Sinagoga di Pitigliano

History of the Jewish community in Tuscany

From Florence to Pisa, from Pitigliano to Sovana and Sorano: this tour takes a look at the history of the Jewish community in Tuscany

There is evidence that Jews have lived in Tuscany since the Early Middle Ages, although it was in the period of Medici rule that Jewish-owned banks and moneylenders really began to grow. Florence and Pisa had the largest Jewish populations although many of the smaller towns also had significant Jewish communities. On one hand, the politics of the Grand Duke of Tuscany confined the Jews to the ghettos (in order to gain the sympathy of the Pope) but on the other, we see that certain families, such as the Orsinis, gave refuge to the community and Jewish refugees. Many of these refugees then went on to reorganise themselves in towns like Sovana, Sorano and Pitigliano.

At the turn of the sixteenth century the ‘Livornina Law’ was passed which created a Jewish settlement in the city of Livorno. This law stated that all Jews who settled in the port town of Livorno would be guaranteed their freedom, including freedom to worship as they pleased. Over the last few centuries, Jewish culture has become much more widespread both in the larger Tuscan towns as well as the more secondary ones. The Tuscan towns which still have large, active Jewish communities today are Florence, Livorno and Pisa. In Florence, there is an important synagogue, or temple (built in the second half of the nineteenth century) with a Jewish Museum next door. Nothing remains of the ancient ghetto which was razed to the ground during the city’s urban renovation work in the 1800s.

Of the two Jewish cemeteries, only one is still in use and it is in the Rifredi district. It contains interesting tombs and funeral monuments. Livorno has been home to a large Jewish population since the end of the sixteenth century. It was at that time that the first synagogue was constructed on what is today called Via Grande. This was destroyed during WWII bombing and a new one was built in 1962. This present synagogue is a modern structure and was built on the site of a seventeenth century temple. The cemetery (on Viale Nievo) is home to some very interesting chapels and funerary monuments. There is also still a synagogue at Monte San Savino; traces of the Jewish community are still evident at the so-called ‘Rabbi’s Throne’ and around the Christian cemetery.

According to certain sources, the first Jewish settlement in Pisa dates back to the middle of the ninth century. The Jewish community has always had an important role in the life of the city. It is believed that there was a synagogue in the ‘Chiasso dei Giudei’, which is in the present day Piazza dei Cavalieri. After that, the community’s meeting place was Palazzo da Scorno on the Lungarno Galilei. Today there is a synagogue in Via Palestro and it has been home to the Jewish community in the city since the end of the sixteenth century. The modern day cemetery, near the republican walls beyond Piazza del Duomo, is the forth of a series of burial areas. The tombstones are noteworthy and some of the tombs show highly skilled workmanship. In Pitigliano, which was home to a flourishing Jewish community, it’s possible to visit the ghetto, with its oven for making unleavened bread and the synagogue which has been recently restored along with the ancient cemetery.

In Siena it’s still possible to view traces of the city’s ancient Jewish ghetto. The synagogue in Via delle Scotte was built in the second half of the eighteenth century, while the cemetery is quite ancient. Similarly to Pitigliano, Sorano was also home to an important Jewish settlement. The only thing remaining today that testifies to the presence of this community is the old gateway to what was the ghetto. There was also a Jewish settlement in Viareggio and since the 1950s there has been an oratory in Via degli Oleandri which serves the community and the numerous Jewish tourists who come to the town.