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Jewish Social Studies 8.2/3 (2002) 1-38

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Narrating Over the Ghetto of Rome

L. Scott Lerner


Rome, 1555-1885

For three centuries a walled ghetto separated the city's Jews from the rest of the population, its gates opening at dawn and closing at dusk. 1 In the form of a rectangular trapezoid, the ghetto contained two main streets running parallel to the Tiber, several small streets and alleys, three piazze and four piazzette that together occupied a third of the seven-acre enclosure. The space was densely populated, and extraordinary measures had followed population growth: additional stories perched atop row houses with annex constructions protruding every which way. (See Figure 1.) Except for interludes under Napoleon and the Roman Republics (1798-99, 1808-15, 1849), the ghetto operated under papal control until the unification of Rome with Italy in 1870. 2 Even under the new regime, the quarter remained the center of Jewish life in the city. Shops lined the streets, and many Jews, especially the poor, continued to reside within the old confines, together with a religious school, a rabbinical college, benevolent aid societies, and five small synagogues in a single edifice called the Cinque Scole. 3 (See Figure 2.) Then, in 1885, 330 years after Paul IV ordered local Jews into the ghetto, the City of Rome ordered them out.

Rome was now the capital of the Third Italy, and city officials had begun to worry about its appearance. Major public works were announced; after centuries of neglect, whole districts were slated for face-lifting. At the top of the list appeared the ghetto, whose risanamento was deemed "indispensable before any other urban initiative." 4 As a bureaucratic term, "risanamento" is unusually evocative. Sano means healthy; risanamento connotes a return to health. When [End Page 1] applied to a part of town, its meaning lies somewhere between "urban renewal" and "slum clearance." In relation to the ghetto, the term also evoked a moral and cultural renewal consistent with the ideology of regeneration. Central to the vision of the French Revolution, regeneration had carried a particular meaning in relation to Jewish emancipation, where it served to justify equal rights on the grounds that Jews would naturally regenerate themselves once they achieved parity with other citizens. 5 Both the revolutionary vision of national regeneration [End Page 2] and the specific notion of Jewish regeneration subsequently found their way into Italy, converging in 1848 when patriot Massimo d'Azeglio declared that the cause of one was also the cause of the other. 6 As though to seal this union, Giuseppe Verdi's chorus of Hebrew slaves longing for freedom in their own land became the unofficial anthem of the Risorgimento. 7

The risanamento of the ghetto visibly served this shared cause. Just as, in the eyes of the Church, a subordinate Jewish presence testified to Christian Truth, the Roman ghetto bore witness to the temporal power of popes. The new leaders could hardly allow so telling a vestige of the old order to remain, because it contradicted the image of a regenerated Italy. The risanamento of the ghetto, in contrast, offered a symbolic as well as a practical cure not only for the Jewish quarter but also for the city and the nation. And so the benign, bureaucratic term acquired yet another meaning: "to demolish thoroughly. . . , erasing a source of epidemics and a dis-grace to the Capital." 8 A correspondent for the Corriere israelitico would describe the moment, in the 2,000-year history of Jewish Rome, as a "critical period of transformation." 9 [End Page 3]

Rome, 1904-present

The Great Synagogue stands majestically on the banks of the Tiber near the Marcellus Theater and across from the Tiberina Island. Inaugurated in 1904, it is a central-plan domed building with massive and compact forms. Its eclectic style combines Roman, Greek, Assyro-Babylonian, and Egyptian elements, the latter two appearing in the decorative details, moldings, and column capitals. 10 A square-shouldered structure crowned by a brilliant aluminum cupola, the building communicates stability, permanence, and strength...


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