Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Scuole On Via Sara Levi Nathan

You may recall that last year on my visit to Pesaro I came across a rather unusual and touching memorial to the expulsion of the Jews under the Manifesto of Race enacted in 1938. By that time there were very few Jews living in Pesaro as much of the community had moved to Ancona and the records show that no one was actually deported from Pesaro. However Jewish refugees from Croatia, Germany and Poland had been rounded up but unlike many people they were not herded into internment camps but housed in private homes or hotels in the town. They were required to report to the police daily but there was an unspoken agreement with the local authorities so it was more observed in theory than in practice. They were the lucky ones - others in the Urbino region were not as fortunate and made the journey to camps and almost certain death.
This poster from the Museum display at the Sephardic Synagogue gives graphic voice to the restrictions placed on Italian Jews with the enacting of the Manifesto of Race in 1938.

It was the repetition of an age old pattern of tolerance-intolerance for the community in Pesaro. There had been a Jewish settlement in the town since 1214; a community that had lived mostly at peace and in a live-and-let-live arrangement with the local rulers and populace. Over the years other Jewish merchants – expelled from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies - came into the town and integrated into the Italian community. However with the persecution, expulsion and execution, under Papal decree, of the Marranos of Ancona a new community of Portuguese (Shepardic) Jews migrated to the town. A protest blockade of Ancona harbour shed new importance on Pesaro and Guidubaldo Della Rovere was more than happy to welcome merchants, doctors, artisans and commerce into his Dukedom. Though his attitude was to turn less welcoming when the harbour proved too shallow for major trading.
In 1507 Gershom Soncino opened a printing house in Pesaro and worked there with some interruptions until 1520. He produced, besides books in Italian and Latin, an impressive range of classical Hebrew texts including a book of Festival Prayers thought to date from 1520.

It was at that time that construction was begun on the Shepardic Synagogue in what was the old Jewish Quarter. It is thought that Mordekhaj Volterra, a wealthy Portuguese banker, commissioned and financed the building prior to leaving the city for Firenze where he became Francesco dei Medici's financial and political adviser. This dates the building from between 1556-1559. It housed not only a scuole but community offices, an infant school, a school dedicated to the studying of the Kabbalah and a music school.
This beautiful Passover plate - typical of the period in design - from the Pesaro Ghetto dates from 1614 and is currently in the Jewish Museum in New York City.

When the Duchy of Urbino devolved to the Papal States in the 1600s a ghetto was created and with the closing of the Italian rite Synagogue outside its boundaries only the Sephardic scuole was left for the community. The boarded up Italian synagogue was badly damaged in the 1930 earthquake and eventually demolished in 1940. During the period of Nazi occupation it goes without saying that the Sephardic Synagogue was closed down.

In 1944 the liberating British Army included an all Jewish regiment who reopened the Synagogue and services were held there for the last time. The building was left abandoned and it deteriorated rapidly. With the agreement of the Jewish Community in Ancona, who own the building, the City of Pesaro took it over and began a restoration project in 1990. Work was finally completed in 2004 and the building opened as a historical site.
The Sephardic Synagogue is actually on Via delle Scuole a narrow street just off Via Sara Levi Nathan. A bit of investigation revealed that the street was named after the Pesarese Sara Levi (1819-1882), a friend of Mazzini and Garibaldi and the mother of Ernesto Nathan (London 1845-Rome 1921), a Mayor of Rome. The main portal faces the east (Jerusalem) and the small door at the right led to the woman's gallery.

Because it is only open on Thursday afternoon's for a few hours I've never been able to visit it in previous years. This year I decided that as this may well be the last trip to Pesaro for a while I had to see it. It is a small but fascinating piece of Italian and Jewish history.
At the entrance to the synagogue there was a water stoop for the ritual thrice washing of hands before prayer (top). It still shows signs of the elaborate stucco work that capped it - it is probably that the niche wall would have been painted with an elaborate design. The mikveh (bottom) would have been for total immersion bathing as required prior to Yom Kipper and other occasions. Both were fed by a natural spring.

The ground floor houses an interesting exhibition on life in and around the Synagogue and detailed explanations of the various artifacts and rituals in Italian and English. Rather amusingly of the two possible translations for the Italian Pasqua (Passover or Easter) the English version has the Sephardic community celebrating the Christian festival.

The communal baking oven was used only for baking of the Passover matzoh which would have been overseen by the Rabbi. Given the size of the oven the matzo would have been baked in small batches - the dough kneaded as a community effort in the same room and put into the oven immediately to avoid contamination from leavening.

We were encouraged by a very friendly lady to go up the staircase to what she said - with obvious pride in her voice and on her face - was a treasure for Pesaro. And she was right - even in its current state the Prayer Room has an incredible beauty.

The large rectangular room was filled with light from three walls of large windows; the fourth wall enclosed the women's galleries. The colours were light - mostly whites, grays, blues and soft browns. Benches lined the walls - contrasting natural wood with panels painted a deep green - the only dark colour in the room.

When the magnificently carved, gilt wooden arc was in its place in the niche it must have been an awesome sight. Even without it the detailing in the stucco work surmounting the niche is impressive. I'm not sure what the Hebrew letters say and would appreciate help from any of my friends who can read it.

The east end of the room - facing Jerusalem - has a large niche for the arc - a magnificent carved gilt Aron ha-Kodesh which is now in the care of the Jewish community in Livorno. Likewise the elaborately carved and gilded bimah or reading stand was moved to the Levantine synagogue in Ancona. Unfortunately no effort has been made to recreate them as part of the restoration nor into replacing what must have been the elaborate candle fixtures hanging from the richly stuccoed ceiling.
What catches the eyes immediately in the room is the marvelous stucco ceiling. A riot of floral and leave patterns in whites and gray it is a delight to the eye. When the few remaining sections of paint were examined it was found that the soft gray background had been achieved by mixing coal black into the paint.

For some foolish reason I did not get a picture of the west end of the room - a balcony accessed on either side by a flight of marble stairs broken by a landing. On the landings were very badly damaged and faded frescos which I can only hope will be restored - in part at least - in the future. I'm not sure what the balcony would have been used for - perhaps a cantor or since music was so important in the Sephardic rite a choir of some type.
The two frescos on the balcony landings are badly damaged but are representations of the Holy City of Jerusalem (top) and the Encampment of the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai (bottom). The three dimensional framing, again a reflection of decoration of the period, is accomplished with painted wood, stucco and trompe d'oeil.

The stucco panels on the walls (top) and over the windows (bottom) avoid any use of the human form in the decoration but reflect the taste of the time for festoons of fruits and flowers with arabesques.

I have often felt when entering a particular mosque, temple, church or synagogue that centuries of people bringing their hopes, their fears, their desires, their needs and their thanks to a place works its way into the walls and gives the place a beauty that all the man made decoration in the world cannot accomplish. For me the Prayer Room of this 460 year old synagogue in the historic backstreets of a small town in Italy had that feeling.

24 agosto - San Bartolomeo apostolo


Debra She Who Seeks said...

Your concluding paragraph is so beautiful! Thanks for the wonderful tour.

Shirli said...

Thank you so much for sharing the photos and your (as always) interesting commentary.

I love the European synagogues with their intricate design and beautiful architecture. There's always a feeling of connection for me.

Thanks again.
- Shirli Penner


one of my favorite posts of yours.

David said...

A very beautiful building - and who'd have thought it? I kick myself for not going on a tour of the Trieste Synagogue, which has had a fantastically elaborate facelift. Our mutual friend Jan Morris writes very eloquently about it - she would surely love this.

Minnie said...

Wonderful post - thank you. I've had to revisit several times to ensure I haven't missed anything; yet it still repays further inspection.
The interior, with its lavish lights and monochrome décor, reminds me of Wren churches in the City of London.