Rick Steves Rome 2016 - Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw (2015)
JEWISH GHETTO WALK
For centuries, Rome’s Jewish ghetto—even while a site of relentless persecution—has showcased the undying pride and solidarity of a tight-knit community. Built in 1555 on the banks of a frequently flooded bend of the Tiber River, the ghetto was the forced home of the Roman Jewish population for more than 300 years, between the Counter-Reformation (16th century) and Italian unification (1870). Though most of the old ghetto has been torn down, you can still find a few reminders of the Roman Jews’ storied past and lively present.
(See “Jewish Ghetto Walk” map, here.)
Length of This Walk: Allow about 30 minutes, plus an additional hour or more if you tour the synagogue and visit the museum.
When to Go: If you want to visit the synagogue and museum, go any day but Saturday, when they’re closed.
Getting There: The Jewish ghetto was—and Rome’s main synagogue still is—on the east bank of the Tiber River, near the Isola Tiberina (“Island in the Tiber”) and the ancient ruins of the Theater of Marcellus (Teatro di Marcello). The walk’s starting point is right across the river from Trastevere and is a ten-minute walk from Largo Argentina. Bus #23 stops nearby.
Synagogue and Jewish Museum: €11 ticket covers both, includes one-hour audioguide for museum and guided tour of synagogue; mid-June-mid-Sept Sun-Thu 10:00-19:00, Fri 10:00-16:00, shorter hours off-season, closed Sat year-round; last entry 45 minutes before closing, on Lungotevere dei Cenci, tel. 06-6840-0661, www.museoebraico.roma.it. Modest dress is required. The only way to visit the synagogue (if you’re not there for a prayer service) is with a tour (included in admission, English tours usually at :15 past the hour, 30 minutes, check schedule at ticket counter).
Tours: The museum conducts walking tours of the Jewish ghetto at least once a day Sun-Fri (€8, usually at 13:15, no tours on Sat). Ask for the schedule at the museum entry and sign up at least 30 minutes before the tour departure time (minimum of three required).
Local guide Micaela Pavoncello is uniquely equipped to guide visitors through the neighborhood her family has lived in for generations (€130/2 hours, occasionally offers group tours—check website for Ghetto Tour, tel. 328-863-8128, www.jewishroma.com, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Download my free Jewish Ghetto audio tour.
Eateries: Near the end of this tour, you’ll find a Jewish bakery and the recommended Sora Margherita restaurant, offering traditional Roman and Jewish fare. The restaurant hides on a square a block from the end of this tour (Piazza delle Cinque Scole 30; see here).
Nearby: The Trastevere Walk starts near where this one does—on Ponte Fabricio (see here).
In the Ghetto
The word “ghetto” is Italian, first used in Venice in the 1600s to describe the part of town where Jews lived—near the copper foundry (geto was the word for foundry). Initially the term meant only Jewish neighborhoods, but as the word spread through Europe and beyond, it was used generically to mean any neighborhood where a single ethnic group is segregated.
Today, nearly half of Italy’s 35,000 Jews call Rome home. Jews here have a uniquely Roman style of worship and even preserve remnants of their own Judaic-Roman dialect. That’s because, unlike most of the world’s Jewish people, Roman Jews are neither Sephardic (descended from Spain) nor Ashkenazi (descended from Eastern Europe). Italy’s Jews came directly from the Holy Land before the Diaspora, first arriving in Rome in the second century B.C. as esteemed envoys (hoping to establish business ties) and then, after Rome invaded Judaea in the first century A.D., as POWs sold into slavery. These first Jews lived, like other foreigners, outside the city—across the river, in Trastevere.
The Romans favored the Jews because they were well-networked throughout the empire, they didn’t push their religion on others, and most important, they paid their taxes. But with the fall of the Roman Empire, the status of Jews declined. As Christianity enveloped Rome, the state denied Jews their full rights as citizens, and once the pope became literally the king of Rome, the Church enforced laws that limited the spread of the Jewish faith (such as no proselytizing, no new synagogues, no intermarriage). The severity of these laws varied from pope to pope. Through most of the Middle Ages, the standing of Rome’s Jews fluctuated, but for the most part they prospered and were often held in high regard as physicians, businessmen, and confidants of popes. The community in Trastevere was even allowed to spill across to the opposite bank of the Tiber.
Then, in 1492, Spain expelled its Jews, with similar removals following in other European countries. Rome’s Jewish population doubled, swelling with refugees. By the 1500s, the Catholic Counter-Reformation—begun to combat rising Protestantism—turned its attention to anything deemed a “heresy” or simply not Catholic, including Judaism. In 1555, Pope Paul IV forcibly moved all of Rome’s Jews into the undesirable flood zone inside a bend of the Tiber River, creating a ghetto of some 4,000 Jews packed into a miserable seven acres of mucky land. There they lived—in cramped conditions, behind a wall, with a curfew—for three centuries. They could go out by day, but had to return before the gates were locked at night. Jews were forced to wear yellow scarves and caps, and were prohibited from owning property or holding good jobs. During Carnevale (Mardi Gras), they were forced to parade down Via del Corso while Christians lined the streets and shouted insults. Through this long stretch of oppression, the synagogue was the only place Jews could feel respected and dignified. It’s no wonder such loving attention was given to the Jewish tools of worship.
Rome’s Jews enjoyed a little boost in freedom when Napoleon occupied the city (1805-1814) and after the ghetto walls were torn down in 1848. But it was only after Italian unification in 1870—when a secular government replaced the religious rule of the Vatican—that the ghetto’s inhabitants were granted full rights and citizenship. When Rome became the country’s capital, the city—ashamed of its shoddy Jewish quarter—destroyed the old ghetto and modernized the district, giving it the street plan we see today.
Then came the rise of fascism. Even though Mussolini wasn’t rabidly anti-Semitic, he instituted a slew of anti-Jewish laws as he allied himself more strongly with Hitler. When Mussolini was deposed and the Nazis occupied Rome late in the war, the ghetto community was suddenly in even greater danger. Of the 13,000 ghetto dwellers, 2,000 were sent off to concentration camps. Only a handful came back.
A measure of healing and reconciliation came with Pope John Paul II, who took a special interest in fostering relations with the Jewish community. It was John Paul II who finally acknowledged that the Church should have intervened more forcefully to defend the Jews during the Holocaust. He was also the first pope in history to enter a synagogue (here in this neighborhood in 1986—described later on this walk).
The Walk Begins
(See “Jewish Ghetto Walk” map, here.)
✵ Start at the north end of Ponte Fabricio, which connects central Rome with the Isola Tiberina and the neighborhood of Trastevere. You’ll see the big synagogue with its square dome. The former ghetto consists of the synagogue and the several blocks behind it.
Ponte Fabricio is nicknamed Ponte Quattro Capi (“Bridge of the Four Heads”) for its statues of the two-faced pagan god Janus. In ancient times, it was called Pons Judaeorum (“Jews’ Bridge”) because foreigners, immigrants, and Jews—who weren’t allowed to live in central Rome—would commute across this bridge to get into town. Some 30,000 Jews once lived in a thriving community in Trastevere. Look down at the river. The embankment was only built in the late 19th century. Before then, this was the worst flood zone along the Roman riverbank—just right for a ghetto for the politically powerless.
✵ With your back to the river, at your left is the synagogue, with its unique domed roof. But our first stop is the little church just across the busy street from the bridge—the beige building with an oval painting on the façade.
Santa Maria della Pietà (a.k.a. San Gregorio)
When the ghetto was a walled-in town, Catholics built churches at each gate to try and spread their faith to the Jews. Every time Jews entered or left their home, they got a little sermon from the church’s facade. There was the Crucifixion in the oval painting, which reminded all that it was the “Jews” who killed Christ (who, of course, was Jewish himself). And notice the Hebrew script under the crucifix. It quotes the Jewish prophet Isaiah—“All day long, I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and faithless nation that has lost its way” (Isaiah 65:2)—but misuses the quote to give it an anti-Semitic twist.
✵ Turning your back to the church, walk one block along the river and then turn right on Via del Tempio. On your right, find the synagogue’s main entrance, reserved for worshippers—this is the best vantage point to admire the...
Synagogue Facade (Sinagoga Facciata)
Take in the impressive structure. Its warm golden stone glows. The dome on top was made square to distinguish it from a Christian church. Scan the facade for familiar Jewish iconography: a menorah, the Ten Commandments, a star of David, palm branches, and a few inscriptions in Hebrew script.
The structure is modern (completed in 1904), but this has been the place of worship for Rome’s Jews for half a millennium. In the 16th century, when Pope Paul IV forced the Jews to reside within a walled ghetto, the neighborhood’s center was a synagogue right here. After Rome became the capital of the newly unified Italy in 1870, Jews regained their civil rights and were free to live anywhere in the city. The ghetto was essentially demolished, replaced with the modern blocks you see today.
The Jews were offered better real estate for their synagogue, but chose instead to rebuild here, on the original site. This new “Great Synagogue” was built in a remarkable three years with the enthusiastic support of the entire Roman community. This is where Pope John Paul II made his historic visit in 1986.
✵ To buy tickets for a guided tour of the synagogue and admission to the Jewish Museum, circle around the left side of the synagogue and walk down pedestrian-only Via Catalana to the “Museo Ebraico” entrance at the far end of the building.
Synagogue Interior (Sinagoga Interni) and Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico)
Your admission gives you a guided visit inside the Great Synagogue. As you gaze up into the dome painted with the colors of the rainbow, symbolizing God’s promise to Noah that there would be no more floods. The stars on the ceiling recall God’s pledge that Abraham’s descendants would flourish and be as many as the stars in the sky. Architects designed the structure in the Art Nouveau style, with a dash of Tiffany. The sandy color tones are a reminder of the community’s desert heritage. You’ll also get a brief tour of the older, smaller Spanish Synagogue—which once stood on a nearby square but was moved in 1932 to the ground floor of this building.
The museum tells the story of Roman Jews and shows off historically significant artifacts described in English. You’ll see second-century B.C. reliefs with Jewish symbols, finely worked Judaica (religious items), and other relics of the Jewish past. As the Jews were not allowed to be craftsmen during the ghetto period, they commissioned many of the pieces you’ll see from some of the finest artists of that time—the same artists working for the kings and aristocracy of Europe—making these items historically and artistically significant. The museum also shows a film (subtitled in English) about the Nazi occupation of Rome, along with a display of artifacts and documentation from this dark time.
✵ Just outside the museum entrance is a small square (along Via Portico d’Ottavia) dominated by a big Roman ruin. This square is called...
Largo 16 Ottobre 1943
This square is named for the day when Nazi trucks parked here and threatened to take the Jews to concentration camps unless the community came up with 50 kilos (110 pounds) of gold in 24 hours. Everyone, including many non-Jewish Romans, tossed in their precious gold, and the demand was met. The Nazis took the gold—and later, they took the Jews as well. Some 2,000 of the ghetto’s residents were sent to concentration camps, most of them never to return.
✵ The big ancient ruin is the...
This monumental gateway—with columns supporting a triangular pediment—was built by soon-to-be-emperor Augustus. Once flanked by temples and libraries, the passageway served as a kind of cultural center. After Rome’s fall, the portico housed a thriving fish market. In the eighth century, the ruins of the portico were incorporated into the Church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria. For centuries, this Christian church was packed every Saturday with Jews—forced by decree to listen to Christian sermons. Notice the faded bits of Christian fresco on the arch. Locals love to tell of the poor old woman who lives under the arch; she refused to sell her land and now owns this priceless bit of real estate that includes the ancient ruin.
Take a little detour to the small bridge/walkway on your right, where you can look down at the level of the street in Roman times. On the right is a fine view of Teatro di Marcello, which predates and inspired the design of the Colosseum. It is one of three major theaters in the ancient city, able to accommodate more than 10,000 spectators. In the Middle Ages, it was converted into a fortress, and today those are luxury apartments on the top level. Beyond it is the tree-capped Capitoline Hill. You can take a short detour down the ramp into the archaeological area and enjoy the hodgepodge of ancient fragments scattered about.
Just past the bridge, the former oratory is now a wedding-registry shop. (If it’s open, pop in and see who’s getting married and admire their choice of table setting.) Exploring behind the Portico, you’ll find the entrance to the Church of Sant’Angelo in Pescheria.
✵ Now walk back around the arch to the ghetto’s main street...
Via del Portico d’Ottavia
This main drag is a fine place to get a taste of yesterday’s ghetto and today’s Rome. From the start (near the Roman arch), look down the street. On the left is a new building from 1911. On the right, in the distance, is the only surviving line of old ghetto building-fronts. Imagine today’s street as it was then: much narrower (as it is at the far end today). Walking down the street, notice kosher restaurants proudly serving carciofi (artichokes, which “only Jewish grandmothers can cook properly”; carciofi alla giudia are deep-fried) and shops of fine, locally produced Judaica. You might see posters for community events, a few men wearing yarmulkes, and political graffiti, both pro- and anti-Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization attacked this area in 1982, and a police presence still lingers.
After a block, you reach the center of the district. Look right, down very narrow Via di Sant’Ambrogio, an old surviving street. Imagine the dense population, flood muck, and squalor of the past.
At #7 on the main drag (first door on the right after Via di Sant’Ambrogio), is a mezuzah (prayer capsule)—residents touch it as they come and go to recall their Jewish creed.
The pedestrianized square ahead is where older folks hang out together and shoot the breeze, sometimes even bringing their favorite chairs from home. Though the Jewish community has long since dispersed all over Rome, most Roman Jews continue to spend time in this neighborhood to enjoy the strong feeling of community that survives. The big tan building (on the left) houses the Jewish school.
This neighborhood has become trendy, and apartment prices are now beyond the means of most members of the Jewish community. Ironically, only the richest Jews could afford to relocate after 1870—and because the poor had to stay, their descendants have enjoyed healthy real-estate appreciation.
Opposite the big school, take a one-block detour down Via della Reginella, where you’ll find some fun shops (see here in the Shopping in Rome chapter) as well as some poignant artifacts. In front of #10 (on the right), you’ll see several small bronze plaques in the shape of cobbles, memorials to members of the community arrested in these homes during the Nazi occupation. These Stolperstein (“stumbling stones”), designed by a German artist, commemorate victims of the Holocaust and are found in front of their residences throughout the city (and the rest of Europe). At #28, notice where the six-floor buildings end and more elegant and spacious (but no taller) three-floor buildings begin...marking the end of the ghetto.
In the square (Piazza Mattei) at the end of the lane is a fun turtle fountain—an old Mannerist work, later embellished with turtles by Bernini. It’s said that Bernini cared about the Jews and honored them with the symbol of a turtle—an ancient creature that carries all its belongings on its back.
Cross the square and jog right down Via de’ Funari (“Street of the Ropemakers”) to the big brick Palazzo Mattei (#31, on the left). Step inside to notice that very often in Rome, austere, uninviting exteriors contain unexpected treasures, like this building’s courtyard. Encrusted with the family’s collection of ancient Roman sculpture, it was intended to show off their wealth and refined taste. Today, the palazzo is home to the Italian Center for American Studies.
Returning to the main drag (Via del Portico d’Ottavia), continue to Bar Toto (the second café on the right). There you’ll see a slot in the wall—a ghetto-era charity box for orphans that still accepts donations for worthy causes. The ancient relief above the box marks the home of a big shot who, at the start of the Renaissance age (before the ghetto’s establishment in 1555), plugged this chunk of ancient Rome into his facade for prestige. A few steps farther down (near the kosher gelato shop at #1), another bit of ancient marble depicts a lion attacking a gazelle. Also on the building is a big stone panel with a Latin inscription dated “MMCCXX.” Yes, that’s 2220, and no, it’s not from the future. It was carved in A.D. 1467—marking the years since the birth of Rome in 753 B.C.
At the next intersection (Piazza Costaguti), stand in the center of the white decorative design and get oriented for your next move. To the left—on the car-filled square called Piazza delle Cinque Scole—is the recommended restaurant, Sora Margherita (at #30, described on here). Directly ahead of you, the main street leads to more recommended (fast food) eateries, and eventually to Campo de’ Fiori.
Now, let’s see our final sights. On your right, at the corner, is a traditional Jewish bakery. Go inside to check out the braided challah bread, cheesecakes, almond paste-filled macaroons, and “Jewish pizzas” (pizza Ebraica)—like little €3 fruitcakes, but better tasting. Just beyond that, the curving, white-columned structure is part of a former Carmelite convent. Imagine the outrage of the Jewish community when the Church built a convent and a Catholic school here in the ghetto to preach to their children, and forced locals to attend Mass.
Finally, pop into the tunnel-like passageway next to the convent, from which you emerge into an evocative little courtyard. Imagine the tight conditions of thousands of Jews living in this small seven-acre area. Think of the turbulent history of the ghetto—and the rich heritage of Rome’s Jewish community.
✵ The tour is over. From here, you’re within walking distance of many sights in Rome. For transportation options, get out your map and you’ll see that a major transit hub—Largo Argentina—is just a couple of blocks away. Shalom.