~ Curious And Unusual ~
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Rome's Ghetto

The Ancient Jewish District


Rome's Jewish community claims to be the oldest in the world, as it is known to exist since the late 2nd century BC. In those days the Jews came to Rome mostly as slaves from Palestine, that was under Roman rule. But also a military alliance is remembered between Rome and Judas Maccabee, leader of the Jews uprising against the Seleucid Empire, in BC 167.

During the early years and throughout the Middle Ages, the community in Rome had no problems in living side by side with the Christian population; their main activity was trade. But hard times came during the late Renaissance, when the popes, following the Protestant schism and prompted by the following Counter-Reformation movement, gave a sharp turn of the screw against whoever failed to abide with Catholic orthodoxy. In 1555, the newly elected pope Paul IV decided to enclose the whole Jewish community within a very small enclave, and issued strict discriminatory laws. This is not the only repressive measure this pope is remembered for; in 1559 he issued the Index of Forbidden Books, a long list of titles among which were any written works by non-Catholic authors, regardless of their subject, any edition of the Bible considered unorthodox, any book about astrology and fortune-telling.
Furthermore, reading the authorized Italian translation of the Bible was forbidden for any woman, and for those who did not know Latin (a specific permit was required for this purpose).

(left) the Ghetto in 1748, according to the map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli, compared to the same area at present: the boundary of the enclave is marked in red, and its five gates, closed by doors, can be seen; a sixth gate, opened in 1825 when the Ghetto was enlarged, is indicated by the dashed circle; note how the old stret plan was completely altered, starting from 1888 (see also the picture at the bottom of the page), and how the river bed was also slightly modified


The neighborhood where the Jews were confined was known as the Ghetto (after the name of a similar enclave that had benn established in Venice in 1516). It comprised the few streets located between piazza Giudea (no longer there) by the church of Santa Maria del Pianto, the remains of the Porch of Octavia (for further details see The Rioni, Sant'Angelo, and Ettore Roesler Franz and Bygone Rome, page 5) and the river bank by the Tiber Island. Today most of the old streets no longer exist and the general street plan of the district has considerably changed, as a comparison of the previous pictures clearly shows.
Following the papal bull issued by Paul IV, entitled Cum nimis absurdum (literally "being exceedingly senseless", referring to religious tolerance towards the Jews), huge gates were built in order to physically seclude the 8 acre area which the 3,000 members of the Jewish community should have lived in.
the Ghetto area, highlighted in yellow, in the map of Rome by Antonio Tempesta (1593); the gates are clearly
visible, and before the main one, in piazza Giudea (left), stands the fountain from which the Jews drew water
What 'the enclosure of the Jews', as it was also called in those days, might have looked like to the eyes of an observer is described scantily but rather precisely by an octave of Giuseppe Berneri's dialect poem Il Meo Patacca, written in the late 1600s (see also the Language and Poetry section):

Il Ghetto, un loco, al Tevere, vicino,
Da una parte, e dall'altra Pescaria;
un recinto di strade assai meschino,
Ch' ombroso, e renne ancor malinconia.
H quattro gran portoni, e un portoncino;
Il d s'apre, acci el trafico ce sia,
M dalla sera inzino giorno ciaro,
Lo ti inserrato un sbirro portinaro.
The Ghetto is a place located next to the Tiber
On one side, and to the Fish-market on the other;
It is a rather miserable enclosure of streets,
As it is shady, and also saddening.
It has four large gates, and a small one;
During daytime it is open, to let people out,
But from the evening until morning has broken
It is kept locked by a porter guard.

The dwellers were allowed to leave this neighborhood only during daytime, while from dusk till dawn the entrances to the district were closed by huge doors, watched over by guards, whose wages the same community had to pay for. Originally, the gates were three; a few decades after the Ghetto had been established, pope Sixtus V had its boundary slightly enlarged towards the river, and the number of gates rose to five.
The Jewish population, though, kept growing at a very fast rate, also because Jews from other cities within the Papal State were forced to flee to Rome: by the end of the 17th century there were about 9,000 people living in the Ghetto, so the enclosure had to be slightly enlarged. A further enlargement was only allowed in 1825 by pope Leo XII, after having received funds by the Jewish Rotschild bankers; on that occasion, a sixth gate was set in via della Reginella.
Neither the gates nor their doors exist any longer, but old maps still feature them quite clearly (previous image). Those who were left outside after the closing time were to face the implacable papal law court.


old houses in via di Sant'Ambrogio: as of 1825,
this block became part of the Ghetto's boundary
Initially, the only source of drinkable water for the community was a fine fountain by Giacomo Della Porta (see the Fountains monograph), in the northern half of piazza Giudea, facing the Ghetto's main door, thus located outside the boundary; the hygienic conditions inside the district were obviously terrible. Only several years later, the enclave was reached by running water thanks to a small wall fountain built in piazza delle Cinque Scuole, and two very simple ones in piazza delle Tre Cannelle (i.e. Three Nozzles Square, after the fountain itself), and in vicolo de' Savelli. Furthermore, being the Ghetto one of the lowest spots in Rome, another constant danger was the risk of being submerged during the frequent river floods.

Outside the Ghetto all members of the Jewish community had to wear a sign, in order to be distinguishable from the Christians.
It was either a piece of cloth or a veil, blue-gray in colour (glaucus in the 1555 bull), which was called sciamanno. Men wore it on their hat, while women used it as a scarf. This word is still in use in the local dialect, with a meaning of 'shabby, ragged garment'.

Jews were not allowed to own any property; the houses where they lived belonged to non-Jews, who rented them to members of the community at prices kept under control by means of a law issued under pope Pius IV (1561), called Ius Gazzagà (from Latin ius, "law", and the Hebrew word חֲזָקָה chazakah, "possession", corrupted according to the Roman pronunciation). By effect of this law, once the rent had been agreed, it remained forever fixed, and the lease contract was bequeathed to the first tenant's descendants, so many houses were occupied by the same families, generation after generation, at prices that, in time, turned extremely cheap.

via della Reginella, where the sixth gate of the Ghetto was fitted
However, the enclave was so crowded that, from time to time, the houses had to be enlarged by building lofts; the result was that these slums were crammed one on top of the other. Passages between them were also very common, both internally and externally; the latter were called passetti (named after the famous Passetto in Borgo district). In times of persecution such passages enabled the local dwellers to escape more easily.

Particular laws, that often changed when a new pope was elected, restricted the number of activities that the Jews were officially allowed to practice. Among the jobs that most members of the community lived upon was the rag-seller, who bought and sold rags going around with a cart with the typical cry ao!; in Jewish-Roman dialect they were known as peromanti ("Rome-roamers"). Jewish women were particularly skilled in sewing, so that mending clothes was another common activity. And among typical jobs was also the carpenter: the Jewish cabinet-makers, whose skills were renowned, were hired also by aristocratic families.

the Carmel Temple, where the 'compulsory preaches' were held;
at the back is the balcony of Palazzo Costaguti (16th century)
Besides these activities, there were also richer members of the community, who ran businesses such as hiring elegant clothes for ceremonies to people who could not afford to buy one, or lending money, but had to comply with the aforesaid strict laws, as any other Jew.

In 1572, Gregory XIII decreed that on Saturdays, the adult members of the community should attend the so-called compulsory preaches, sermons whose purpose was to convert the Jews to the Christian religion; they were held in the small church of St.Gregory (now facing the huge synagogue, built in 1904), and by the tiny Carmel Temple, in via Santa Maria in Publicolis. It is said that some people used to plug their ears with wax, not to listen to the hated preaches; but those who fell asleep would be kicked awake by the papal guards, who watched over these functions.

The faade of St.Gregory's church still bears an eloquent bilingual inscription, in Latin and Hebrew, referring to a passage by prophet Isaiah (65, 2-3):  All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations, a people who continually provoke me to my very face . The inscription was set there in 1858.

Only within the Ghetto's boundary, the Jews were allowed to follow their own religion; in a single building of the district five schools were housed (namely, School of the Temple, New School, Sicilian School, Castilian School and Catalan School), one for each different Jewish rite whom the local population belonged to, and they also acted as places of worship. To build more than one synagogue was, in fact, forbidden.

Besides the discriminations, the Ghetto's dwellers had to endure several humiliating traditions and rituals. For instance, during the celebrations for Rome's Carnival, usually held in February, a number of elderly Jews was forced to race along the central high street, while the crowd mocked them, and threw all sorts of trash; this custom was later turned into a horse race.

Rome was not the only city where in those years the Jewish community suffered discrimination: similar laws were issued also elsewhere in Italy (Venice, Bologna, Ferrara, etc.); already during the Middle Ages, expulsions had been enforced in countries such as Spain, France, England. In fact, the same word Ghetto likely sprang from the Jewish enclosure in Venice, the first one ever established (1511), which was located next to a foundry, and was called campo gheto ("slag field") after the by-product of metal purification that was gathered there.

vicolo Costaguti, almost a tunnel, leads to an inner court

The bull issued by Paul IV was followed by others: in 1569 Pius V expelled the Jews from any land within the Papal State, with the exception of the ghettos in Rome and Ancona, a measure that was confirmed by Clement VIII in 1593.
However, not all popes showed themselves equally harsh to the Jews. For instance, Pius IV (1559-65) was more lenient, while Gregory XIII (1572-85) took a middle position, and Sixtus V (1585-90), one of the sternest pontiffs in history (the 'tough pope'), curiously showed a protective attitude towards the Jewish community, despite the persisting restriction of their civil rights. Actually, by the time any new pope was elected, the attitude of the Church of Rome towards the Jews could considerably change, impredictably, shifting from tolerance to persecution, or vice-versa.
Below is the full text of a bill issued on January 25, 1595, and signed by Rome's bishop and governor Annibale Rucellai, that forbade any mistreatment to members of the community:

BILL
That forbids anybody to harass or to annoy the Jews.

In order to put an end to the scandal and inconvenience caused by the trouble and the mockeries endured by the Jews every day, the most Illustrious and Reverend Annibale Rucellai, Bishop of Carcassonne, and of the Holy City of Rome and its district, Governor-General, and Vice-chamberlain, by the express wish of his Holiness the Pope, by means of this Bill orders, prohibits and commands that no person, of any rank or social position, may dare in any way to harass or cause hindrance of any kind, either direct or indirect, to any Jew, either male or female, boy or girl, nor mock them, touch them, nor give them offence, either with words or in fact, either during the day or at night-time, either openly or secretly, under the penalty of three tugs of the rope for Christian men, and of the lash for women and children, and to the additional punishment they would be given if they had offended a Christian, and declares that the masters will be held responsible for their servants, the fathers for their children, the teachers for their students, and the sentence will be strictly carried out, and the most Reverend Governor reserves the right of increasing or reducing the sanction, according to the seriousness of the offence and the persons involved, and everybody beware not to disobey.

(click to enlarge the picture)


the northern side of via del Portico d'Ottavia (formerly via di Pescaria)
is still lined with houses of the 15th-16th centuries: the Ghetto's boundary
ran across the no longer standing buildings that stood on the opposite side
However strict the bill may appear, the last line meant that the rich or the aristocrats could easily escape a judicial sentence.

When in 1798 Rome fell to Napoleon's troops, the French administration opened the Ghetto. But when the papal authority was restored, in 1814, Pius VII had the doors of the enclosure closed again at night-time. The only concession made by the following pope, Leo XII, in the early 1830s was to grant a further extension of the Ghetto's boundary, which included via di Sant'Ambrogio and via della Reginella (top left corner of the opening picture); the latter street was fitted with an additional gate. But the fanatical pope also enforced stricter laws against the Jews, by effect of which they were no longer allowed to own any private property and had to get rid of whatever they owned in the shortest possible time. For this reason, many members of the community fled from Rome.
The Ghetto was then shortly opened again for five months, over the Roman Republic period (February - July 1849); on this occasion, the wooden doors of the enclave were removed. But when Pius IX came back, he ordered that the Jewish community should live again inside the Ghetto, despite the place was no longer physically closed.
The virtual gates of the hideous enclosure definitively fell only after the end of the Papal State (1870), when the new Italian administration let the Roman Jews free to leave this area, and gave all citizens the same civil rights, regardless of their religious belief.

Despite the situation described so far, the condition of the Jews in Rome was not worse than in other Italian and European cities, if not even better. Poet Crescenzo Del Monte, who was born in the Ghetto shortly before it was opened, in a footnote to one of his sonnets in Jewish-Roman dialect wrote: "It is true that the Jews under the rule of the popes, besides moral discomfort, and besides a few short periods of persecution, or some isolated act of fanaticism, were rather well treated, or not so ill-treated, compared with other countries."


ancient Roman fragment on
a 15th century house
By the end of WW II, though, the Ghetto had to pay one more heavy tribute in human lives, during Rome's occupation by the Nazi troops. Among the grimmest episodes of those days was the rounding up of 1022 members of the Jewish community, who were then deported to Auschwitz, most of whom never returned home. This happened on October 16, 1943.


Nowadays several members of the community live in other districts of Rome, although they still consider the Ghetto their common meeting point, on special occasions and religious festivities.


via di Sant'Ambrogio

the synagogue
A few restaurants in the neighborhood keep alive Jewish-Roman cooking, a very old tradition which blends typical Jewish dishes with Roman ones, such as the famous fried artichokes. Instead the so-called 'fagottari', customers who used to carry their own food in a bundle (fagotto), thus ordering only wine, are no longer seen, as this tradition has died out.

Here also the language was influenced by the dwellers' original culture. The Jewish-Roman dialect, once very common among the members of the community, was not very different from the standard dialect spoken in other parts of Rome, but had many different words, clearly of Hebrew origin.

the hall of a private 16th century house
Today this dialect can be more and more seldom heard in the Ghetto's lanes, having been widely replaced by the official Italian language. A laudable attempt to keep this dialect alive is being made by a small number of scolars, by means of cultural initiatives, such as public readings and theatre plays. A long-awaited edition of the sonnets by Crescenzo Del Monte (1868-1935), previously quoted, the only Jewish-Roman dialect poet, was also released in 2006.

As of 1888, a few years after the reopening of the Ghetto, the old houses of the whole neighborhood were taken down, partly due to their bad condition, but also because the town-planning policy of those days aimed at widening streets, for the benefit of the growing vehicle traffic, although in some cases this heavily affected the original architecture of many sites. Also the fountain in piazza Giudea was removed (the same square disappeared), and was then relocated by the nearby Palazzo Cenci. Therefore, the local street plan has completely changed, but via della Reginella has remained basically untouched, as well as the nearby lanes, which still maintain their magical atmosphere, a unique blend of history, architecture and tradition.
a picture taken in 1912 features the Ghetto area razed to the ground; in the
foreground stands the fountain of the former piazza Giudea, before being moved;
the synagogue, in the background, had been opened only one year earlier.