More than 2,200 years of Jewish history in Italy will be showcased from next month in a new, landmark museum in the town of Ferrara.
The Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah will open on 13 December in a north Italian town that may lack the instantly recognisable glamour of Rome or Venice, but has an association with the Jews going back over a thousand years.
It is the ideal location for a museum whose purpose it is to tell the story of the uninterrupted presence of the Jews in Italy and the vital role they have played in the country’s development.
“In today’s world, characterised by multi-identities, the Jewish experience maybe can serve as an inspiration,” said Simonetta Della Seta, director of the museum, which is known by its Italian initials MEIS.
The opening exhibition will show visitors that Italy was built “with the Jews and also by the Jews”, reinforcing the message that before the Lombards, Normans and the Spaniards arrived in the peninsula, the Jews were already there – and were already Italians.
Tracing a route from Jerusalem to Rome, the exhibits show how Jews settled across the whole peninsula and how they succeeded in keeping their heritage alive while maintaining a dialogue with the society around them.
The permanent multimedia show, Through the Eyes of the Italian Jew, aims “to involve the public in the themes that will be explored in greater depth in the MEIS itself,” Ms Della Seta said
It is a 24-minute immersive experience that reconstructs the past for visitors through artwork, maps, documents and video inserts.
It features the voices of Italian Jews of times gone past. They include a Jew deported to Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem, a Jewish scribe in twelfth century Palermo, a money-lender during the Renaissance and a Jewish girl expelled from school in 1938 because of the racial laws.
MEIS was established through a law passed by Italy’s parliament in 2006. With support from the culture ministry and the Association of Italian Jewish Communities, the building that once hosted Ferrara’s old prison was secured for the museum that is set to open.
It proved to be an ideal location, a stone’s throw from the old Jewish quarter; the challenge was to transform a place of confinement into one of openness and welcome, a place of memories but also a place of life.
The project involved plenty of demolition and construction and, as it will be built in stages, is not yet complete.
The finished product will comprise five “volumes”, symbolising the five books of the Torah, and will house a restaurant, an auditorium and exhibitions spaces.
But the main building is complete and will be officially inaugurated on 13 December. It opens to the public the following day.