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Travels in “Little Jerusalem”

Pitigliano rich in Jewish history

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Pitigliano was home to the Jews, possibly from the end of the fifteenth century, and became an important refuge centre for them in central Italy, together with other feudal places nearby, following the Papal Notes of 1555 and 1569 in the Pontifical State and the measures taken by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1570 and 1571. The independent feudal enclaves at the border of Tuscany and Lazio remained immune to the restrictions, including the Orsini County of Pitigliano, the Sforza Santa Fiora, the Ottieri Castellottieri, as well as the Farnese Duchy of Castro.

Numerous Jewish families took refuge in these small states, where they were able to live more freely and engage in a business, initially as moneylenders. Many of them were bankers, amongst which, notably were relatives of the famous doctor David De Pomis who was at the service of the Orsini of Pitigliano and the Sforza in Santa Fiora. In Pitigliano, a well established group of Jews constructed a temple in 1598. When, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Medici annexed the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and other small counties on the southern borders, the Jews who were residing there were confined to ghettos. Soon afterwards however, realizing their important role in economic and commercial activities, their status was improved and they were given their fundamental rights, thereby enabling them to possess stable assets, all of which was quite exceptional at that time.

In the meantime, a slow and constant immigration of Jews toward Pitigliano was taking place from nearby centres as, little by little, the Jewish communities where they had once lived slowly disintegrated and finally disappeared. Most important was the arrival of Jews from the City of Castro, destroyed in 1619 and of which Pitigliano became the heir. Other Jews came from Scansano, Castellottieri, Piancastagnaio, Proceno and then, in the seventeenth century, from Santa Fiora and Sorano, where the Jewish community was declining, leaving Pitigliano as the only Jewish community in the Maremma area.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, with the enlightened reform of the Lorrain, the new Grand Dukes of Tuscany, Jews were allowed to take part to some degree in the activities of the Municipality and were able to have their representatives on the town Council. Pitigliano was the last of the “refuge cities” in the area and these favourable conditions remained for decades, making it possible to develop an exceptional relationship in living together and tolerance between the Jewish population and the Christians, so much so that the small town was called “Little Jerusalem”.

The extraordinary relationship between Christians and Jews was forever cemented by a particular episode in 1799, when the people and the majority of Christians defended the Israelites from the bullying anti-French military that wanted to sack the ghetto. In remembrance of what happened, the Jewish community initiated a special ceremony which was celebrated every year until just a few decades ago. The 19th century opened with a large demographic expansion in economics and culture for the Pitigliano Jews which reached a high percentage (12%) of the entire population.

The Jewish community’s institutions were reinforced with the foundation of a Library and the Pro Institute Consiglio for charitable projects, thanks to the generous donation received in 1854 from Giuseppe and Fortunata Consiglio. Pitigliano provided Rabbis to various Italian Communities, as well as being the birthplace of several well-known Jews, including brothers Flaminio and Ferruccio Servi, founders of the “Vessillo Israelita”, the first Italian Jewish newspaper, and Dante Lattes, one of the strongest and most versatile figures of Italian Jewish culture in the 20th century.

For commercial reasons, Pitigliano became the centre for the dispersion of the Jews in numerous towns in the Tuscan and Lazio Maremma. However, all of them remained attached to the Pitigliano community in which the Synagogue was used for the principal religious festivals. The changing economic and social conditions were the determining factor in the 20th century for the slow and constant emigration of Pitigliano Jews towards cities and bigger centres, until the racial laws and persecution of the last World War accelerated the end of the community and the last little flame died with the closure of the Synagogue in 1960.

Nevertheless, during the war, many Jews were saved, thanks to the generous protection of the local population, who offered hospitality, refuge and assistance, despite the risks, during this dark period of history. This closed the long story of tolerance, esteem and very often, friendship and affection between Christians and Jews, which constituted a fundamental value and exemplary Pitigliano experience. Therefore, in spite of the fact that there now very few Jews in Pitigliano, the old relationship continues in other forms, from the restoration and conservation of Jewish monuments (the Synagogue, the Azzimi Jewish bread oven, the ritual baths, the cemetery and the Jewish museum) to the production of Kosher wine in the Pitigliano Cooperative Cellars and the foundation of the Association “Little Jerusalem”, whose goal is the promotion of initiatives for the recognition and appreciation of the Pitigliano story.

(Notes provided by Prof. Angelo Biondi).


Source: Comune di Pitigliano (www.comune.pitigliano.gr.it) 

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