked at sunset and opened at dawn. Jews who worked in other parts of the city were allowed to leave the Ghetto to work or attend to their business, but they were required to be back inside the walls by sunset. Although the plight of the Jews in Rome was deplorable, the condition of their counterparts in other European cities was even worse.


This situation continued for almost 300 years, until 1848, when Pius IX ordered that the walls of the Ghetto be torn down. After the Papal State fell to the Italian troops of unification on September 20, 1870, the Jews were free to live wherever they wanted to in the city. Many families did indeed move out, but some chose to remain in the old neighborhood, and many Jews continue to populate the Ghetto to this day. It is difficult to know the exact number because many non-Jews have moved into the area. The population before the walls came down reached a high of 9,000 people at the end of the 1600's. By 1848, when the walls were destroyed, the population was about 4,700.


A walk through the Ghetto


We begin our walk at Piazza Mattei where one of the entrance gates existed. Before you leave the piazza and enter the Ghetto proper, take a few minutes to admire one of the most beautiful and charming small fountains in the city of Rome, the Fountain of the Turtles (Fontana delle Tartarughe). This little Renaissance gem was designed by Giacomo della Porta and built in 1584 by Taddeo Landini. Restored in 1658 by Bernini who added the turtles, it is made of grey and white marble and bronze, a real delight to look at.


Just off Piazza Mattei the narrow Via della Reginella brings us to Via del Portico d'Ottavia, the main street of the Ghetto. Just before the intersection of these two streets, on the left, attached to the wall of a building, are mosaics and relief carvings which refer to the Jewish community. You will see representations of the Star of David and the Menorah. There is also a modern relief carving which shows soldiers with their guns trained on civilians. The item bears the date of October 16, 1943. It is a poignant reminder that on this date the Nazi occupation troops in Rome rounded-up over 1,000 Jewish residents of the Ghetto and shipped them to the concentration camps. Only 15 of them returned alive at the end of the war.


The ancient Roman connection


Turning right on Via del Portico d'Ottavia at the end of Via della Reginella, you will see on the right side a very old building with a rather worn-out late medieval   inscription across the façade. This is of great historical interest because it is one of the few inscriptions remaining in Rome which lists the year according to the Roman method of reckoning. At the end of the inscription you will see AB URB CON MMCCXXI. Written out in full it would read: AB URBE CONDITA 2221. This means "2221 years from the founding of the city". To convert that to the way we reckon the years, subtract 753 (the year Rome was founded) from 2221, and you will get 1468, the year of the inscription.


Turning around now and begin walking straight up Via del Portico d'Ottavia, the main street of the Ghetto. You will come to the imposing remains of the Portico d'Ottavia, from which the street takes its name. This was an enormous four-sided, open portico, built by Augustus in 23 B.C. and named after his sister, Octavia. One of the gates which led into the portico at this spot still survives here, along with some of the columns which surrounded the area. To imagine the enormous size of the portico you must realize that there were 300 of these columns around it. Within this area were two temples, one dedicated to Jupiter and one dedicated to Juno. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century A.D., tells us that the portico contained many marble statues by Greek artists. 


A Christian church and a fish market


In the eighth century a church was built within the boundaries of the portico, dedicated to the Holy Angel. When a fish market was established in this same area in the twelfth century, the church became known as Sant'Angelo in Pescheria (Church of the Holy Angel in the Fishmarket). The market continued to operate until the 1870's. In this church, beginning in 1584 and lasting until 1848, the Jews were required to listen to a Christian sermon on Saturdays. The piazza just in front of the portico is called Largo del 16 Ottobre 1943, to recall the round-up of the Jews on that day.


A synagogue and a Roman theater


As you walk away from the Portico of Octavia, you will have on your right, the side of the Synagogue (Tempio Maggiore), built after the previous temple was destroyed by a fire in 1893. On your left, partially visible through an iron gate, are the remains of the Theater of Marcellus, a theater planned by Julius Caesar and built in 13 B.C. by Augustus who named it in memory of his nephew who had died in 23 B.C. at the age of 19.


After crossing the busy Lungotevere street, you find yourself at the Pons Fabricius, one of the two bridges which lead to the Tiber Island. Although the Island is not considered part of the Ghetto, it has an important place in the history of both the Jews and the Christians in Rome. To read about this Christian-Jewish connection with the Island, see my book: Tiber Island and the Basilica of St. Bartholomew. If you would like to know more about the Theater of Marcellus, see the post of October 16, 2011 on this blog.




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