The Italian Synagogue through the Ages Noemi Cassuto

From: “Synagogue without Jews, and the Communities that used and built them”, by Rivka and Ben Zion Dorfmann.

Almost all the Holy Arks of the Renassaince and Baroque period in Italy adopt the same solution. They may be made of marble or wood, but the style is identical, generally with upper and lower sections. In the lower, pedestal section, two small doors provide access to a closet for storing prayer books or worn holy texts. The upper section contains the two main doors of the Heikhal, usually ornamented inside and out. Flanking the Ark there are columns that may be grooved, helical or smooth. Occasionally, a grapevine is entwined around them, recalling the golden vine that – according to the Talmud -ornamented the columns and the roof at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem. The columns are crowned with capitals, usually Corinthian, and support an architrave with a cornice or tympanum. This last is complete or truncated, triangular or arched, carrying a round medallion atop the cornice with additional ornamentation, usually representing the Tablets of the Law and topped by yet another small tympanum.

On the Adriatic coast, in Ancona, Pesaro, and Urbino, the Heikhal is adorned with a substantial dome. Surprisingly, similar domes were found on the two Holy Arks in Livorno on the western coast of Italy. One of them is now located in the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in the Jewish quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem. These Arks on west and east coasts suggest both Iberian and Levantine origins. It also may be that the Adriatic coast synagogues were influenced by the appearance of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, which Jewish travelers adopted to represent the image of the Temple. Domes were, after all, a common architectural device in the Byzantine world. The Adriatic Arks have double doors, inner and outer, to create a double barrier betwen the Torah scrolls and the worshippers as required by the halakhah. The idea may have been to obviate the need for a parokhet. With the trend to increasingly ornate doors, the artists considered it a sorry loss of exposure to conceal them behind curtains.

The Jewish communities commissioned famous architects to design Heikhal and bimah and even the entire synagogue. In Venice, they employed Andrea Bristolon, Alessandro Fernignon, Antonio Gaspari, and the greatest Venetian architect of the seventeenth century, Baldassarre Longhena. In Rome, they employed Girolamo Rainaldi and later, Giuseppe Valadieri. The communities in Piedmont may have employed the services of Benedetto Alfieri, architect to the royal house of Savoy.

The bimot of the bipolar synagogues were also object of deliberate attention. At first, they were simply raised platforms in the rear of the synagogue, reached by two ramps – as in the Scuola Tempio in Rome and the Scuola Italiana in Senigallia. Later they were roofed over, as in the Italian Synagogue in Pesaro and the Ashkenazic synagogue in Gorizia. In time, the posterior bimah gained a spatial importance of its own through the addiction of an apse at the end of the synagogue. Its floor was raised about six feet above that of the main hall, almost like a stage in a theater.

The Matroneo (women’s gallery) ran around the synagogue, usually along three sides or in a complete oval, reminiscent of a theater loggia – as in Gorizia, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic synagogues in Venice, and the old synagogue in Trieste. The galleries did not always protrude into the interior space. Sometimes they were conceiled behind latticed screens, doubling as wall ornaments, as in the Scuola Canton in Venice and the synagogue in Casale Monferrato. In bipolar synagogues the congregation sat in facing sections, oriented towards the central axis running from the Heikhal to the bimah. This central axis was open and was used for processions between the two major elements.

In many synagogues, the bimah was at the rear, but not attached to the rear wall. The smaller the space, the more feasible it was to attach the bima to the western wall or recess it into an apse. Sometimes it was close to the center of the sanctuary, not as a matter of principle but merely to improve the acoustics. A large sanctuary needs a bimah from which the cantor can be heard. Such a central location is found in Pitigliano, Livorno and Ferrara. This was the standard synagogue layout in most countries until the late nineteenth century.

The Sephardi synagogue in Pesaro, built in 1642, is an impressive example of the Baroque in Jewish architecture. From Heikhal to bimah and the superb stucco ceiling connecting the two poles, the unique art of this synagogue resembles an exquisitely decorated jewel box where every detail is fully justified. The Heikhal departs from familiar patterns and resembles a gigantic crown beneath which and in whose shadow stands the Ark itself. In this synagogue the crown can be understood as a representation of the dome typical to Holy Arks of the region.

Despite the last example, Jewish Baroque was different from its Christian counterpart, which aspired to create an illusion of the infinite, the mysterious, and the unattainable. Although Jewish Baroque was an excellent artistic imitation of the Christian model, it lacked the model’s characteristic religious committment. On the contrary, the material means of the synagogues were not intended to achieve the infinite. That goal was attainable exclusively through prayer and meditation.

The Piedmont region, close to Provence in southeastern France and to southern Germany, gives evidence of minor influences from both neighbouring locales in its synagogue art. Because Piedmontese Jews were not relegated to ghettos until the 1720s and 1730s, these synagogues are particularly elaborate-the zenith of the Rococo. The Heikhalot resemble those already described, in principle, but are more richly ornamented. The French influence is seen in the abundance of rocaille, shells, and acanthus leaves on the fluted columns.

One feature dominates all these Piedmont synagogues: their splendid central bimot. The Ashkenazic influence influence here prevented the bipolar design from taking root.

Instead, the bimah became a central element, as was the case in Carmagnola, Chieri, Cherasco, Mondovi’, and in the oldest version of the synagogue in Casale Monferrato. The bimah base is octagonal, surmounted by a parapet with decorated panels on six sides, while two sides are open to allow access. Helical or straight columns affixed to the papapet rise from each vertex of the octagon and support Corinthians capitals surmounted by fantastic openworks architraves, friezes, and tympanum. All this forms an airy canopy, surmounted by a huge Torah crown. Other than the immense difference in the scale, the early Piedmont bimot are probably influenced by Bernini’s giant baldachin over the high altar in St. Peter in Rome. In these synagogues the “magic” open center that was the hallmark of the bipolar synagogues vanishes, to be replaced by the bimah itself. Similar synagogues are found in the adiacent districts of Germany, especially the south, as in Ansbach.

The iconography in these Piedmontese synagogues is particularly interesting. Much space is devoted to ornaments that allude to the Holy Temple, its vessels, and other sanctified objects: the Temple itself, the vial that held the Manna, the Tablets of the Law, Aaron staff, the golden incense altar, and the Shewbread table. They occur on a Heikhal from Saluzzo (now in the Old City of Jerusalem) that antedates the Ghetto of 1734, where they are pictured on the inside of the Ark doors. The Heikhalot of Cuneo and Asti have a similar iconography.

The Asti synagogue dates from the Napoleonic era. During a major renovation in 1889, in keeping with the times, the bimah was moved from a central, four-pillar position to a location in front of the Heikhal and the benches were all arranged frontally. The central bimah area, now covered by benches, is still marked by the four widely-spread pillars that support a central dome. Such an architectural solution with four central pillars and a ceiling space divided into nine bays was common in Poland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and was also used in Hungary – as in Bonyhad and Mad – or Slovakia, in Bardejov. In the later synagogues the four central pillars are placed quite closely together. It seems that the exchange of information among Jewish communities, that was probably a by-product of Napoleon’s campaigns, led to mutual influence among such remote Jewish congregations.

The synagogues of the post-ghetto period, those dating from after the unification of Italy in the late nineteenth century, certainly reflected the spirit of the times. In this period, Jews got a taste of liberty and could participate in the cultural, economic, and social life of the country. Now, they built grandiose synagogues, almost cathedrals. No longer were these structures crowded with worshippers as in the ghetto. They functioned more as a symbol of Judaism, as institutional edifices.

During this period of architectural eclecticism across Europe, and especially in Italy, many old ghetto synagogues were pulled down and new ones built. It was an era in which architects drew on every style for inspiration. There were neo-Classical synagogues like the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, neo-Moresque in Florence and Vercelli, neo-Gothic in Alessandria, neo-Egyptian or neo-Babylonian in Rome, and neo-Romanesque in Trieste. These are massive structures, often frontally oriented with an elongated floor plan. The structural principle is frequently Bizantine, with four large arches supporting a central drum, topped by a dome. The facade usually sports a central rose window and two lateral spires.

The largest and most famous of these, the Mole Antonelliana, never became a synagogue. Having planned a grandiose, extravagant edifice, the kehillah ran out of funds and sold out the structure to the Turin municipality, which completed the dome and spire and turned the structure into a Museum. To this day, it rises high above the skyline and has become the symbol of the city.

For the Jews of Italy, the sense of equality and emancipation was brutally eradicated during the Fascist period. Since that time, the synagogues and their communities, where they have survived, have returned to the lesser, pre-Emancipation dimensions. Except for the modern synagogue in Livorno, no major synagogue has been built in Italy since the Second World War.

Although the legacy of many generations of Italian Jewry was shattered in our time, some of its priceless furnishings have migrated to a new home. Working tirelessly during the 1950s and 1960s, Umberto Nahon rescued as many as 40 endangered synagogues in Italy, or their surviving remnants and ceremonial Judaica, bringing them to new locations and use in Israel. The Italian government has since recognized the national cultural importance of the remaining Jewish heritage on its soil and is budgeting funds for its preservation. A tourist visiting Italy may now find a growing number of synagogues restored -but empty of worshippers, a visual reminder of a glorious Jewish community that is about to disappear.

Source: Conegliano Synagogue