Wandering Jew: A look at Livorno

Once the envy of ruling kings, Livorno’s Jewish history is intrinsically linked to the city’s history. And, both cannot fail to impress the most seasoned traveler.

By TANYA POWELL-JONES
April 18, 2013 10:34
Livorno

Wandering Jew: A look at Livorno. (photo credit: Wikicommons)

 
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Nestled on the west coast of Italy, Livorno’s Jewish history starts with the history of the city itself. The 16th century saw the first stone being laid to construct this port city, which was to become one of the major ports during the 16th to 18th century.

In the 16th century, to populate the town, the Grand Duke Ferdinando 1 (1587-1609) issued various edicts known as the “Livornine”. These edicts invited merchants of all nations to come to Livorno, especially Jewish merchants. The Grand Duke Ferdinando promised very favorable conditions such as complete religious freedom, tax exemption, and unlike many other cities in Tuscany, Jews did not have to live in a ghetto. Under these conditions the Jewish population grew from 114, in 1601 to 3,000 by 1689.

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Jews became involved in a variety of industries such as the coral industry, the soap industry and the coffee trade. In 1632, the Jews imported the first coffee into Italy and opened coffeehouses in Livorno. As the Jews of Livorno prospered news of their fame and fortune spread so much that Louis XIV, King of France, offered to resettle the whole community in Marseilles.

Even with changes in the sovereignty of Livorno the status of the Jews remained, and by the end of the 18th century the Jewish population had swelled to nearly 5,000. However, such prosperity was not to last, and the invasion of Livorno in the late 18th century by Napoleon, the infamous French military and political leader, was the beginning of the city’s decline. One of the main problems was that the Jews had supported the French occupation, and after Tuscany was annexed by the Kingdom of Italy the town of Livorno declined in importance amongst the growing competition from other ports. This led to the decline of the Jewish population, which fell to around 2,500 by the end of the 19th century.

Today, Livorno’s community numbers 600 and boasts a spectacularly designed synagogue, Jewish museums and cemeteries, as well as some superb local Jewish dishes.

To begin a day of sightseeing, head to the Livorno Synagogue, which can only be visited by making a prior appointment. The first Livorno synagogue was unfortunately destroyed during WWII, along with ninety percent of the city by allied bombers. The current synagogue is a modern traditional Sephardic building, and the architecture appears quite striking in the surroundings. As you go inside be prepared to be somewhat blown away by the size of the building, and the attention to detail. Walking around look out for the beautiful 17th-century Haron which was given to Livorno by the synagogue in Pesaro.

The synagogue can be found at Piazza Benamozegh 1(between Via Grande and Via Cairoli).



Next to visit is the Jewish museum. To note, visits are only permitted from September to June, and advance booking is required.

The museum is situated in the Marini Oratory in Via Micali and was established in 1992. The building is neoclassical and inside there is an ark from the old synagogue, which was said to be brought to Livorno by refugees from the Iberian peninsula. There is also a permanent exhibition about the Jewish School of Livorno in 1938, as well as an unusual wooden oriental-style hekhàl.

The museum can be found at Via Micali 21.

After spending the morning taking in Livorno’s Jewish past there are a couple of close by options for lunch such as the Pizza in Piazza at Largo Duomo 13, Livorno. They serve local food and the average cost for lunch is 20 EUR. A second option is La Vecchia Senese at Via del Tempio, 14. They serve traditional Italian food and the average cost for lunch is 25 EUR.

For the afternoon, a visit to Livorno’s Jewish cemetery and the Piazza Attias awaits.

There are three Jewish cemeteries in Livorno. The first Jews of Livorno buried their dead at the Milinacci beach. And, In 1648 Jews were given permission to use an open field near Via Pompilia, known as campaccio, for a cemetery. A second cemetery was opened in 1738 at Via Corallo. The third cemetery, which is still in use, was opened in 1837, and contains the gravestones of the former two cemeteries as well as plaque commemorating those who died in World War I and the Holocaust.

After visiting the cemetery the last stop of the day is the Piazza Attias - named after Jasach Attias, a wealthy merchant from one of the most renowned Jewish families in Livorno. The villa was demolished in the late 1960s, and is now a public square surrounded by three modern buildings. The square has a mixture of architectural designs and there are many shops, cafés and restaurants to explore.

For the evening you can pop into one of the many cafes or restaurants and order Livorno’s most identifiable dishes. The dishes usually contain tomatoes, which were introduced by Livorno’s Spanish Jewish inhabitants. And range from triglie alla mosaica (whole red mullet cooked in tomatoes) to roschette, little ring-shaped bread snacks that you’ll find almost anywhere in the city. And of course, you cannot forget to try a ponce livornese - a powerful mixture of rum, cognac, sassolino, sugar and lemon rind with a shot of coffee.

The Jewish Virtual Library contributed to this report.



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