Italian Jewish communities began collecting precious objects, documents, furniture and photographs for exhibition purposes only at the beginning of the 20th century. The premise was that the vast cultural heritage produced before and during the ghetto was in danger of being lost, unless the newly integrated Jewish society devised new systems of preservation.
Before that time, Jewish manuscripts, books, incunabula and liturgical objects had been collected mainly by private individuals: Jewish philanthropists, wealthy Italian bibliophiles and Judaic scholars.
Only in the early 1960s, Jewish communities, large and small, began to reconsider their holdings as collections of objects with intrinsic value and historical significance. A new approach to the preservation of Jewish history and material culture led to the opening of numerous Jewish museums, which progressively defined their multifaceted role in relation to local communities, as well as to the Italian and international public.
Today, a relatively small institution like the Jewish Museum of Rome, is endowed with a state-of-the-art conservation lab and a magnificent “visible storage”. The Union of the Italian Jewish Communities is offering infrastructure to develop and support local collections. And at last, a national Italian Jewish Museum is about to open in the city of Ferrara.
Annie Sacerdoti, Assessore ai Beni Culturali of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities, drew a map of the Jewish museums in Italy. What follows is based on her report.
In 1930 in Livorno, Rabbi Alfredo Toaff, with the help of the painter Ulvi Liege (Luigi Levi), set up an exhibition hall next to the city’s main synagogue, to exhibit the collections of the local community. That was probably the first step toward the idea of a Jewish Museum in Italy. When, following the 1943 bombing of the synagogue, the community began to use the Marini family chapel for daily prayers, all the furnishings, objects, documents and books were transferred into the neoclassical Marini building in Via Micali 21. After the synagogue was rebuilt in 1962, the collection was reorganized on the first floor of the Marini building and in 1992 it officially opened to the public as a museum.
In the square room, still used occasionally for religious services, items on display testify to the history of the Livorno Jews, one of the main centers of Hebrew publishing in the Mediterranean and the only community in Europe that never lived in a ghetto. The aron, carved with gilded spirals and crowned by three domes in oriental style, according to tradition, was brought by the Portuguese exiles in 1500. The “bag of Massari” (members of a council that led the Community) is decorated with exquisite gold and silver embroidery. A unique treasure of the collection are the Torah pointers, skillfully carved in red coral, a craft in which the Jews of Livorno had a monopoly. A silver crown is the legacy of the commercial relations between Livorno and North Africa. Today the collection has been increasingly integrated with other Jewish landmarks of the city and is visited by students, tourists and the general public.
The Jewish Museum in Venice was created in 1955 in Campo Ghetto Novo and renovated in 1986. The two rooms, adjacent to the Scola tedesca, part of a larger complex comprised of the Ghetto Novo, Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Novissimo, the synagogues, the midrashim, hold only a small portion their collections of objects and books.The collections include silver ritual objects, both for the synagogue and domestic use, precious textiles such as the Parokhet of Stella, wife of Isaac Perugia, from the first half of the seventeenth century. Also on display are a small aron, a typical Venetian sefer tiq (scroll box), and some ketuboth. The Jewish Museum of Venice is the access point to the vast area of the ghetto and the synagogues, each representing a different facet of the history of the city and its Jewish community.
The Jewish Museum of Rome was created in the 1960s by initiative of Fausto Pitigliani, as a small exhibition of ritual objects on the top floor of the main synagogue. In 2005 it was completely renovated under the curatorship of Daniela Di Castro. The vast collections were moved to the beautiful vaulted basement of the synagogue, where a much broader selection of silver objects, textiles, manuscripts and marble carvings is presently displayed. Major restoration, preservation and cataloguing projects were undertaken, making the museum an important reference point for scholars and students. The textile collection, one of the finest among Jewish museums worldwide, was organized, catalogued and made available to the public through a walk-in storage at the entrance of the main hall. Ongoing collaboration with the Jewish Historical Archive of Rome has brought to light many treasures and enabled curators to reconstruct important aspects of the history of the community, through objects and textiles. The surviving furnishings of the Cinque Scole were restored and displayed in the museum. The Oratorio Spagnolo, entirely reconstructed in one of the museum’s rooms, is used for daily prayer.Far from being a repository of the past, the museum has become an integral part of the community.
The Museum of Casale Monferrato, in Vicolo Solomone Olper 44, is located right in the heart of the old ghetto. Here the magnificent baroque synagogue was abandoned for nearly a century, as the roof was collapsing. Finally, in 1968, consolidation and restoration work began led by the architect Giulio Bourbon.The first phase of restoration focused on recuperating the prayer hall, whose walls had been covered by dark stripes painted by the Jews of Casale, as a sign of mourning for the death of King Carlo Alberto. A year later, in 1969, an exhibition space was set up in the two existing women’s galleries. Since the objects of the community, including over 400 kilos of silver, had been looted between 1943 and 1945, the new museum asked all Piedmontese communities and individuals to lend their objects and help create a permanent exhibition. Elegantly organized on two floors of the building, today the fine collection of silver liturgical objects, textiles and manuscripts tells the unique story of the Piedmontese communities. In 1989, with the collaboration of the Director of the Historical Archives of Vercelli, Maurizio Cassetti, the Archive of Community was catalogued and made available to the public. This archival collection documents the life of the Jews of Casale since 1500 and represents an important reference point for historians of that period.
In 1981 the Jewish Community of Florence created its own museum, designed by the architect Alberto Boralevi.The exhibition room is located on the second floor of the synagogue, behind the women’s gallery. It is divided into two parts: one illustrates the history of the Jews in Florence until the construction of the main synagogue the 19th century, the other features a spectacular collection of ceremonial objects. The museum also functions as community center and lecture hall.
In 1982 the synagogue of Soragna, that had remained closed since the end of the war, reopened to the public as a museum. The president of the community of Parma, Fausto Levi, after whom the museum was named, brought together all remaining testimonies of the sixteen small Jewish communities of the ancient duchies of Parma and Piacenza. In the magnificent setting of the synagogue, visitors can admire beautifully crafted ornaments, including the precious aron and a seventeenth century fireplace from Cortemaggiore, ceremonial objects and books from Fiorenzuola, Colorno, Fidenza, Busseto and Cortemaggiore. The hall of the synagogue is used for concerts and conferences. After the untimely death of its founder, Fausto Levi, the Museum of Soragna is managed jointly by the Archaeological Institute of Emilia and the Institute for the History of the Resistance.
In the 1990 several museums were established to promote public interest in Jewish culture and history. In Trieste, Mario Stock, the president of the Community, opened the Carlo and Vera Wagner Museum in Via del Monte, 5. This historic building had been the Jewish hospital in the mid-nineteenth century, then a school and, in the 1930s, a shelter for refugees from Central and Eastern Europe who reached Trieste to embark for Palestine. The collection includes silverware, textiles, books and documents from the four old synagogues, destroyed in 1912. Among the objects on display is a large crown and an eighteenth century Venetian plate decorated with grape vines and melons, the work of the Bohemian master silversmiths Wenceslas Swoboda of Prague. The Ashkenazi tas (silver shield hanging over the front of the Torah) dated 1593, is considered one of the oldest of its kind.
In 1997 a museum was also opened in Ferrara, in Via Mazzini 95, a building that Ser Melli donated to the community in 1422 to build a synagogue. Since then, with subsequent changes and additions, the building has always maintained its original destination. The museum consists of an overview of Jewish religious and family life and the history of the Jews of Ferrara. The building still houses two functioning synagogues (Scola Fanese and Scola Tedesca). The older Scola Italiana is used as a conference room and the seat of the Rabbinical Court.
The Jewish Museum of Bologna has a different genesis. Opened by the Regional administration in 1999, it is housed in a building of the old ghetto in Via Valdonica 1/5. The museum presents the history of the Jews of Bologna, using modern multimedia techniques, explanatory panels, images and monitors. It is equipped with reading, screening and lectures rooms as well as a specialized library. Along with the museum, the Regional administration of Emilia Romagna sponsored a complete census of the local Jewish patrimony, including archival and bibliographic resources as well as Jewish cemeteries. This is the first and only example of a publicly run Jewish Museum in Italy.
Small exhibition halls with valuable collections also opened in Asti (in the Tempietto invernale), Merano, Pitigliano and Gorizia, which was called “Little Jerusalem on the Isonzo”. Here, on the ground floor of the restored synagogue, there is a room dedicated to the philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter.Jewish museums also opened in Turin, Genoa and Milan.
In Rome and Milan, the two largest Jewish communities in Italy, museums have incorporated in their narratives the experience and cultural heritage of recently immigrated communities, like the Libyans, Persian and Iraki Jews. More recently, with the revival of Jewish life in the South of Italy, a new Jewish museum was founded in Trani, inside the Church of St. Anna, once one of the main synagogues. The collection features few but extraordinary testimonies of Byzantine Judaism and of the flourishing Jewish life in the region, which ended in the mid 1500 with the arrival if the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews.
Finally, after a long national debate, the Italian communities and the public administration agreed to create a National Museum of Italian Judaism and the history of the Shoah (MEIS), which will specifically address the uniqueness of Italian Jewish history in the context of the European and Mediterranean experience. The museum, located in Ferrara, will offer an organic view of the vast heritage of ideas, artifacts and experiences that characterized Jewish life in the peninsula for over two millennia. The MEIS will follow contemporary museum criteria and will be equipped with cutting edge technology and an interactive infrastructure. Facilities will include a permanent exhibition, a section dedicated to temporary shows, a library, a research and lecture centre and a children’s wing.
Holocaust memorial sites occupy a chapter of their own. The Jewish museums of Rome and Bologna feature dedicated sections on the history of the Shoah in Italy. Throughout the country, small and large memorials have been established on sites of historical significance, such as prisons, concentration and transit camps, as well as massacre and extermination loci. Among the most significant are the Memorial Center of Fossoli di Carpi (Modena), the Ferramonti Foundation (Cosenza), the Museum of Via Tasso (Rome), the Risiera di San Sabba (Trieste), and Central Station/Binario 21 (Milan). Most of these memorials rely on the work of the Center for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan, which for decades has coordinated the research on the Shoah in Italy. A national Holocaust Museum is scheduled to open in Rome in the next years.