Until 1633, the year the ghetto was established, Pesaro had three synagogues and numerous prayer rooms. There was a synagogue for the Hispano-Levantine rite, as well as two separate synagogues of great beauty following the native Italian rite. The former was commissioned and financed by Mordekhaj Volterra, a wealthy Portuguese banker, prior to leaving for Florence where he became Francesco de Medici’s financial and political adviser. The building, dating from around 1556-1559, housed not only the synagogue, but community offices, a day school, a music school, and a center for Kabbalah studies.
When in the 1600’s the Duchy of Urbino was included into the Papal States, the ghetto was created. The Italian rite synagogue fell outside the ghetto and was closed, so the city Jews frequented only the Sephardic Synagogue. The boarded up Italian synagogue was badly damaged in the 1930 earthquake and eventually demolished in 1940. During the period of Nazi occupation the Sephardic Synagogue was closed down.
In 1944 the Palestinian Brigade of the British Army reopened the Synagogue and services were held there for the last time. The building was left abandoned and it deteriorated rapidly. With the agreement of the Jewish Community in Ancona, which owned the building, the City of Pesaro took it over and began a restoration project in 1990. Work was finally completed in 2004 and the building opened as a historical site.
The ground floor houses an interesting exhibition on the life of Pesaro’s community, with a display of various artifacts and ritual objects. The prayer room, once known as the “treasure of Pesaro”, retains its original beauty. The large rectangular room is filled with light from three large windows, the fourth wall enclosed the women’s galleries. It is decorated in subdued colors – mostly whites, grays, blues and soft browns. Benches line the walls – contrasting natural wood with panels painted a deep green – the only dark color in the room.
The east end of the room – facing Jerusalem – has a large niche reserved for the ark – a magnificent carved gilt Aron ha-Kodesh, which is now in the care of the Jewish community in Livorno. Likewise the elaborately carved and gilded bimah (reading stand) was moved to the Levantine synagogue in Ancona. On the west side of the room, a balcony is accessed on either side by a flight of marble stairs joined by a landing. Badly damaged frescos are visible on the wall behind the landing. The balcony was probably used for a cantor or a choir, since music was very important in the Sephardic rite.