It is hard to introduce the history of the Jews and of their religion since it has such ancient origins and such modernity at the same time. We can’t forget what has happened in the past and we don’t want to omit the present.
This city walking tour through Bologna, one of the major cities for Jews’ hospitality ever and the largest community after Venice and Rome, has the purpose to pinpoint and summarize the most important events belonging to the Jewish culture in Emilia Romagna and, in particular, in Bologna. When we talk about Jewish culture, we refer not only to the religious aspects but also to the social, artistic and traditional values of this “ethnos”. According to Jewish tradition, Jewish ancestry is traced back to the Biblical patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Biblical matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, who lived in Canaan around the 18th century BCE. Jacob and his family migrated to Ancient Egypt after being invited to live with Joseph (who rose to the rank of Pharaoh’s Vizier) in the Land of Goshen region by Pharaoh himself. The patriarchs’ descendants were later enslaved until the Exodus led by Moses, which is commonly dated to the 13th century BCE. Moses led the Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt and across the Red Sea, after which they based themselves at Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Tables of Law by God. After 40 years of wandering in the desert, Moses died within sight of the Promised Land.
Inside the Synagogue, our first step of the tour, in via dei Gombruti (rebuilt in 1953 by architect Guido Muggia), we find a repository where a copy of the Jewish holy book (Torah) is preserved and a pulpit (Bimach) from where the Torah is read by the minister (Kohen). At the main entrance the gate is overcome by a big window with the shape of the David’s star (Maghen David). A Rabbi of a congregation is a Jewish scholar who is charged with answering the legal questions of a congregation. The most profound difference between traditional Jewish belief and that of Christianity is in its belief in the expected Messiah. Traditional Jewish belief holds that the Messiah of Israel is yet to come, while Christians view the Messiah in the personage of Jesus. The disparity between these two views has often given rise to tension and, occasionally, has spilled over into violence. One of the basic positions held by Orthodox Jews regarding the Messiah is that he will come from King David’s lineage and he will bring peace into the world.
As we move a step forward we reach San Petronio’s square where the Basilica of the same name takes place. Around the square where now we can admire a beautiful façade projected by the architect Vignola, once upon a time during the Middle Ages there was the so called Portico dei Banchi since it hosted the houses of the first bankers and money lenders/money changers. Among this category many professionals were Jewish. The Catholic Church was a bit worry about this custom of using money to make money. They condemned the usury and those who did not accept to convert into Christianity. A beautiful fresco inside the 1st chapel of San Petronio, made by Giovanni da Modena in 1420, reveals the inclination towards the affirmation and triumph of the Church upon the Synagogue. And a nice wooden sculpture represents San Bernardino in the 9th chapel, one of the most prominent intellectual and religious person (he was a Franciscan monk) who in the early 15th century tried to persecute the Jews as usurers.
But the Jews in this city were also well appreciated either by the Comune or by the later Signoria of Giovanni Bentivoglio and, even afterwards, by the pope, Julius II Della Rovere. In fact, they brought a lot of money to the city and they were quite fundamental in the economy of the municipality. There were rich Jewish families such the Sforno in via S. Stefano who owned a huge “palazzo” (Casa Sforno) in this square and from where they contributed to the economic life of the Comune together with the public offices. In via Goito another leading Jewish figure of the humanistic culture, Achille Bocchi, founded an Accademy called Hermatena inside his palace, i.e. Palazzo Bocchi, which was constructed by the architect Vignola in a Roman style and with a peculiarity: a unique huge inscription upon the base of the house in Jewish letters reproducing a verse from the Psalm 120.
In 1555 pope Paul IV issued a bull called Cum nimis absurdum by means of which he wanted to reaffirm his power and to formalize the necessity of restricting and isolating the Jews inside specific quarters (ghetto) which had to be delimited and locked during the night in order that this population could not mingle with the Christians. It was a terrible condemnation! In 1593 another bull, worst than the previous one, followed the first one and ordered the Jews to evacuate from Bologna since in the Papal State no Jew would have been admitted to live permanently but only under a specific permission and for a short period of time. More than 80 families fled and reached Ferrara, Mantova, Verona, Venezia …
The ghetto in Bologna still preserves the ancient features and structure of what it was at that time. Narrow streets, poor two-floor houses one following the other, musty air, low hygienical conditions. This should have been the scenario of the ghetto in the years before the expulsion. We can still now breathe in the air, walking around this area, what was the atmosphere caused by the act of discrimination. Three main gates were closed off at dusk and reopened only at dawn. Only one of the three is still recognizable at the cross between via del Carro and via Zamboni.
In via dell’Inferno at a certain point near the street number 16 appears a headstone on the wall of the present a house as commemorative sign of the anti-Semitism throughout the times: from the age of the Ghetto to the age of the Shoah or Holocaust, to remember the victims of the Nazi genocide in the II world War: more than 6 million Jews died in the conflict and here in Bologna there is a list of 83 people and their rabbi who, despite the solidarity of the citizenship, were persecuted and sent to the concentration camps.
Nowadays there is also a Museum just round the corner in via Valdonica which is called MEB (Jewish Museum of Bologna). It is rich of important testimonies of the history of this community, of their traditions, culture, customs and festivities. We can see some symbols, objects and clothes: the Maghen David, a Judas lion, a Menorah (candelabrum with 7 branches) and a Hamukkah (candelabrum with 9 branches used to switch the lights on during the Hamukkah festivity), the Mezuzah (a parchment containing sacred prayer pieces), the Kippah (male headgear), the Tallèd (a shawl for the prayers) and the Kittel (a tunic used ad shroud, burial garment).
In the end, we enter the Medieval Civic Museum in via Manzoni where we can admire four extraordinary gravestones extracted from the ancient Jewish cemetery in via Orfeo and destroyed after the expulsion in 1593. The gravestones are well preserved and they are dedicated to 4 prominent members of rich Jewish families in the 16th century. It is a rare example of funeral art for this community since they were built without respecting the religious traditions which forbade the depiction of the human face and all the earthly features. Furthermore, a very good deal of artistic ability and craftsmanship emerges from the type of script using precious and refined gemstones.
This is the end of our Jewish Heritage tour in Bologna. I hope that these visits will have an impact on you. Of course, the Jewish topic would require much more time to see it through, but in my opinion an initial overview of all the related aspects can represent a good step to move forward in the in-depth analysis.
OTHER TECHNICAL INFORMATION:
• Equipment: casual
• Transport: on foot/by bus
• Duration: 4 hours
• Level of difficulty: easy, medium walk
TARGET: ideal for schools, primary and secondary, small groups or individuals interested in history and religion
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