The Jewish presence in Bologna dates back to 1353, when the Jewish banker Gaius Finzi traveled from Rome and took up his residence in the quartier of Porta Procola.
In the second half of the 14th century, around 15 Jewish families settled in the city. In 1416, at the time of the papal election, a vigilance committee of Jewish notables from various parts of Italy met in Bologna to discuss the submission of an official letter to Pope Martin V, in order to improve the condition of the Jews. In 1417, the bishop of Bologna forced the Jews to wear the Jewish badge and limited their activities as loan bankers. The restrictions were confirmed in 1458. Nevertheless, the community continued to flourish.
In 1473, Bernardino da Feltre secured the establishment of a public loan bank (Monte di Pietà) in an attempt to undermine the activities of the Jews. It functioned for a short time only, although further attempts were made to establish one in 1505 and 1532. Thanks to continued waves of immigration, the Jewish community of Bologna increased to around 650 during these years. They were involved in loan banking, commerce (silk, secondhand textiles, jewelry), medicine, and cultural life.
In the 15th–16th centuries, the Bologna community included many rabbis and noted scholars, including Obadiah Sforno, Jacob Mantino, Azariah de’ Rossi, and Samuel Archivolti. There were 11 synagogues in Bologna in the middle of the 16th century, even more than in Rome. In 1546, there already existed two fraternal societies, the “Hevrat ha-Nizharim” and the “Hevrat Rahamim.”
In 1477, a Hebrew press printed 300 copies of its first book: the Book of Psalms in 1477, with commentary by D. Kimhi. Among the printers were Meister Joseph and his son, Hayyim Mordecai, and Hezekiah of Ventura. About the same time – between 1477 and 1480 – they printed two small-size editions of the Book of Psalms.
Two other Hebrew printing presses were set up in Bologna. The first was under the supervision of Abraham b. Ḥayyim dei Tintori of Pesaro and operated from 1477–82. The second was run by silk makers and intellectuals (among them Obadiah Sforno) and operated from 1537–41. In 1482, the first edition of the Pentateuch with Onkelos and Rashi and the Five Scrolls with commentaries were printed. Only the Pentateuch bears the city’s name. In 1537, a siddur of the Roman rite, mostly on parchment, and some other works were printed (i.e., Or Ammim by Sforno in 1537 and Piskei Halakhot by Moses Recanati in 1538) and in 1540/41 a maḥzor of the same rite appeared with commentary by Joseph Treves. The university library owns an important collection of Hebrew manuscripts and early editions.
Bologna reverted to direct papal rule in 1513, and, not long after, the community began to suffer from the consequences of the Counter-Reformation. In 1553, the Talmud and other Hebrew works were burned on the instructions of Pope Julius III. In 1556, Paul IV issued an order confining Jewish residence to a ghetto. In 1566, the ghetto was established in a central part of the city, behind the Two Towers. Pius V established a House of Catechumens in Bologna in 1568 and, in the following year, Bologna was among the towns of the papal states which banished the Jews. More than 800 Jews were forced to leave, paying in addition the enormous fine of 40,000 scudi. The cemetery was given to the nuns of S. Pietro, who completely destroyed it in order to use the land. As a result of the apparently more liberal attitude of Sixtus V, Jews were allowed to return to Bologna in 1586, but were expelled again in 1593 by Clement VIII. On this occasion, they removed the bones of their dead, which they reburied in the cemetery of Pieve di Cento.
Subsequently, Jews were not able to settle officially in Bologna for two centuries. Foreign Jews occasionally were allowed accommodation in the central Osteria del Cappello Rosso inn. In 1796, in the period after the French conquests, several Jews went to live there. They later suffered from the renewed papal rule, and their position progressively deteriorated until, in 1836, some of them who belonged to the Italian Risorgimento movement were again expelled. It was in Bologna that the kidnapping of the child Edgardo Mortara took place in 1858, an affair that aroused the civilized world. When the city was annexed to Piedmont in 1859, equal rights were granted to the Jews and they fully participated to the cultural, economic, and social life of the city. Luigi Luzzati and Attilio Muggia were among the founders of two important charitable institutions, respectively the “Società cooperativa degli operai” (1867) and the “Casa provinciale del lavoro (1887)”; Amilcare Zamorani founded and owned the daily newspaper Il Resto del Carlino(1885). The family of Lazzaro Carpi, who participated actively in the Italian Risorgimento, strongly supported the Jewish community and organized the first prayer room in their home in 1859. During the 1870s, the Jewish community established a new synagogue which remained active until 1929, when a new one was built in the same place.
At the beginning of the 20th century, about 900 Jews – mostly business and professional people – lived in Bologna. In January 1938, months before the anti-Jewish laws, Il Resto del Carlino, the local daily newspaper founded by Amilcare Zamorani, initiated a campaign against the Jews. One of the first signs of the new antisemitic atmosphere was the changing of the name of the Via de’ Giudei to the Via delle Due Torri. With the onset of the anti-Jewish laws in September, Jewish teachers and students were forced to leave the public schools. The municipality established an elementary school with two classes for Jewish pupils only, while the Jewish community set up three sections for middle and upper school. Fifty-one Jewish professors were forced to retire from the University of Bologna, including 11 tenured professors and 40 others. Also forced to leave were 492 foreign Jewish students. Italian Jewish students already enrolled at the university were allowed to finish, but no new Italian Jewish students were admitted. In addition, 17 doctors, 14 lawyers, and three journalists were no longer permitted to exercise their professions. With only a few exceptions, there were no reactions or manifestations of dissent on the part of their “Aryan” colleagues.
After the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, the persecution in Bologna became deadly. With the collaboration of Fascist activists, Nazi raids, roundups, and deportations of Jews to death camps were frequent. Jewish properties and possessions were confiscated, and only partially returned after liberation. One hundred and fourteen Jews from Bologna were deported to Auschwitz, where nearly all of them died. About half of them passed through the transit camp of Fossoli. Eighty-four of the 114 belonged to the Jewish community. Among them was Rabbi Alberto Orvieto. Their names are engraved on a plaque on the facade of the synagogue in Via Mario Finzi. The other 30 deportees had been baptized or had chosen not to register themselves in the community. In addition to the 114, a number of deported Jews from outside Bologna were captured within the city.
Even before September 1943, a section of the Delegazione assistenza emigrati (Delasem) functioned in Bologna to help foreign Jews. It was directed by Mario Finzi, who during the German occupation produced false identity cards for Italian and foreign Jews in the Bologna and Florence area and delivered them through Don Leto Casini. Finzi was arrested in April and deported to Auschwitz in May 1944, from where he did not return. Eugenio Heiman, president of the Jewish community after the war, was also active in Delasem.
Many Jews were able to hide and save themselves with false documents provided by Delasem or the Resistance. About 20 Jews from Bologna became partisans and fought especially in the brigades of Giustizia e Libertà, linked to the Partito d’Azione. Several lost their lives in the struggle, including the lawyer Mario Jacchìa, commander of northwestern Emilia, and 13-year-old Franco Cesana (1931–1944), believed to be the youngest Italian partisan.
The Jewish community was reconstituted in 1945. The synagogue, destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943, was rebuilt under the direction of Eng. Guido Muggia, the grandson of the original builder, and inaugurated in 1954. By 1990, the number of Jews was reduced to 230, with a number of Israelis studying at the University.