The Synagogue of Florence

The Synagogue of FlorenceFlorence has a Jewish community whose origins date back to the Roman era when there were several Jews living in houses near the Ponte Vecchio. We know that in 1396, there was a bank opened in the centre which made loans; an activity which has only been officially authorized by the government since about 1430.

From then Jews were integrated into city life with excellent protection, particularly under Lorenzo the Magnificent. There were however several instances of persecution of such as those carried out by Bernardino da Feltre in 1477 and Savonarola in 1495.

Despite these incidents, like everywhere else in Europe, Jewish community life in Florence remained relatively harmonious until the late 1500’s. In 1551, Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo de’ Medici, actively worked to enable the Jewish people to open pawnshops in Empoli, Pistoia and San Miniato and also to give them commercial grants.

However, the situation was set to change. Particularly in Florence with the arrival of ghettos and intolerance of the Jewish communities which came from Rome and Venice, and a new law by Cosimo I, which was clearly an anti-semitic attempt to gain the much desired grand-ducal crown.

In 1570 it could be said that the capital of Tuscany was a ghetto in which a curfew was enforced. Many Tuscan Jews were forced to settle in the area, and this oppression did not finish when the Medici family were replaced by the more liberal Lorena family.

It was not until 1848 when these segregated ghettos were finally abandoned (this did not occur in Rome until 1870) and Italy was united, finally giving the Jews civil rights. Under these new conditions plans to build a new temple were begun as part of the exciting news that Florence had been named the capital of Italy, even if this proved to be for a short time only. The Council did not lose any time in destroying the former ghetto area, erecting an abundance of magnificent buildings to regenerate the otherwise empty clearing of Piazza della Repubblica.

The construction of a new synagogue was immensely important to the Florentine-Jewish population, however the project was only started in 1874 thanks to a generous donation from David Levi, the then President of the community. The area designated for the new synagogue was located in an area far from that of the previous ghetto, in an area on the outskirts during a time when the city. Not everybody agreed with this and protests began. Nevertheless, the project went ahead at full speed, managed by some of the most well-known architects of that era, Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini and Vicenzo Micheli, and in 1882 the construction was completed.

The synagogue is without a doubt one of the most beautiful Jewish buildings in Europe. The architecture is Moorish, a style that was very fashionable at the time and which features splendid patterns that can be found throughout Florence. The construction is symmetrical, from the walls of white travertine stone from Colle Val d’Elsa, to the pink stone from Assisi. The architects were clearly inspired by oriental art, in particular by the Byzantine movement, from which they took many of their ideas. However, all of this is upstaged by the great dome which dominates the whole facade with its arched iron windows and its high rounded peak. The sides of the synagogue are bordered by two impressive towers. The interior reminds one of the Saint Sofia church in Constantinople for its atmosphere, its vast alcoves, and the three aisles – not to mention thousands of other details, such as the marble floor and the profusely decorated red and amber walls which ressemble the most exotic of landscapes.

The furniture is wonderful and bears witness to the Jewish love of all things beautiful that is part of the heritage of every Jewish community. At the same time, these objects recount the tragic events and suffering of a population that has, in spite of everything, never lost its identity.

Many of the pieces originate from a community that has by now disappeared, partly due to attrition of numbers, and partly due to persecution by those in power. The precious items come from Arezzo, Monte San Savino and Loppiano; others from the old ghetto and from other places of worship dismantled a few decades ago and are now housed in the museum adjacent to the Synagogue which is worth a visit.

The Jewish community in Florence, though very active, is made up of barely 600 members. Their elaborately decorated, temple, and the treasure chest which holds the Torah – the law which has always been the main point of reference for the Jewish community. Together these symbols of beauty represent the grandeur and persistance of the entire Jewish community.

Commenti (1) | March 30, 2010

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