The Italian Connection

Experience Rome in downtown Jerusalem

The Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem was founded by a French priest. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem was founded by a French priest.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Every evening in the spring of 1948, as the British evacuation of Palestine drew near, architect Dan Ben-Dor took his brother’s magnificent Great Dane to Jerusalem’s Italian Hospital. That fine creature’s name was Assad V, and according to Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre in their historic volume O Jerusalem , he played an important role in saving the Holy City during the War of In - dependence.
It all began during the Second World War, when the British declared the Italian Hospital enemy property and turned it into a headquarters for the Royal Air Force. Jews and Arabs alike considered the massive hospital, whose high tower dominated much of Jerusalem, a fantastically strategic site.
Obviously, both parties hoped that when the British left, they would be the first to gain control.
So Jewish leaders came up with a creative idea for determining just when the British planned to abandon the hospital. After learning that the major in charge of the hospital was crazy about animals, they sent Ben-Dor and Assad V to pay him nightly visits.
One evening, the architect announced that his handsome dog would soon have to be put to sleep.
With food in the city so scarce, Ben-Dor told the major, he had decided to destroy the animal rather than watch him slowly starve to death.
Thoroughly appalled, the officer instructed Ben- Dor to bring the dog to the mess each night. And each night the mess sergeant would open a can of bully beef just for Assad V.
On one occasion, just before Israel declared its independence, the major told Ben-Dor to take home a case filled with cans of bully beef. After all, he told Ben-Dor, they were leaving that same night and he wouldn’t be able to feed the dog anymore. Within half an hour, a unit of the Hagana was entrenched in positions around the hospital – ready to take over.
From that time on, the hospital was to serve both as a crucial front-line position and observation post that contributed significantly to keeping Jerusalem safe. And all thanks to a dog! This week’s Street Stroll begins at the Italian Hospital and takes you on a lovely walk to Italian- built and Italian-occupied buildings in the downtown area.
From the middle of the 19th century on, when the Russians, French, Germans and British were busily establishing a visible presence in Jerusalem, Italy had too many problems at home to care. As a result, at the beginning of the 20th century Italy found that it had virtually no standing in the Holy City. It began making its mark as soon as possible, beginning with the splendid Italian Hospital.
Located on the corner of Shivtei Yisrael and Hanevi’im streets, the hospital was designed in Renaissance style by two Roman-born brothers: Antonio and Giulio Barluzzi. Antonio would later create over a dozen striking chapels, churches and Italian government institutions in the Land of Israel.
Construction took place from 1912 to 1917, and when finished, resembled the grandest of 14th- century Italian structures. Don’t forget to walk around the building to view the back, where the tower is currently under repair. Sold to Israel in 1963, the former hospital currently houses the Education Ministry.
How fitting it is that the beautiful two-story stone building across the street at 27 Shivtei Yisrael is home to another Education Ministry department.
After all, it was constructed as a school about a century ago by Italian Salesians – an order dedicated to the education of underprivileged boys.
The Salesian Order was established in 1857 by St.
John Bosco (Don Bosco) of Turin. Born into dire poverty, as a child Don Bosco was often obliged to abandon his studies and work as a shepherd to help his mother put food on the table. Nevertheless, with great tenacity he completed seminary requirements and was ordained as a priest in 1841.
Drawn to young outcasts, aghast at the conditions in which children were forced to live in Italian prisons, he vowed to devote his life to rescuing as many young people as he could. Education was the tool, he felt, and he began by working with a single street waif who had been thrown out of a church.
Against enormous odds, by 1846 he had 400 pupils under his wing.
ASCEND HANEVI’IM Street, turn left at Harav Kook Street, and walk down to the elegant edifice at No.
10. Its architect is unknown (at least to me), and the basic construction is eastern, but the stately door, carved with lions, and delicate Renaissance exterior grant it a charming European look. At various times it hosted the Lebanon Hotel, the exclusive Maskit clothing store, and offices of The Palestine (Jerusalem) Post . Nevertheless, it is known to Jerusalemites as the Italian Consulate, for one of its earliest occupants.
Today the building is called the House of St.
Simeon and St. Anne and is occupied by the St. James Vicariate for Hebrew speaking Catholics in Israel.
Associated with Jerusalem’s Latin Patriarchate, the Vicariate is, among other goals, dedicated to strengthening ties between Christians and Jews.
Inside are offices and a sanctuary where Catholic mass is heard in Hebrew every evening.
Descend to Jaffa Road and turn left. Directly in front of you, way in the distance, a winged lion stares at you from atop a massive V-shaped edifice called the Generali Building.
In 1931, on the centenary of its establishment, the Italian Assicurazioni Generali insurance company decided to put up an office building in Jerusalem.
When asked for a plan, architect Richard Kaufmann, who designed several garden neighborhoods in Jerusalem, suggested a seven-story building in the Bauhaus (International) style. But the company chose, instead, Italian artist Marcello Piacentini.
Attractive, roughly cut stone and arched doors on the bottom two levels are in sharp contrast to the smooth stones and straight lines of the three upper floors. Note another strange feature: there are five stories in the front portion of the building and six in the back! Most striking of all, however, is the sculpted lion on the roof, one paw resting on an open book. The winged lion represents St. Mark, the patron saint of Venice and, at the same time, the symbol of the Generali Insurance Company. Roman numerals spell out 1831, the year in which the insurance company was founded.
A few months ago the ugly metal fence in front of the Generali Building disappeared to reveal what the City calls an “urban rest area” in Generali Square.
Wet air blowing around the stools makes it a great hot-weather addition to the Jerusalem scene.
Construction on the rounded building across from Generali Square began in 1936 and ended three years later. Typical of Bauhaus architecture, which was very popular at the time, it replaced the elegant dwelling of the pioneer Feingold family.
The original edifice, built in 1869, had been sold several times before it fell into the hands of developers who wanted to tear it down and put up a large and modern office building in its place. But they soon realized that they didn’t have enough money for their project. So they brought in the Bank of Rome, which provided them with the funds they lacked and gave the Bank of Rome a branch on the upper portion of Jaffa Road.
Gaze above the entrance to see “Mitzpe House” written in three languages as a gesture to the printing press that Solomon Feingold had operated in his home next door. That historic edifice still stands.
Called Beit Feingold, it held the city’s first cinema.
FOLLOW HASOREG Street down to Hillel Street, turn right and walk all the way up to King George Street.
Turn left, and then ascend the hill at Hama’alot Street.
Finally, turn left on Shmuel Hanagid Street and walk into the Ratisbonne Monastery, a colossal structure of remarkable beauty and the earliest building to be constructed in this area. The cornerstone was laid in 1877, on a vast wilderness from which there was a clear view of the Old City and the Mount of Olives.
It took over 20 years to complete the complex, but the end result was certainly worth the wait.
The monastery was founded by a French priest with an unusual past. Father Marie Alphonse Ratisbonne was born in 1814 to a family of distinguished Jewish bankers. In 1842, prior to marrying his intended, Ratisbonne set off on a pleasure trip. While visiting the Church of St. Andrea Delle Fratte in Rome, Mary appeared to him in a miraculous vision: two weeks later Ratisbonne was baptized. Like his brother Theodor, who had converted while Alphonse was in his teens, he became a priest. A year later, he founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Zion whose raison d’etre was twofold: to convert non-Christians to Catholicism, and to promote understanding between different religions.
Alphonse Ratisbonne moved to Jerusalem in 1855, and quickly established convents and schools on the Via Dolorosa and in Ein Kerem. Twenty years later he began building this grand monastery, which served as a vocational school for hundreds of young Jewish and Arab boys.
During World War I Ratisbonne was taken over by the Turks, but when General Allenby entered Jerusalem after capturing the Holy Land in 1917, he transformed the monastery into a British military hospital. Twelve years later, when Arabs went on a rampage, Ratisbonne became a refuge for the Jews of Rehavia.
During the War of Independence, when Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was attacked, the women and children who were evacuated camped out temporarily at Ratisbonne (everyone else in the kibbutz was killed).
The monastery hosted the Hebrew University Faculty of Law – formerly located on Mount Scopus – in the early 1950s. In the Sixties, Ratisbonne opened a Christian Center for Jewish Studies (CCEJ).
So what is the Italian connection to a French monastery designed by a French architect and occupied by a French order? Near the end of the 20th century, the Sisters of Zion transferred ownership of the monastery to the Vatican but remained in the complex.
In 2003, the Vatican sent monks from the Italian- based Salesians of Don Bosco to the monastery.
After making changes to the interior, the Salesians opened a school for candidates to the priesthood.
Today, the monastery also hosts the Jerusalem campus of Rome’s Salesian Pontifical University.
Stroll through the open gate into the lovely landscaped gardens, and look for a two-storied round tower that seems out of place next to the monastery’s elegant French design. Some experts assert that this is a signal tower erected by the Ottoman authorities in the 1830s, for it was already there when Ratisbonne bought the plot. Others, however, claim that this was actually a tiny flour mill used by the monastery’s early monks.
Cross the street to view the statue on the monastery roof. While sources often claim that this is the figure of Ratisbonne, holding the Scriptures in one hand and a crucifix in the other, it is actually a statue of St. Peter, barefoot and wearing a Roman- era toga. Originally one hand held a letter and the other grasped a key – symbol of authority. Now, however, the second hand is empty: the key has disappeared.