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.
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.
A small Italian rite synagogue probably built between the 17th and 18th centuries, for everyday use in addition to the main synagogue. We know that it was still in use until 1943 for commemorations for the deceased, and for weekday services during the winter months. It now acts as a ‘small temple’ and is in use all year round. Along with the other halls in the community’s main building, it was ransacked and destroyed during the Second World War. Once rites resumed, the hall was renovated using 19th century furnishings from the town of Cento’s synagogue, not in use since the 1930s. The seating, tevah and the wooden portal all come from there. However, the marble inlaid Aron (1729) was already in the Fanese synagogue, arranged in a common tripartite layout, two chairs flanking the central compartment which holds the Scrolls of the Law.
The Synagogue was originally built in 1603 as German rite and is currently used as the main temple for well attended ceremonies. In 1532, the Ashkenazi community had obtained permission from the Roman Catholic Apostolic Delegate to open its own place of worship. Initially it was just a room in what is now Via Vittoria but subsequently, the ecclesiastical authority ruled that it had to be within the premises of the Italian one. Thirty years previously (1573) the two had already merged. Over time, the hall repeatedly underwent renovation, as can be seen in the 1760, 1827, 1859 and 1905 plaques. Architect Ippolito Guidetti carried out the most significant refurbishment in the late 19th century when he had also begun restoration on the Italian Tempio Maggiore. Both synagogues were renovated according to a floor plan informed by the Roman Catholic liturgical space, with the tevah in front of the Aron and the public seating in rows of parallel benches. Opposite the five large windows there are square stucco panels depicting furnishing and objects of the Tabernacle. The current layout is the result of the post-war reconstruction, that took place after the Nazi-Fascist destruction. The original 17th century carved wooden Aron was saved, while the marble balustrade that enclosed the tevah was in such a state it could not be repaired, so a similar one was made rescuing parts from the Italian Temple. In addition, chairs and benches were brought from Lugo’s synagogue, closed since the 1930s.
A collection of ceremonial artefacts and many other items witnessing Ferrara’s Jewish history.
The MEIS has been open for several years, staging exhibitions, conferences and festivals. For the events calendar see http://www.meisweb.it/. Further development is underway in the permanent building. The Museum was established as a Foundation by an Act of Parliament with the aim of illustrating the culture and history of Jews in Italy, dating back more than two millennia: a contemporary museum, a cultural arena, with no permanent collection, a space designed as a “ever-changing possibilities”. The Italian Parliament selected Ferrara as the seat of the National Museum for a number of reasons, including the glorious history of the local Jewry, once one of the largest and most active communities in Italy, which was further popularized in the 20th century through Giorgio Bassani’s stories, set in the city. When it came to choosing the site, the Via Piangipane former prison - built in 1912 and closed in 1992 - was selected. The museum design is based upon the building’s complete change of identity: from confinement and marginalisation, to openness and relationships. Only two of the original prison’s blocks, built as a T, have been preserved – those that best represent its original function: the panoptic block – with a view over all the compound –, and the one on Via Piangipane, the original façade facing the city. The entry selected in the international competition has five new glass and concrete buildings, on the site of the demolished blocks, for the five books of the Torah, and a garden. The buildings include the museum exhibition halls, educational rooms, an auditorium, a bookshop, kosher restaurant and coffee shop.