Rome's Jewish community claims to be the oldest in the world, as it is
known to exist since the late 2nd century BC, when slaves were brought
here from Palestine, under roman rule.
During the early years and throughout the Middle Ages,
the roman Jews had no problems in living side by side with the local Christian
population; their main activity was trade. But hard times came during the late Renaissance,
when the Church of Rome, following the Protestant schism, gave a sharp turn of
the screw against the non-Christian population. The newly elected pope Paul IV
decided to enclose the whole Jewish community within a very small enclosed area, and issued strict
The neighborhood, known as the ghetto
, comprised the few narrow streets located between piazza Giudea (no longer there) by the church of Santa Maria del Pianto, the remains of the Porch of Octavia (see The 22 Rioni
for details) and the river bank by
the Tiber Island.
detail of the ghetto in a map by G.B.Falda (1676), featuring
the three early gates (¡), the ones opened by Sixtus V (¡)
the Porch of Octavia (à) and the church of St.Gregory (ß);
a further gate was built in the 1800s on the spot marked â
Following Paul IV's bull entitled Cum nimis absurdum (literally "when too much is
absurd", actually "when enough is enough"), issued in 1555, the 3,000 members of
the community were forced to live within the ghetto's boundary, originally called
'the Jews' enclosure', whose total surface was about 8 acres.
old houses in via di Sant'Ambrogio: the street
was annexed to the ghetto around 1830
were allowed to leave this neighborhood only during daytime,
while from dusk till dawn the entrances to the district were closed by huge doors, watched over by guards, whose wages the same community had to pay for. Originally the gates were three, but only a few decades later, when pope Sixtus V had the ghetto slightly enlarged towards the river, their number rose to five. Neither the gates nor their doors
exist any longer, but old maps still feature them quite clearly. Those who were left outside after the closing time were to face the implacable papal law court.
Initially, the ghetto's only source of running water was a
public fountain located in piazza Giudea, outside the boundary, thus the
hygienic conditions inside the district were terrible. A smaller fountain was built inside the enclosure only many years later.
Furthermore, being one of the lowest spots in Rome, the risk of being flooded by the nearby Tiber was another constant danger.
Outside the ghetto all Jewish men had to wear a piece of yellow cloth on their hat, while
women had to wear a yellow veil, or a scarf of the same colour, so to be
They could not own any property;
the houses where they lived belonged to non-Jews, who rented them to members
of the community at prices kept under control by means of a law named
Ius Gazzagà. As a custom, the rental contract was inherited by the
lodger's heirs, so that most houses were occupied by the same families for many
The Jewish population, though, kept growing at a very fast rate, also because
Jews from other cities within the Papal State were forced to flee to Rome: by the
end of the 17th century there were about 9,000 people living in the ghetto.
The enclosure had to be slightly enlarged, and a fourth door was added.
the ghetto's gates no longer exist, but the hinges of
one door (far left) are still visible in via della Reginella
the tiny Carmel Temple, below the balcony
of the 16th century Palazzo Costaguti
Particular laws, that often changed when a new
pope was elected, restricted the number of activities that the Jews were
officially allowed to practice; at times, the only job they could live on
was to sell rags.
On Saturdays, the adult members of the community had to attend the so-called
compulsory preaches, sermons whose purpose was to convert them to the
Christian religion; they were held by the small church of St.Gregory (now facing
the huge synagogue, built in 1904), and by the tiny Carmel
Temple, in via Santa Maria in Publicolis.
Only within the ghetto's boundary, the Jews
were allowed to follow their own religion; a building of the district housed
five schools, one for each Jewish rite whom the local population belonged to.
Besides the discriminations, the ghetto's dwellers
had to endure several humiliating traditions and rituals. For instance, during the celebrations for
Rome's Carnival, usually held in February, a number of elderly Jews was forced to race
along the central high street, while the crowd mocked them, and threw all sorts
of trash; this custom was later turned into a horse race.
vicolo Costaguti, almost a tunnel, leads to an inner court
Rome was not the only city where in those years the Jewish community suffered discrimination: similar laws were issued also elsewhere in Italy (Venice, Bologna, Ferrara, etc.); already during the Middle Ages, expulsions had been enforced in countries such as Spain, France, England.
Furthermore, not all popes and members of the papal establishment showed themselves cruel to the Jews. Rome's bishop and governor Annibale Rucellai forbade any mistreatment by issuing the bill shown below, dated January 25, 1595, whose text read as follows (click on the picture to see an enlargement):
That forbids anybody to harass or to annoy the Jews.
In order to put an end to the scandal and inconvenience caused by the trouble
and the mockeries endured by the Jews every day, the most Illustrious and Reverend Annibale Rucellai, Bishop of Carcassonne, and of the Holy City of Rome and its district, Governor-General, and Vice-chamberlain, by the express wish of his Holiness the Pope, by means of this Bill orders, prohibits and commands that no person, of any rank or social position, may dare in any way to harass or cause hindrance of any kind, either direct or indirect, to any Jew, either male or female, boy or girl, nor mock them, touch them, nor give them offence, either with words or in fact, either during the day or at night-time, either openly or secretly, under the penalty for Christian men of three tugs of the rope, and for women and children of the lash, and to the additional punishment they would be given if they had offended a Christian, and declares that the masters will be held responsible for their servants, the fathers for their children, the teachers for their students, and the sentence will be strictly carried out, and the most Reverend Governor reserves the right of increasing or reducing the sanction, according to the seriousness of the offence and the persons involved, and everybody beware not to disobey.
However strict the bill may appear, the last line meant that the rich or the noble could have easily
escaped a judicial sentence. Furthermore, when a new pope was elected the attitude of the Church of Rome
towards the Jews could easily change, sometimes radically.
via del Portico d'Ottavia on one side still has
a row of ancient houses (15th-16th centuries)
When in 1798 Rome fell to Napoleon's troops, the French administration opened the ghetto's gates; but when the papal authority was restored, in 1815, the doors were closed again; the only concession made by pope Leo XII in the early 1830s was to decree a further extension of the ghetto's boundary, which included via di Sant'Ambrogio and via della Reginella (top left corner of the opening picture); the latter street was provided with an additional gate. Only in 1870, when the papal rule over Rome came to an end, the doors of the
hideous enclosure were finally opened. The roman Jews were then let free to leave this area, and were given
once again the same civil rights as the Christian citizens.
Now several members of the community no longer live here, while many others still do,
although they all consider the ghetto their common meeting point, on special
occasions and religious festivities.
Nowadays, Jewish-roman is no longer spoken.
ancient roman fragment
on a 15th century house
A few restaurants in the neighborhood keep alive Jewish-roman cooking, a very
old tradition which blends typical Jewish dishes with roman ones, such as the famous fried
artichokes. The so-called "fagottari", patrons who used to carry
their own food in a bundle (fagotto), thus ordering only wine, are no
longer seen, as this custom has died out.
Here also the language was influenced by the
dwellers' original culture: the Jewish-roman dialect, once spoken by the
members of the community, was not very different from the standard roman
one, but many words had a Hebrew origin.
the hall of a private
16th century building
By the turn of the 20th century, not long after the ghetto had been opened, some of the original houses of the district were taken down, the streets were enlarged, and new buildings rose. But the surviving lanes of this neighborhood, a silent nook embedded in the heart of bustling Rome, have maintained their magical atmosphere, a very particular blend of history,
architecture and tradition.