Since the Italian Renaissance, modern Italy’s central region of Tuscany has been
famous for its rich and lavish landscapes, artistic and architectural
achievements, as well as its important role in the development of modern
Florence, Pisa, and Livorno are among Tuscany’s most
significant cities. Not only are they influential and picturesque capitals of
their respective Tuscan provinces, but each has little known but important
Jewish sites worthy of the attention of curious tourists.
especially in the 16th century, the fate of the Jews was closely tied to the
fate of the powerful Medici family who had offered Jews protection during their
rule. The Medicis and the Jews had become so close that whenever the Medicis
were expelled from Florence by local Catholic rulers, the Jews were also
expelled. However, once Cosimo de’Medici emerged as Grand-Duke of Tuscany, the
political situation for the Jews, which had been generally positive until then,
turned for the worse.
In 1567, Cosimo compelled the Jews to wear
identifying badges; in 1570, he shut down Jewish-owned banks; and, in 1571,
required the Jews to reside in the newly established Ghetto of Florence (a
concession to Pope Pius V for conferring on Cosimo the title of Grand Duke). It
was accessible by two gates that were closed each night.
Ghetto existed until 1848 when it was destroyed along with its two synagogues
(one for the Italian, or Italki, rite; the other Sephardi). Today, the thousand
Jews who reside in Florence are served by a couple of synagogues, most notably
the massive Tempio Maggiore, the Grand Temple located at Via Farini 4, designed
in the awe-inspiring neo-Moorish style.
Built in 1882, the synagogue
features an interior with arcades of columns alongside lavish decorations that
include golden frescoes and mosaics. On the second floor, a Jewish Museum was
opened to the public in 1981, exhibiting a collection depicting Florentine
Florence is rich in history with sites that have unexpected
Jewish associations. One obvious example stands in Piazza della Signoria, the
square in front of the Palazozo Vecchio – a copy of Michelangelo’s famous statue
of David, which was the symbol of the Florentine Republic (the original stands
in the Accademia Gallery).
Perhaps less obvious is a Florentine church –
not just any church, but the Basilica of Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy
Cross). Not only is it the main Franciscan church in Florence but it remains the
largest Franciscan church anywhere. It serves as the place of burial for Italy’s
most seminal figures, from Michelangelo and Galileo to Machiavelli and
Most tourists, both Jews and non-Jews alike, might be surprised
to see the large Star of David that adorns the exterior of the church’s upper
triangular panel. A 19thcentury renovation is the source of this design.
Originally built in the late 13th century, the Basilica hired an Italian- Jewish
architect named Niccolò Matas (1798-1872) to design the church’s neo-Gothic
He must have been widely respected as not only was he permitted
to include a Star of David in his church design, but when it was learned that
his will expressed his desire to be buried in the church among Italy’s greatest
figures, a compromise between Catholic and Jewish leaders was reached that
granted his wish. However, because he was Jewish he was buried under the porch
stairs rather than inside the church.
Besides the Roman Coliseum, perhaps
Italy‚s most famous landmark is the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The image of the
renowned building is no stranger to photo albums.
It is an instantly
recognizable landmark that catches the lens of most visitors to
Built in the 12th century, the Tower was originally intended to be
vertical but tilted due to problems in the ground foundation. It has leaned ever
Although most residents of Pisa are Roman Catholics, there was
also a Jewish presence in Pisa since the time of the Tower‚s construction, if
not centuries earlier. On his way to Jerusalem from Spain, the 12th-century
Jewish explorer Benjamin of Tudela arrived to Pisa and wrote about the
modest-sized Jewish community he encountered there.
By the 15th century,
Pisa’s Jewish community had grown as many Jewish families involved in
money lending chose to settle in the city. Unlike Rome, Venice, and Florence,
Pisa did not have a ghetto where Jews were forced to reside.
In Pisa, the
Jews experienced a more positive reception than in the Florentine Republic, and
were able to remain close to the Medici banking family. It is no wonder that the
number of Pisan Jews continued to grow, especially following the arrival of
exiled Jews from Spain after the 1492 expulsion. But their number in Pisa
declined in subsequent centuries.
Today, a synagogue remains among this
small but historic community comprised of just over 100 Jews. Constructed in the
late 16th century and subsequently remodeled, the Pisa synagogue continues to
function on the second floor of Via Palestro 24.
By the onset of the
Holocaust, Pisa’s Jewish population consisted of some 500 people of which
several dozen perished, including Pisa’s Rabbi Augusto Hasda and the president
of the Pisan Jewish community, Giuseppe Pardo Roques, who had served as Pisa’s
The 17th-century decline of Pisa’s Jewish community mostly
reflected the voluntary transfer of many Jewish families to the nearby city of
Livorno. The third largest port on Italy‚s west coast, Livorno emerged as a very
important city for trade. Ever since the late 1500s, positive commercial laws
and lack of official discrimination made Livorno very popular, attracting Jews
and other persecuted groups from across Europe. Indeed, Livorno was
There the Jews experienced religious freedom, full citizenship,
access to higher education, and the rights to own and transfer property. Credit
for these exemplary policies is attributed to the new Grand Duke of Tuscany,
Ferdinando I de’Medici, Cosimo’s son, who specifically invited the Jews to
settle in Livorno by his 1593 “edict of tolerance” offering a haven in Livorno
In these places, especially Livorno, the Jewish experience was
in stark contrast to the restrictive life of the Florentine
Ferdinando believed that the presence of Jews in Livorno would
help develop his newly established town.
His foresight proved correct.
This edict remains one of the most significant documents of Jewish tolerance in
early modern Europe for the rights and protections it offered the Jews (among
other oppressed groups) who had suffered considerably as a result of the
Inquisition and expulsions across Western Europe.
As a result, the proud
Jewish community played an important role in Livorno’s economic development,
which is what the Medici ruler had hoped would occur through his benevolent
policies. Just as in Pisa, the Jews of Livorno were not confined to a ghetto,
nor were they compelled to wear badges identifying their Jewish
Livorno’s Jews worked primarily as moneylenders, merchants,
book printers, and physicians. They were also major exporters and importers. By
the 18th century, the height of their presence, some 5,000 Jews resided in
By the outbreak of the Second World War, about 2,000 Jews were
still there, but due to the Holocaust and subsequent migration, only about a
Although the Jewish population dramatically declined, the
historic religious life of Livornese Jewry is still evident – not in the
original buildings that housed the city’s many synagogues (over time, those that
had ceased to function were sold, while several were destroyed during World War
II), but in the current Jewish infrastructure and the artifacts they managed to
The ultra-modern building that houses Livorno’s contemporary
synagogue (designed by Roman Jewish architect, Angelo Di Castro) was constructed
in the early 1960s on the site of the former Grand Synagogue, which had been
destroyed by German bombs in 1944.
It is located at Piazza Benamozegh 1
(between Via Grande and Via Cairoli), a plaza renamed in honor of respected
19th-century Livorno scholar, Rabbi Elia Benamozegh (1823-1900).
site not to be missed is the Marini Oratory, a former 19th-century synagogue
situated nearby on Via Micali. It now houses the Livorno Jewish Museum
exhibiting liturgical objects and the original synagogue ark, which was
reputedly brought to Livorno by Sephardi Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula.
Livorno was also where the Jewish artist and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani
(1884-1920) was born. His birthplace near Piazza Attias is open to the public.
Appointments must be made in advance to see these sites.
its rich history and scenic vistas, is well worth visiting, especially to see
the less well-known but meaningful and inspiring Jewish sites.Arthur
Wolak is a freelance writer in Vancouver.
This article first appeared in
the Jewish Independent.