17 November 2023

Two churches in Bologna
retain reminders of
the mediaeval ghetto
and antisemitism

The Church of San Donato on Via Zamboni in Bologna … a reminder of the gates into Bologna’s former Jewish quarter (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Throughout this week, my morning blog postings have been looking as churches, basilicas and other religious buildings in Bologna. Some years ago, I wrote about Bologna’s modern synagogue HERE.

But, because of my reflections each morning this week I am reminded this Friday evening of how both the Church of San Donato and the Church of Santissimo Salvatore, churches on opposite sides of Via Zamboni, are reminders of both the former Jewish quarter in Bologna and of antisemitism in the city.

The mediaeval Jewish quarter in Bologna was near the famous Due Torri (Two Towers) in an area bounded by Strada San Donato (now Via Zamboni) and Via Cavaliera (now Via Oberdan).

The piazza in front of the Basilica of Saint Stephen … here Saint Ambrose of Milan records the first Jewish presence in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford; click on image for full-screen view)

The first reference to the Jewish presence in Bologna is found in a letter written by Saint Ambrose of Milan at the end of the fourth century, when he came to Bologna to move the bodies of two Christian protomartyrs, Saint Vitalis and Saint Agricola, to the Basilica of Saint Stephen. They were exhumed from the Jewish cemetery, or the so-called Campus Judeorum.

Later, local legends say, a hypothetical Jaqob Calderisi from Castel Tedaldo lived in a house between what is now Via Caldarese and Via Castel Tialto. In the second half of the 1300s, a large number of Jewish people arrived in Bologna, and by the end of the 14th century the city had a bustling Jewish population.

Jewish craftsmen worked on important buildings in Bologna, including the Loggia dei Mercanti (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As Bologna grew and developed, many of specialised Jewish craftsmen worked on important city monuments, including the Loggia dei Mercanti, the Basilica of Saint Petronius, and the churches of Saint Stephen, Saint Francis and Saint John.

These Jews lived in peace in Bologna for two centuries. They settled mainly in the area between the ancient Roman settlement, which goes from the Two Towers up to Piazza Malpighi, and the ancient Lombard camp which also starts at the Two Towers and runs in a semicircle towards the churches of Saint John on the Mount, Saint Stephen, Saint Vitalis and Saint Donatus.

Later, the Jewish Quarter was a warren of small streets with names such as Via del Giudei (The Jews’ Street) or Via dell’Inferno (the Street of Hell).

Gaio Finzi, Judeus de Roma, traded as a strazzarolo or a ‘rag-man.’ Many Jews in Bologna formed their own guild called Giudei, ‘The Jews’, but officially known as the Corporazione di Drappieri-Strazzaroli-Pegolotti-Vaganti e Giudei, the Guild of the Drapers, Ragmen, Upholsterers, Wanderers and Jews. Its headquarters were in the Palazzo degli Strazzaroli, known today as the Case Malaguti.

The guild contributed to the economic and cultural development of Bologna, guild members built three synagogues and laid out a cemetery, and eight more synagogues were built in the nearby villages.

Two of the city synagogues were in Via San Vitale and the third was on Via Santo Stefano. One of the two synagogues in Via San Vitale was called La Grande or the Great Synagogue.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the Jewish community in Bologna had 11 synagogues, a renowned rabbinical academy, Talmudic academies, important Torah teachers, and was the source of many printed Jewish religious books. The Jewish printing houses in Bologna included those of the Montero family and Abraham ben Haim of the Tintori family. Their presses in 1482 produced the first printed version of the Pentateuch with commentaries by the French rabbi and scholar Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105), known as Rashi (רש״י).

The world’s first edition of the Book of Psalms printed in incunabulum, as well as ritual prayer book, and a collection of 16th century books are preserved in the library of the University of Bologna.

The Jewish community had a close relationship with the University of Bologna. Jewish students received degrees in medicine and Jewish professors taught there. The university adopted texts written by Jews, including Maimonides, and Jewish scholars translated medical texts from Arabic into Hebrew and Latin, and from Latin into Hebrew and Arabic.

Jacov Mantino was called to teach medicine by Pope Clement VII, and another professor, who chose to remain anonymous because he was a Jew, was called to teach Hebrew literature. Famous rabbis, such as Obadia Sforno, Azarià de Rossi and Samuele Archivolti, settled in Bologna and contributed to developing local Jewish culture.

The Two Towers were at the edge of the Jewish Ghetto in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This ‘Golden Age’ came to an end at the Counter-Reformation, when the first Italian ‘Grand Inquisitor’ became Pope Paul IV in 1555. The Jews in Bologna were ordered to be locked up in what was called the Serraglio (‘Enclosure’) or Chiuso degli Ebrei (Pen for the Jews), later known as the ghetto. This ghetto in Bologna was established in May 1556, just after that of Rome.

It took about 11 years from the publication of the Papal bull for all the Jews of Bologna to move into the ‘Jewish pen.’ The creation of the ghetto met with resistance, and many other families were forced to relocate. Many Christians, for example, were reluctant to abandon their homes in the city yet were forced to rent them to Jews.

The Jews of Bologna, like the Jews of Rome and Venice, were forced to wear a distinguishing mark so they could be easily identified and shut inside in the ghetto at night. The papal edict allowed only one synagogue to open; this synagogue was probably located at No 16 on Via dell’Inferno.

Two large streets ran through the ghetto – Strada San Donato, today’s Via Zamboni, and Via Cavaliera, today’s Via Oberdan – and four large gates served as entrance and exit points. The entire perimeter of the ghetto has been the subject of recent conservation work.

Free movement to and from the ‘enclosure’ was forbidden in 1567, and by 1569 only one synagogue remained in Bologna’s ghetto, in Via dell’Inferno, at what is now No 16. That year, the Jews were expelled from Bologna for the first time.

When Jews were allowed back in again by Pope Sixtus V in 1586, they did not go back to the ghetto, and in 1597 Pope Clement VIII expelled them for good under the decree De Iudeis ex universo Statu Ecclesiastico expellendis, Roma, Avinione et Ancona exceptis (‘On the Jews, who must be expelled from the entire Papal State, with the exception of the cities of Rome, Avignon and Ancona’). There was no real Jewish presence in Bologna again until after Italian unification.

Four large gates or doors once stood at the main entrances to the ghetto. The only access point that is still visible is a door under a large vaulted roof built in the early 1700s that connects the Manzoli-Malvasia building with the small Church of San Donato.

The Church of Santissimo Salvatore on Via Zamboni in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Church of Santissimo Salvatore on Via Zamboni, on the other side to San Damato, also holds a lasting reminder of antisemitism in Bologna. It is a Baroque-style church on the site of a 12th-century church of the Canons Regular of Santa Maria di Reno. The only surviving feature from the earlier church is the 16th-century bell tower.

The present church was built in 1605-1623 by the priest Giovanni Ambrogio Mazenta and the architect Tommaso Martelli. It has eight chapels, four on each side. The façade has three copper statues by Orazio Provaglia, along with statues of the four evangelists attributed to Giovanni Tedeschi.

One of the chapels in the church has a large canvas by Jacopo Coppi or Jacopo del Meglio of Florence depicting ‘The Miracle of the Beirut Crucifix’ (1579), a rare theme for the artist. It recalls an antisemitic story in telling of events in Beirut.

The story is told in Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend and summarised in the Roman Martyrology for 9 November. In the story, a Jew in eighth-century Beirut (some accounts say in the fourth century) rented a house previously rented by a Christian. When the Christian moved out, he forgot to take an image of the crucified Christ from his bedroom wall – it is unclear whether this was a crucifix or a painting.

The new Jewish tenant did not notice the image, but when some friends he invited to dinner saw it they were furious. One of them summoned the other Jews of Beirut, who gave the man a severe beating, trampled on the image, and thrust a lance into it. Blood then began to flow miraculously from the image. They collected the blood and took it to their synagogue, where it was found to cure any disease. The Jews of Beirut were amazed, according to the legend, all converted to Christianity and they were baptised.

A recent study (2020) by Valeria Rubbi in the University of Bologna reconsiders the painting by Jacopo Coppi in the Church of San Salvatore and offers a new, alternative perspective, suggesting the painting shows a policy of tolerance towards Jews when Cardinal Gabriele Paleotti was Bishop and Archbishop of Bologna (1567-1589).

Paleotti is remembered for his writings on the proper role and content of art. He moved from Bologna to Rome in 1589, and the Jewish community was expelled from Bologna in 1593.

The synagogue on Via Mario Finzi was rebuilt in 1953, ten years after it was destroyed in World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The Jewish community slowly began returning to Bologna towards the end of the 18th century. The community rented a room in a building at via de’ Gombruti 7 in 1868. A new bigger house of worship was opened in the same building in the mid-1870s.

A new synagogue on Vicolo Tintinaga – now known as Via Mario Finzi – was designed by Attilio Muggia and opened in 1928. Its majestic façade reflected the importance of the Jewish community life in Bologna at the time. During World War II, the building was destroyed in air raids 80 years ago in 1943.

The present synagogue is a modern reconstruction with the same architectural structure. On the façade looking onto Via Mario Finzi, a plaque was put up in memory of the 84 Jewish citizens deported to German extermination camps. The street is named after Mario Finzi (1913-1945), a Jewish magistrate and judge and a hero of the resistance in Bologna. I told his story in another posting some years ago.

Shabbat Shalom

The Holocaust memorial on the façade of the synagogue in Bologna (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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