Jewish Ghetto Walk
By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
For centuries, Rome's Jewish ghetto has been the site of both relentless persecution and the undying pride and solidarity of a tight-knit community. Built in 1555 on the banks of a frequently flooded bend of the Tiber River, the ghetto was the forced home of the Roman Jewish population for more than 300 years, between the Counter-Reformation (16th century) and Italian unification (19th century). Though most of the old ghetto has been torn down, you can still find a few reminders of the Roman Jews' storied past and lively present. If you want to visit the synagogue and museum, avoid this walk on a Saturday, when they're closed.
Getting There: The Jewish ghetto was — and Rome's main synagogue still is — on the east bank of the Tiber, near the Isola Tiberina (Island in the Tiber) and the ancient ruins of the Theater of Marcellus (Teatro di Marcello). It's a 10-minute walk southwest from Piazza Venezia.
Synagogue and Jewish Museum: On Lungotevere dei Cenci. Modest dress is required. If you're not there for a prayer service, the only way to visit the synagogue is with an hourly tour.
Walking Tour: Walking tours of the Jewish Ghetto are conducted at least once a day Sun–Fri (usually at 13:15, no Sat tours). Ask for the schedule at the museum entry and sign up at least 30 minutes prior to the tour departure time (a minimum of three participants is required).
Jews in Rome
Read Rick's article on "Rome's Jewish Legacy" for the history of the Jewish people in Rome.
The Walk Begins
Start at the north end of Ponte Fabricio, which connects central Rome with the Isola Tiberina and the neighborhood of Trastevere. You'll see the big synagogue with its square dome. The former ghetto consists of the synagogue and the several blocks behind it.
Ponte Fabricio is nicknamed Ponte Quattro Capi ("Bridge of the Four Heads") for its statues of the four-faced pagan god Janus. In ancient times, it was called Pons Judaeocum ("Jews' Bridge") because foreigners, immigrants, and Jews — who weren't allowed to live in central Rome — would commute across this bridge to get into town. Some 30,000 Jews lived in a thriving community in Trastevere. Look down at the river. The embankment was only built in the late 19th century. Before then, this was the worst flood zone of the Roman riverbank — just right for a ghetto for the politically powerless.
With your back to the river, at your left is the...
Synagogue (Sinagoga) and Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico)
In the 16th century, when Pope Paul IV forced the Jews to reside within a walled ghetto, the center of its four-square-block area was this synagogue. When Italy became unified in 1870, the ghetto was essentially demolished, replaced with the modern blocks you see today.
The Jews were initially offered better real estate for their synagogue, but chose instead to rebuild here, on the original site. This new "Synagogue of Emancipation" was built in a remarkable three years (completed 1904) with the enthusiastic support of the entire Roman community. This is where Pope John Paul II made his historic visit in 1986.
Follow his Holiness' footsteps and enter the synagogue via the main door on the riverside. The €7.50 admission, which includes museum entrance and a guided synagogue visit, is the only way to gain access to the interior, unless you're here for daily prayer service.
Inside the synagogue, take in the impressive dome, which is square to distinguish it from a Christian church. Ponder the inside of the dome, painted with the colors of the rainbow — symbolic of God's promise to Noah that there would be no more floods. The stars on the ceiling recall God's pledge that Abraham's descendants would flourish and be as many as the stars in the sky. As there were no Jewish architects and no models to study when it was built, this churchlike synagogue is Art Nouveau with a dash of Tiffany. The sandy color tones are a reminder of the community's desert heritage.
The museum shows off historically significant artifacts described in English. You'll see second-century B.C. reliefs with Jewish symbols, finely worked Judaica (religious items), and other relics of the Jewish past. As the Jews were not allowed to be craftsmen during the ghetto period, they had to commission many of the pieces you'll see from some of the finest Christian artists of that time — the same artists working for the kings and aristocracy of Europe — making these items historically and artistically significant. Note that Jewish historians don't use "B.C." (Before Christ) or "A.D." (Anno Domini), but rather "B.C.E." (Before the Common Era) and "C.E." (Common Era). The museum also shows a film in English of the Nazi occupation of Rome.
Back outside, you may notice security measures around the synagogue: heavy concrete planter boxes (that double as car-bomb barriers), policemen in kiosks, and video cameras on the fences.
Look for the yellow church at the head of the Ponte Fabricio....
Santa Maria della Pietà (a.k.a. San Gregorio)
When the ghetto was a walled-in town, Catholics built churches at each gate to try and spread their faith to the Jews. Notice the Hebrew script under the crucifix. It quotes the Jewish prophet Isaiah — "All day long, I have stretched out my hands to a disobedient and faithless nation that has lost its way" (Isaiah 65:2) — but misuses the quote to give it an anti-Semitic twist.
Walk away from the river behind the synagogue toward the ancient Roman ruins. The small square in front of the ruins is called...
Largo 16 Ottobre 1943
This square is named for the day when Nazi trucks parked here and threatened to take the Jews to concentration camps unless the community came up with 110 pounds of gold in 24 hours. Everyone, including non-Jewish Romans, tossed in their precious gold, and the demand was met. The Nazis took the gold, and later, they took the Jews as well.
The big ancient ruin is the...
This monumental gateway — with columns supporting a triangular pediment — was built by soon-to-be emperor Augustus. Once flanked by temples and libraries, the passageway served as a kind of cultural center. After Rome's fall, the portico housed a thriving fish market. In the eighth century, the Portico became incorporated into the Church of Sant'Angelo in Pescheria. For centuries, this Christian church was packed every Saturday with Jews — forced by decree to listen to Christian sermons.
Locals love to tell of the poor old woman who refused to sell her land and now owns a priceless bit of real estate that includes an ancient arch (at #25 under the arch).
To the left is the main drag of today's ghetto. We'll head there soon, but first go to the bridge on your right to look down at the level of the street in Roman times. Just past the bridge, the former oratory is now a wedding-registry shop. (If open, pop in and see who's getting married when and admire their choice of table setting.) From the bridge, you get a fine view of Teatro di Marcello (which predates the Colosseum). Beyond it is the tree-capped Capitol Hill.
Now walk around the arch to the main street of the ghetto to...
Via del Portico d'Ottavia
This main drag — the best-preserved of the old streets — is a fine place to get a taste of yesterday's ghetto and today's Rome. From the start (near the Roman arch), look down the street. On the left is the new building from 1911. On the right, in the distance, is the only surviving line of old ghetto building fronts. Imagine today's street as it was then: much narrower (as it is at the far end today). Walking down the street, notice kosher restaurants proudly serving carciofi (artichokes, which only Jewish grandmothers can cook properly) and shops of fine, locally produced Judaica. You might see posters for community events, a few men wearing yarmulkes, and political graffiti, both pro- and anti-Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization attacked this area in 1982, and a police presence still lingers.
After a block, you reach the center of the district. Look right, down Via San Ambrogio, to see an old surviving street. Looking down this lane, imagine the dense population, flood muck, and squalor of the past. The square ahead is newly pedestrianized. This is where older folks hang out together and shoot the breeze, sometimes even bringing their favorite chairs from home. Though the Jewish community has long since dispersed all over Rome, most Roman Jews continue to spend time in this neighborhood to enjoy the strong feeling of community that survives. The big yellow building (on the left) houses the Jewish school.
This neighborhood has become trendy recently, and apartment prices are now beyond the means of most members of the Jewish community. Ironically, only the richest Jews could afford to relocate after 1870 — and because the poor had to stay, their descendants have enjoyed healthy real-estate appreciation.
At #7, there's a gallery that generally features modern Israeli artists. At its door is a prayer capsule—residents touch it as they come and go to recall their Jewish creed.
Opposite the big school, take a one-block detour down Via della Reginella. At #28, notice where the six-floor buildings end and more elegant and spacious (but no taller) three-floor buildings begin...marking the end of the ghetto. In the square (Piazza Mattei) at the end of the lane is a fun fountain — an old Mannerist work, later embellished with turtles by Bernini. It's said that Bernini cared about the Jews and honored them with the symbol of a turtle — an ancient creature that carries all its belongings on its back.
Take a one-block detour down Via della Reginella, which branches off the square. At #28, notice where the six-floor buildings end and more elegant and spacious (but no taller) three-floor buildings begin...marking the end of the ghetto. In the square at the end of the lane is a fun fountain — an old Mannerist work, later embellished with turtles by Bernini. It's said that Bernini cared about the Jews and honored them with the symbol of a turtle — an ancient creature that carries all its belongings on its back.
Returning back to the main drag (Via del Portico Ottavia), continue to Bar Toto, where you'll see a slot in the wall—a ghetto-era charity box for orphans that still accepts donations for worthy causes. The ancient relief above the box marks the home of a big shot who, at the start of the Renaissance age (before the ghetto's establishment in 1555), plugged this chunk of ancient Rome into his facade for prestige. A bit farther down (at #1), another bit of ancient marble depicts a lion attacking a gazelle. Notice the big stone inset with a Latin inscription dated "MMCCXX." Yes, that's 2220, and no, it's not from the future. It marks the years since the birth of Rome in 753 b.c.—meaning it was carved in a.d. 1467.
At the next intersection (Piazza Costaguti), stand in the white decorative square in the cobbles. The Sora Margherita Associazione Culturale, a restaurant with no sign, is located on the car-filled square — Piazza delle Cinque Scole — 30 yards to the left, at #30. On your right is a traditional Jewish bakery. Go inside to check out the braided challah bread, cheesecakes, almond-paste-filled macaroons, and "Jewish Pizzas" — little fruitcakes. Just beyond that, the curving, white-columned structure is part of a former Carmelite convent. Imagine the outrage of the Jewish community when the Church built a convent and a Catholic school here in the ghetto to preach to their children, and forced locals to attend Mass.
Pop into the tunnel-like alleyway next to it, and — in the evocative little courtyard — imagine the tight conditions of thousands of Jews living in this small seven-acre area. Then head back to the main square and consider how times are much better today.