A walk through Rome is always exciting and one of the capital's neighbourhoods that tells us stories of real life is undoubtedly the Jewish Quarter, better known as the 'ghetto', a former prison quarter.
This neighbourhood was born on the banks of the river Tiber in the summer of 1555, when Pope Paul IV issued the "bull Cum nimis absurdum", the first of a long series of bulls defined as "infamous", which considered it absurd that the Jewish population could mix with the Christian population.
The latter not only deprived all the Jews of their rights, but also imposed obligations and prohibitions on them: it obliged those who live in the ghetto to remain within its boundaries and to have a distinctive sign showing that they belonged to the Jewish community.
Around 1577, these people were obliged to attend Sunday mass in the church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria in order to convert, but they ingeniously put wax plugs in their ears so as not to listen to the priest. Still on the subject of religion, until almost the end of the 19th century, baptism was also forced on them: this practice was imposed even against the parents' wishes and once baptised, the offspring were removed from their parents, eliminating all contact, and a return to the Jewish religion was seen as heresy and punished with death. In terms of property, they were not allowed to own real estate and there was an absolute ban on any kind of commercial activity, except for the sale of rags and clothes. The latter is the reason why, to this day, many people in the Jewish community are professionals in the field of fashion and clothing. Further prohibitions apply to the world of medicine, as Jewish doctors were forbidden to treat Christians, and money lenders were constrained to favour the activities of Christian pawnshops.
The number of people occupying the ghetto grew as people were concentrated within it, leading to building many more storeys to the existing buildings in order to have more houses available. The Jews were not taken care of in any way and this contributed to the already strong degradation of the place itself, impoverished by its isolation from the rest of Rome, which lived in much more dignified conditions.
Between 1700 and 1800, the ghetto was dismantled several times, thanks to the declarations of equal rights between Christians and Jews. However, these were short periods as, unfortunately, there were successive imprisonments. It was with the opening of the Porta Pia breach in 1870, that the power of the Popes was brought to an end.
The annexation of Rome to the Kingdom of Italy marked the definitive closure of the Jewish ghetto. In 1888 much of the district was rebuilt, and the Jewish people were given the opportunity to become a permanent part of political and civil life. In addition, many Jews, even though the obligation to live within the ghetto had been abolished, decided to continue their daily life within the district.
The Jewish Ghetto today - Discover our itinerary
We've shared a lot about the Jewish Quarter with you, but it's only a fraction of what you'll get to know and see on our in-person tour with our expert guide!
Of the old, dilapidated dwellings where thousands of Jews were barricaded in inhuman conditions, fortunately almost nothing remains today. However, there is still that great history that you can breathe as you walk through the alleys of the ghetto, full of monuments, buildings, streets (if you look on the ground you will find the "stumbling stones" recently placed in memory of the citizens deported to the Nazi extermination camps) and above all in the eyes of some of the descendants of those who lived in the ghetto in its darkest hours.
Thanks to our 1 hour 30 minute itinerary, and the company of our dedicated guide, you will be able to discover the secrets of the following places:
1. Teatro Marcello:
It is a small theatre commissioned by Emperor Augustus which, due to its similarity to the majestic Colosseum, but because of its considerably smaller size and semicircular structure, is called the "Small Colosseum".
2. Portico d’Ottavia:
Only the monumental entrances are preserved. This monument has contributed to creating one of the most evocative views of the ghetto and of Rome itself.
The thousand-year history of this monument begins with the dedication of a previous portico by Augustus to his sister Octavia, in order to bind it, together with the Theatre of Marcellus, to the memory of his gens (a group of families who identified themselves with a common ancestor and practised common cults). In the Middle Ages, the area was used as a fish market and retained this function until 1880. The strong relationship with the ghetto brought to one of the typical dishes of traditional Jewish-Roman cuisine: fish broth.
3. Synagogue (exteriors):
This is the religious heart of Rome's Jewish community. It was inaugurated in 1904, following the transformation of the entire district. After the unification of Italy, the ghetto was abolished and underwent a complete reconstruction. The original place of worship, the building known as the 'cinque scole', was replaced by the present 'Tempio Maggiore'. The monumental building is inspired by the Assyrian-Babylonian style with Egyptian and Moorish elements, recalling the history and wanderings of the Jewish people.
The synagogue is also home to the beautiful Museum of the Jewish Community, where precious objects related to the Jewish liturgy are displayed, together with textiles and silverware used to decorate the ancient synagogues.
4. Via del Portico d' Ottavia:
Today it is considered the main street of the district, a reference point and meeting place for the Jewish community of Rome, which counts about 16,000 people. Although only a small part of the community lives within the former ghetto, the area has a strong appeal to many. This is where the most famous restaurants and ghetto shops open, where you can enjoy traditional Jewish-Roman dishes and sweets.
5. Piazza Mattei:
You can admire a small glimpse of the Renaissance period in this unique square, dominated by the exquisite Turtle Fountain, made famous by Bernini's contribution.
6. Turtle Fountain:
This jewel was built towards the end of the 16th century, due to a challenge. Duke Mattei ordered the creation of this marvellous fountain in a single day, having it built in front of the windows of his beloved's father as a demonstration of his own importance. The turtles were designed and placed by Bernini in 1658.
7. Palazzo Manili:
Even today it is still possible to come across buildings that preserve the identity of the past, such as the house of Lorenzo Manili. This building was restored in the middle of the Renaissance period, in 1468 to be exact, by a wealthy citizen who wanted to celebrate as the ancient Romans and applied a long commemorative inscription in Latin, which is still visible, decorating the exteriors with archaeological finds.
8. Piazza delle Cinque Scole:
The name of this square comes from the presence of five religious buildings in the past: the Scola Nova, the Scola Siciliana, the Scola Castigliana, the Scola del Tempio and the Scola Catalana. At its centre, there is the 'Fontana del Pianto', shaped in the mid-sixteenth century. Although one might think that the name is linked to the painful history of the Jewish people of Rome, it is actually connected to the Church of "Santa Maria del Pianto".
9. Piazza dei Cenci:
From this square you can see the back of the imposing building complex that became the property and residence of the Cenci family and where Beatrice Cenci is believed to have lived. For the Romans, Beatrice was a young and attractive noblewoman who suffered the abuse and violence of a despotic father. The girl was accused, together with her brothers and stepmother, of witchcraft and murder of her father. She was sentenced to death by Pope Clement VIII and beheaded at Ponte Sant'Angelo in 1599. Much of the medieval palace has been demolished and the present building dates back to 1570.
10. Ponte Fabricio:
This bridge was built in 62BC by the "curator viarum" Lucius Fabricius. It connects the left bank of the Tiber, where the Sant'Angelo district is located, to the heart of the Jewish community and also to Tiber Island. To end this wonderful tour with a wonderful view!
And if you're now extremely famished at the end of your tour, we would love to recommend to you the fantastic Jewish cuisine, also referred to as 'Kosher Cuisine'. It is a cuisine full of tempting dishes, such as fish broth or artichokes “alla giudia”, many delicious desserts such as tortolicchi and/or nocchiata, which you will find everywhere in the many bakeries and restaurants of the ghetto. Definitely worth a stroll!
We look forward to seeing you on this unmissable tour dedicated to this fundamental community of the city!