JEWISH Ferrara

Jewish city story of Ferrara

Ferrara is the only city in Emilia-Romagna to have an uninterrupted Jewish presence from the middle ages to the present. Although there are no references nor documents before the 13th century CE, Ferrara’s Jewish presence is said to date back to the distant past. 

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The Jewish Ghetto

Although there are no references nor documents before the 13th century CE, Ferrara’s Jewish presence is said to date back to the distant past. The community blossomed in the 15th and 16th centuries under the Dukes of Este who granted Jews a number of rights, although there were limitations in the law and records of episodes of intolerance in the town. Thanks to Este's inclusive approach aimed at reviving their capital city, throughout their rule very important personalities of the Jewish world of the time passed through Ferrara. There were about two thousand Jews living in the city and ten prayer halls, often associated with private pawn shops. However, the situation changed when Duke Alfonso II died heirless in 1597 and Ferrara returned under the Church, given it was a papal feud. The Este Court retreated to Modena and many Jews followed them. In Ferrara Jews were progressively excluded from rights, and in 1624 the Ghetto was established in the heart of the medieval city, where the community had been living for years. It included Via dei Sabbioni (now Via Mazzini), enclosed by gates where it meets Piazza delle Erbe (today’s Trento Trieste) and, on the opposite side, Via Terranuova. Via Gattamarcia (now Via della Vittoria) was also enclosed at the crossroads with Via Ragno; via Vignatagliata likewise where it crosses Via de’ Contrari, and Via San Romano. The densely built-up area included Jewish homes and shops. There were three synagogues – two Italian and one Ashkenazi – all in the same building in Via Mazzini, which is where the community’s offices and facilities still are. A fourth synagogue was in Via Vittoria. The Oratory of Saint Crispin’s, where the forced conversionary sermons were held, was on the square, close to the corner with Via Mazzini, having been transferred from the chapel in the Palazzo Ducale (Duke’s Palace), so that the Jews could be spared the humiliating insults hurled at them by the populace during their walk from the ghetto. Despite their forced isolation, the community’s cultural and social life thrived and welfare & education confraternities and a Rabbinical School were established. Many of the civil limitations were lifted with the arrival of the French (1796), which meant Jews were able to participate in public life. The ghetto was sealed off once again from 1825 to 1848, when the gates were finally removed. However, in 1849 Jews were disenfranchised yet again. Full equality was only achieved with the city’s annexation to the Savoy Kingdom, in 1859. Although some buildings have since been renovated, the area which once was the ghetto is still fully identifiable.


The Italian Synagogue – Tempio Maggiore

An Italian rite prayer hall has been there since the early 15th century, the longest standing Italian synagogue not to have changed premises. It was privately owned, like all of the city’s synagogues at that time, and was associated with the Sabbioni’s pawn shop. It became public when the wealthy benefactor Samuele Melli (or Mele) purchased the building so that Ferrara’s Jews would have a place to officiate. In his will, dated 1485, Melli bound the gift to its use even after his death, so that it could not be sold, except to transfer it to more suitable premises and ever since then the building has been used as the community’s centre & offices. The Italian Synagogue’s Hall was renovated and expanded several times: it originally occupied but a small section of its current floor space, next to the wall where the entrance is now located, that bears a plaque summarising Melli’s will. The Hall most likely reached its current size in the late 16th century and was renovated to the present state following the Emancipation of Jews between 1865 and 1867, under architect Ippolito Guidetti. The large frescoed ceiling was painted by Francesco Migliari; the tevah was moved in front of the Aron ha Kodesh, with the public seating facing it in parallel rows, according to the most popular layout of the time, that is resembling the majority of Italy’s (Christian) places of worship at the time. Following the 1940s devastation, the synagogue was not restored and was readapted as a multi-use hall. Only a few parts of the imposing Aron have been preserved, reorganised as a single item. On one side there are the lateral compartments of the Aron which belonged to the Scola Spagnola (Spanish rite synagogue). As time went by many other community institutions were set up alongside the Italian rite temple: two synagogues (the German and the Fanese), halls and offices, the historical archive, the rabbinical school and court; some of the furnishings of the latter have been rearranged in the entrance hall of the former Italian synagogue.

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The Jewish Story of Ferrara, Italy

Ferrara is the only city in Emilia-Romagna to have an uninterrupted Jewish presence from the middle ages to the present. Although there are no references nor documents before the 13th century CE, Ferrara’s Jewish presence is said to date back to the distant past.  [caption id="attachment_30808" align="alignnone" width="630"] Jewish Quarter in Ferrara[/caption] Under the Duchy of Este, the community enjoyed its finest years: the dukes offered shelter to refugees from Spain and Portugal after 1492 and from Eastern Europe. The city became a melting pot of different Jewish cultures, which not only lived together within the same Jewish context, but also embellished the city in which they lived with significant social and cultural contributions. Few Italian cities have preserved the feel of the Jewish memory, both distant and recent, as keenly as Ferrara. Going down the streets of the ghetto, still intact in its original layout, and entering the synagogues and museum, means exploring three centuries of history. Via Mazzini (formerly Contrada Sabbioni) was the main street in the ghetto.  [caption id="attachment_30809" align="alignnone" width="1504"] The German Synagogue in Ferrara, Italy[/caption] At the beginning of the street, behind the cathedral, in the oratory of San Crispino, from 1695 the Jews were forced to attend sermons which, according to the Church, would convince them to convert. The buildings were once linked by internal passages making it possible to reach the synagogues by going from one house to the other without having to enter the street. Some of these secret passages came to light again during recent restoration work. At the entrance to Via Mazzini you can still see the mark left by the hinges from one of the five ghetto gates. Now a pedestrian precinct, the street has a long backdrop of continuous buildings forming a single façade with ground-floor shops. Via Mazzini has always had a commercial character.  

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