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Bologna, which is a city whose citizens are known for being friendly and welcoming, was characterized in the past not only by the fact that the oldest university in the world was founded there, but also because of its Talmudic Academies, its important Teachers of the Torah, and its printing of Jewish religious books.

The Jewish Community was very important: evidence of this, among other things, are the burial stones taken from the old cemetery in via Orfeo which are preserved in the Museo Civico Medievale (Municipal Medieval Museum) and were sculpted with the beautiful beveled lettering of the Renaissance; the first edition in the world of the Book of Psalms printed in incunabulum in Bologna, the ritual prayer books, and the collection of 16th Century books which is still preserved in the University Library.

The first Jewish presence in Bologna is attested with particular liveliness in an Epistle by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. The prelate came to Bologna towards the end of the 4th Century to move the bodies of the two Christian proto-martyrs Vitalis and Agricola to the Basilica of Saint Stephen, by exhuming them from the Jewish cemetery, or the so-called Campus Judeorum.

There is no other written testimony about the various centuries that followed. There are, however, a number of legends about a hypothetical Jaqob Calderisi from Castel Tedaldo who is alleged to have resided in olden times in a house located somewhere between what is now via Caldarese and via Castel Tialto.
In the second half of the 1300’s, the city witnessed a considerable number of Jewish immigrants, which led to a bustling Jewish population in the city by the end of the century.
During this period, the Second Bologna City-Republic, Bologna underwent massive development: immigration was encouraged, since there was a great need for specialized craftsmen, many of whom were Jewish. At that time, the city’s most important monuments (the Loggia dei Mercanti, the Basilica of St. Petronius, the Churches St. Stephen, St. Francis and St. ]ohn on the Mount, etc.) were being built in what is known as the Bolognese Gothic style.

The Jews lived in peace in the city for two centuries. They settled mainly in the area located between the ancient Roman settlement, which goes from the Two Towers up to Piazza Malpighi, and the ancient Lombard camp of which also starts at the Two Towers and runs a semicircle towards the Churches of St. John on the Mount, St. Stephen, St. Vitalis and Agricola, and that of St. Donatus.

This area, whose center was Piazza Porta Ravegnana, had been a sort of no-man’s land for a long time between the Romans and the Lombards, where garbage accumulated and where, for this very reason, the streets were given evocative and ironic names like “via dell’Inferno” (Hell Street), “via Bell’Andare” (Nice Walk Street), etc.

The area was eventually reclaimed and the street was renamed “via de’ Giudei” (Jews’ Street). The first immigrant, a certain Gaio Finzi, Judeus de Roma, practiced the trade of “strazzarolo” (local dialect word for what might be translated as “rag-man”). He sold used clothing, just like many other Jews, and as this was considered their predominant profession to the point that they ended up being grouped into a guild as if they were a special type of craftsmen. This guild was called “i Giudei'” (The Jews), even though the whole name of the guild was really “Corporazione di Drappieri-Strazzaroli-Pegolotti-Vaganti e Giudei” (Guild of the Drapers-Ragmen-Upholsterers-Wanderers and Jews) and its headquarters were in the Palazzo degli Strazzaroli (nowadays known also as Case Malaguti) which still stands today.

The Jewish population, however, did not limit their business activities to selling used clothing, a fact, which made their guild unique, and in such a way contributed to the economic and cultural development of both Bologna (where they built three synagogues and a cemetery), and its nearby villages (where a total of eight synagogues were built.) In his monumental work, Cose notabili della città di Bologna (Remarkable Episodes in the History of Bologna) Giuseppe Giuidicini gives details about the location of the city’s synagogues: two were situated in via San Vitale and the other in via Santo Stefano. One of the two located in via San Vitale at the address of what is now no. 18, was called “La Grande” (The Big One). The one located in via San Vitale near the Banco Sforno (Sforno Family Pawnbrokers) was most likely inside Palazzo Pepoli, which looked out on via Castiglione.

As far as the nearby villages are concerned, Antonio Ivan Pini found historical evidence of the existence of a synagogue near a Jewish pawnbroker’s in each of the following Jewish settlements: San Giovanni in Persiceto, Budrio, Cento and Pieve di Cento, Monte Oliveto, Castel Pietro, Castelfanco Emilia, and Crevalcore. However, in 1569, the only one remaining was in Bologna’s ghetto.

The Jewish community had a very close relationship with the University of Bologna. Jewish students received degrees in Medicine and Jewish professors taught there. The University adopted texts written by Jews (Maimonides in particular) and Jewish scholars translated medical texts from Arabic into Hebrew and Latin, and from Latin into Hebrew and Arabic.

Jacov Mantino was called to teach medicine by Pope Clement VII himself, and another professor, who chose to remain anonymous because he was a Jew, was called to teach Hebrew literature. Famous rabbis, such as Obadia Sforno, Azarià de Rossi, and Samuele Archivolti settled in Bologna and contributed to the development of local Jewish culture.

This “Golden Age” came to an end with the arrival of the Counter-Reformation, when the first Italian “Grand Inquisitor” became Pope in 1555. The Jews were ordered to be locked up in what was called “Serraglio” (Enclosure) or “Chiuso degli Ebrei” (Pen for the Jews), and was only later called a “ghetto.” At that time they were only allowed to have one synagogue, which was located in via dell'Inferno, at what is now no. 16.

In 1567 free movement to and from the “enclosure” was declared strictly forbidden, and in 1569 the Jews were expelled from the city. When they were allowed back in again by Pope Sixtus V in 1586, they did not go back to the ghetto and in 1597 Pope Clement VIII expelled them for good with the following orders: “De Iudeis ex universo Statu Ecclesiastico expellendis, Roma, Avinione & Ancona exceptis (On the Jews, who must be expelled from the entire Papal State, with the exception of the cities of Rome, Avignon and Ancona), and “Litterae affixae & publicatae" (Published and Displayed Decrees) which were tacked onto the doors of the Basilicas of St. Peter and of St. John Lateran in Rome on 13 March, 1593.

The Jews, (or “Israelites” as they were known during that period) returned to the city two centuries later along with the ideas and armies that were the result of the French Revolution. They remained in the city even after Napoleon’s defeat when city fell under control of the Papal States. In 1858 a housemaid working for a Jewish family claimed that she had secretly baptized a six-year-old Jewish boy by the name of Edgardo Mortara. This was enough to have the Inquisitor of the Holy Office send his armed guards to the house of the unlucky family in order to forcefully remove the child and make sure he received a proper Catholic upbringing. The Mortara family incident moved the people and changed public opinion which ended up significantly damaging the Pope’s power in Bologna.

During the Unification of Italy the “Israelites” acquired a full set of human rights, and immigrated to Bologna from other parts of Italy and from abroad. From 1830 to 1930 the city’s population rose from about 100,000 to about 400,000 and its Jewish population during the same period rose from about 100 to about 900. They were finally able to build a synagogue or rather an “Israelite Temple,” as it was known at that time, which was finished in 1877 based on a plan drawn up by Guido Lisi, in a building the community had purchased during an auction.

The Jewish community continued growing in both number and in importance. The prayer hall soon became too small to hold the growing community. The city of Bologna is indebted to Attilio Muggia for having designed and built many of its important monuments, among which the last part of via Indipendenza, the steps called “Pincio della Montagnola” theBank of Naples building, and many other works, and he was given the task of designing and building the Jewish temple. It was worthy of the city of Bologna, designed in the Art-Nouveau style with a pavilion vaulted roof, and was dedicated in 1928.

Unfortunately, it was destroyed only 15 years later as a result of an air bombing raid on the city. And because at that time events regarding “Hebrews” were not considered worthy enough to be reported in newspapers, the date given for when the temple of Bologna was actually destroyed, i.e. September 25, 1943cannot really be considered exact. The Temple was rebuilt and dedicated in 1953.

In 1988 the Jewish people of Bologna knew very little about the history of the ghetto, and the peopleliving there knew even less about it. The year 1988 marked the 5Oth anniversary of the enactment of Italy’santi-Semitic Racial Laws, giving us the opportunity to revisit the area, restore its memory and sense ofhistorical dignity, and rediscover the city’s Jewish roots.

Font: "The Synagogue of Bologna, the past, present and future of a Jewish presence" by Lucio Pardo (ex President of the Jewish Community of Bologna)