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Ferrara’s Jewish foundations: Jewish heritage in italy

With the opening of a new museum of Italian Judaism, our writer discovers a city ‘made from Jewish stones’ in historic Emilia Romagna

‘Jewish people have been living in Ferrara for over a thousand years. They are in the very stones of this city.” It’s an impressive statement to suit an ambitious project, made by Italian Tourism Minister Dario Franceschini during his speech at the recent inauguration of the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah.

The first state-funded museum of Italian Judaism, it illustrates just how important Ferrara has been to Italy’s Jews — and perhaps more significantly, how important the city’s Jewish citizens have been to Italy.

The museum itself is still a work in progress with phase one now complete, a permanent exhibition of the first thousand years of Italian Jewry. Over 200 rare artefacts chart the Jewish diaspora into the Italian peninsular from the Roman period onwards revealing how they managed to build and retain a unique identity.

The building itself is quite remarkable. Ferrara’s former prison block, within touching distance of the city’s Jewish quarter, is a twist of irony. But today there is no sign of its previous incarnation. It is instead a state-of-the-art structure that will, when it is finally complete, resemble the Torah; five book-like buildings side by side.

There is much to be done, but even now I see the potential. A beautiful garden area provides an impressive prologue to an exhibition that is far from dry. Aside from the historic exhibits, a 20-minute film (with English headphone commentary provided) memorably whisks me on a first person historical journey of strife and struggle through the eyes of Italian Jews.

This new attraction is just the latest reason to visit Ferrara, one of the pearls of the Emilia-Romagna region.

Its fertile plains, fed by the revered Po river, are responsible for producing world-famous food products such as balsamic vinegar from Modena.

Its agriculture industry demanded automotive innovation which inspired the rise of Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Ducati, each still calling the area home.

And it’s a region blessed with world heritage Romanesque and Renaissance-filled provinces such as Bologna, Parma and Ravenna, quite apart from Ferrara itself where history seems to be everywhere.

Standing in front of the iconic symbol of Ferrara’s former prosperity, the huge Castello Estense is the historic seat of the Este family, one of Italy’s most powerful dynasties.

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, no Italian city could compete with Ferrara. The Estes brought in the best poets, painters and architects money could buy and it’s all still here. They also saw the value in keeping their Jewish residents safe and sound when the rest of Italy was busy expelling them.

There’s a visible Este stamp on virtually everything in Ferrara’s well-preserved ancient centre where the Jewish community made a living as merchants and bankers from the ghetto. 

I stroll there to visit the tiny 15th century synagogue at 95 Via Mazzini — the original hinges from the old ghetto doors can still be seen at the entrance to Via Mazzini if you look hard enough. On the way I pass by the Palazzo Municipale, the Town Hall with its two pillars. The white marble in the left hand pillar was taken from Jewish gravestones by the Inquisition in 1750. 

A few years ago, I trod this path before, attending Friday night service at the old shul. During the week of the annual Jewish book fair the place was heaving; I’ll always remember the beaming smile on Rabbi Caro’s face. 

National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (Picture: Marco Caselli Nirmal)
National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah (Picture: Marco Caselli Nirmal)

Within the ghetto area today, the influence of the Jewish community remains for all to see. From the wrought iron balconies and richly decorated portals to strange ‘Jewish inspired’ dishes I spy on non-kosher restaurant meus. 

The city’s old town is a warren of narrow streets and much of the fun is to just lose yourself within it, stumbling unexpectedly upon an extraordinary mansion or palazzo or another porticoed piazza. 

A perfect example is the Palazzo Schifanoia built by Borso Este in the late 1400s. It was one of a group of palaces the Estes built simply as “fun houses”; schifanoia literally means “to avoid boredom”. Inside, on the first floor, I find 12 giant frescoes, each one depicting a different month of the year.

Sadly, many have faded away, but those that remain are quite remarkable. Even more remarkable when I learn that successive owners whitewashed all the walls and used the palace as a tobacco warehouse.

Not far away lies the 15th century Palazzo dei Diamante. Today it houses the National Art Gallery, but was once another extravagant Este home.

Built from pink and white marble bricks, the 8,000 small conical stones on each facade are shaped like diamonds and set at different angles to change hue depending on the light. 

And no visit would be complete without walking down Via delle Volte, one of the city’s best preserved medieval streets. It was the old dividing line between the Po river port and warehouses and the city dwellings. The elevated arched passageways across the street were an ingenious medieval solution to the threat of flooding.

In a city blessed with so many gems, the Etruscan treasures at the Archaeological Museum of Ferrara remain puzzlingly overlooked. Even the palace housing the museum is a work of art, while a collection of original gold and amber jewellery arranged by Bulgari leaves me speechless. 

Not far away, I come across a small chapel tucked away in yet another side street; Convento del Corpus Domini, the last resting place of the notorious Lucrezia Borgia, probably the most famous member of the Este family.

And encircling these winding streets lie the huge 15th century Este walls, stretching for around six miles — a great walk or a fun cycle. With more bikes than cars in Ferrara, I decide to pedal along the fairly flat path within the former moat, passing the four gates, 11 bastions and two towers.

After the crowds in Rome, Milan and Florence, the quiet streets of Ferrara welcome you with open arms, especially now the National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah is breathing new life into this famous old town. 

And I have no doubt the Jewish stones will sleep ever more soundly.

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