As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the city of Florence became Europe’s center of culture and the arts as the Age of the Renaissance came to the fore. The Jews of Italy were important contributors to the development of Renaissance philosophy and thought. Although few if any became painters or sculptors of note, Jewish writers and intellectuals flourished throughout the Italian Peninsula at this time. This was particularly true in the early 16th century, when even high officials of the Roman Catholic Church enlisted Jewish scholars and physicians. The Jews have been an integral part of the population of Florence ever since, and their central place of worship, the Great Synagogue of Florence, is considered to be one of the most beautiful on the continent. The Great Synagogue is part of the Historic Center of Florence UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The history of the Jews of Italy is something of an anomaly. Despite the fact that Italy was already predominantly Christian as early as the 3rd century AD, and despite the fact that Judaism regularly if injustly incurred the wrath of the Church almost from the beginning, the Jews of Italy were historically secure from the persecutions that plagued them pretty much everywhere else in Europe. This was due in no small part to the fact that while the Church frequently demonized Judaism, the Church leaders including many Popes rarely sanctioned direct action against them. In short, the strong Papal presence may have helped to keep violence against the Jews in Italy to a minimum, even during the turbulent Crusader period.
During the 1200s, the people of Italy began to experience a reawakening of ideas and philosophical thought that would fully bloom a century later during the Renaissance. Some of the earliest prominent writers and thinkers of these years were Jews who lived in Florence, Venice and other cities in northern Italy. The first well-known Jewish writer of the Italian Renaissance was Isaiah di Trani, a prominent and prolific Talmudic scholar who espoused a less severe approach to Jewish Law. His descendents continued to be prominent literary figures throughout the entire history of the Renaissance.
For the first time in Jewish history, Jewish literature ventured outside the realm of religion at the beginning of the 14th century, when important Jewish poets began to emerge on the scene alongside their Christian counterparts. This period of history also saw an unprecedented thawing of Jewish-Christian relations, especially among writers who seemed to enjoy a philosophical camaraderie. One noted friendship was that of the Jewish poet Immanuel ben Solomon and Christian poet Dante Aligheri.
The Jewish Renaissance peaked in Florence at the turn of the 15th-16th century under the patronage of the powerful Medici family. The Medici patriarchs, including several who served as Pope, not only tolerated and supported Jewish thinkers of the day, but in a few cases actively desired their expertise in matters of language, as the Jews were among the world’s most sought-after translators, and academia. This was particularly true of Lorenzo di Medici, who patronized many Jewish academics including Elijah del Medigo. In later years, when Jews were expelled from the Papal states and other places, Florence kept its doors wide open. Although built in later centuries, the magnificent Great Synagogue of Florence recalls the golden age of the Jewish Renaissance in central Italy.
Though it was completed in the late 19th century, the Great Synagogue of Florence looks like it was lifted out of medieval Spain. It is a magnificent example of neo-Moorish architecture, utilizing the mosque-style layout that was so popular among Sephardic Jewish refugees from Iberia. The main dome over the synagogue is one of the largest in Europe.
Despite renovations after World War II and during the late 1960s, the synagogue still bears the scars of the Nazi occupation. The Ark is still defaced by the slash-marks of German knives and bayonettes, and a memorial outside of the synagogue commemorates the Jews who were deported from Florence to the concentration camps. The small Jewish Museum of Florence is housed in the synagogue’s upper floors. It displays artifacts and photos from Florence’s Jewish history.
The Great Synagogue of Florence is located on the city’s east side. It is open for Shabbat and holiday services. The museum is open Sundays through Thursdays, June through August from 10:00am-6:00pm; April, May, September, October from 10:00am-5:00pm; November through March from 10:00am-3:00pm; and Fridays year-round from 10:00am-2:00pm. The cost of admission is Eu4.00 for adults. Web: http://moked.it/jewishflorence (Jewish tourism website of Florence)
Most other sites of Jewish interest in Italy are covered in the sections on Venice and Rome. The Biblioteca Palatina in the city of Parma is home to a copy of Rashi’s Commentary on the Pentateuch. Printed in Reggio di Calabra in 1475, it is the world’s oldest existing book that was printed in Hebrew on the world’s first Hebrew printing press.