Visitors to Italy typically head to Venice, Florence and Rome — the historic big cities, rich with Jewish heritage and artistic treasures.
But farther south, Italy’s smaller, less-tourist-laden towns offer something else entirely: the opportunity to contemplate modest, meaningful artifacts of Italian Jewry amid the quiet of ancient walls and the scent of lemon groves. From the region around Rome south to Apulia, the vestiges of some of Europe’s most ancient Jewish communities — some dating as far back as ancient Greece — have lately been unearthed and restored, a poignant renaissance of heritage in a land where few Jews live today.
The best known of these towns might be Pitigliano, a quintessential Tuscan hill town a short ride from Rome. Pitigliano was once known as “the little Jerusalem” for both its thriving Jewish community and its golden edifices — a striking medieval cityscape that shimmers atop sand-colored cliffs, with views over Tuscany’s verdant hillsides.
Jews began settling here in the 15th century, seeking refuge from hostile neighboring states; in the centuries that followed, they built a flourishing society, working largely as textile dyers and weavers. The circa-1598 synagogue has been restored within Pitigliano’s narrow-walled ancient ghetto, along with ruins believed to have been a kosher bakery and a tiny, one-room Jewish museum. The rest of the town has plenty to see as well — including damp, mystical Etruscan caves and a 16th-century aqueduct.
Halfway along the coast between Rome and Naples is Fondi, a town that dates to at least 1,000 B.C.E., and today is popular with Roman weekenders for its nine-mile stretch of beach on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Fondi boasts a castle with impressive 100-foot turrets, built in the 14th century shortly before the expulsion of Fondi’s Jews. Along with a neighboring palazzo, that castle was long the town’s prime visitor attraction — until the Jewish Medieval Museum of Fondi opened this summer. In the historic Jewish quarter, the museum illuminates a community prominent in the city’s textile trade, showcasing vintage fabrics alongside a reconstructed 15th-century synagogue interior.
From Fondi, you have two choices heading south: east to Apulia, or west to Calabria. The eastern route takes you to the Adriatic port of Trani, where a restored 12th-century synagogue reopened last year, despite a negligible Jewish population.
The so-called “Scola Nova” is an ancient stone structure in the Apulian Romanesque style typical of its day; typical, too, is the essential modesty of its interior, the scant adornment (a Byzantine Madonna icon is evidence of its conversion to Catholicism, a process likewise foisted on Trani’s Jews before they were expelled for good in 1510).
Trani’s “giudecca,” or open Jewish quarter — not to be confused with a walled-off ghetto — is still evident in place names like Via della Guidea and Piazza Sinagoga. And of four medieval synagogues, two still stand as converted churches. The more notable is Santa Anna, formerly the “Scola Grande,” which today houses a Synagogue Museum administered by the Diocesan Museum of Trani-Barletta-Bisceglie — a project that itself highlights the evolution of Catholic-Jewish relations over the centuries.
Another new museum opened this year in Lecce, the lovely baroque city that is Apulia’s urban jewel. Medieval Jewish Lecce comprises galleries in the subterranean cellars of Palazzo Taurino, where the medieval synagogue and mikvah once stood. Exhibits spotlight the Jewish presence from the ninth through 15th centuries; outside, the ancient cobblestoned streets were once the core of Lecce’s giudecca.
On the toe side of Italy’s boot, an even earlier heritage is evident in the picturesque seaside village of Bova Marina, which overlooks a turquoise bay on the Calabrian coast. Locals in this classical-era town still speak a Greek dialect, a vestige of the days when this territory was known as Magna Grecia.
So it is a fitting place to have unearthed Italy’s second-oldest synagogue (the oldest is in Ostia) — a structure that dates to the fourth century, appears to have been abandoned some 300 years later, and speaks to one of Europe’s oldest Jewish communities. (When road construction crews discovered the synagogue in 1983, there were clues that an even older structure lies just beneath.)
Restored for tourism as a heritage site, the basilica-style synagogue is typical of its Byzantine era; a detailed mosaic floor features images of menorahs and shofars, while ritual artifacts and coins have been recovered from the ruins.
Not far from Calabria’s oldest synagogue is also its newest — Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud in Serrastretta, which was established in 2006 by Italy’s first female rabbi, American-born Barbara Aiello.
Serrastretta is just up the hill from Lamezia Terme, a workaday city where medieval Jewry thrived in a ninth-century guidecca called Timpone. Today, Lamezia Terme’s Jewish presence is felt in its intricate balconies, wrought by Jewish artisans, as well as a church whose rose window still bears traces of the onetime synagogue’s Star of David. Picturesque ruins abound — a 1,000-year-old castle, a 16th-century Spanish watchtower.
But a far livelier Jewish scene awaits up the hill in Serrastretta, a Calabrian town famous for porcini mushrooms. A community of b’nei anusim — descendants of forcibly converted Italian Jews, who are today rediscovering their Jewish roots — gathers in the Sephardic-style sanctuary of Sinagoga Ner Tamid del Sud, Calabria’s first active synagogue since the Inquisition.
While more historic congregations still flourish in Italy’s north, the enthusiastic kiddush under a grape arbor in Serrastreeta is indeed a rarity in these parts — and a memorable way to experience today’s Jewish Italy.