Italy / Tuscany

Florence

Tempio Maggiore of Florence

Via Luigi Carlo Farini, 6, Florence, 50121 Metropolitan City of Florence, Italy

Tempio maggiore © Flickr (magro_kr)

The former ghetto of Florence was located in the heart of the old city center near the market in a zone totally destroyed and the end of the twentieth century, situated today between Via Brunelleschi, the Piazza della Repubblica, and Via Roma. Bernardo Buontalento, the grand duke’s architect, was commissioned to design the ghetto. The streets accessing the residential blocks were walled, with the exception of two gates that were closed each evening. As in Siena, in Florence Jews from all the villages and towns of Tuscany were confined inside a labyrinth of alleys and courtyards. The Jews were excluded from guilds, and hawking used clothing was the only occupation open to them. They remained in the ghetto a=for almost three centuries, until 1848. Its two synagogues, one with Italian services and the other with Spanish, were destroyed at the same time as the ghetto at the end of the twentieth century. Shortly before the opening of the Grand Temple, two small oratories were created in 1882. In use until 1962, one oratory held services in Italian; the other followed an Ashkenazic liturgy. Both of them are commemorated in a plaque on the building at 4 Via delle Oche, which was the offices of the Mattir Assurim confraternity.

The imposing neo-Moorish  Grand Temple (Tiempo Maggiore) was unveiled in 1882 after eight years of construction. Designed by Marco Treves with the assistance of architects Mariano Falcini and Vincenzo Micheli, this synagogue with its majestic pink and white stone facade is dominated by a large green dome and two matching minarets on each side. The Tablets of the Law crown the pediment. The rich Moorish-style interior is sumptuously decorated with arcades of slender columns, and in the center, there is a semi-circular apse where the aron and the bimah are enthroned, separated from the rest of  the prayer hall by a finely wrought grille. The mosaics and frescoes of gold and azure are the work of Giovanni Panti. During the war, the Nazis used the temple as a military garage and attempted to dynamite it during their retreat, fortunately without substantial damage. Carefully restored, the synagogue was later victim to the great flooding of the Arno River in 1966, which filled it with seven feet of water. A large portion of the 15000-volume library was severely damaged.

Opened in 1981, the Jewish Museum is on the second floor in a vast room divided into two parts: one houses a collection of photos, visual witnesses to Jewish life in Florence, and the other contains beautiful religious objects, especially silver pieces and textiles. You can also admire a beautiful old rimmon dating from the end of the sixteenth century. At the museum exit, a large plaque commemorates the 248 Jews from Florence who were deported and died in the death camps or were executed.

The facade of the Basilica Santa Croce

The facade of the Basilica Santa Croce is decorated with a large Star of David that will probably arouse your curiosity. In their Guida all’Italia Ebraica (Guide to Jewish Italy), Annie Sacerdoti and Luca Fiorentino tell of its strange origin: “In 1860, it was decided to renovate the church’s thirteenth-century Gothic facade with polychrome marble. The work was entrusted to the architect Nicolò Matas, a Jew from Ancona who incorporated the large star as an element of the decoration. No one paid any attention to the architect’s Jewish origins, even after he specified in his contract that he would not work on Saturdays. When he died, he put the Jewish community and the Franciscans in a difficult position by stating in his will his wish to be buried in the basilica. A compromise was finally reached: he was interred in a marble sarcophagus just outside the church under the flight of stairs facing the main entrance.