Bologna’s Jewish Ghetto is small but a deeply moving place to the traveller visiting this medieval city. At its heart is the Jewish Museum (Museo Ebraico) in Via Valdonica, a small but well curated Museum that documents the history of Jewish life and culture in the region.
The Ghetto Ebraico or Jewish Ghetto in Bologna dates back roughly to 1556, following the Papal Bull issued by Pope Paul IV in 1555 which obliged all towns in the Papal states to rigorously separate its Jewish population from the rest of the townsfolk. Emilia-Romagna had a sizeable Jewish population, dating back to at least the 1300s. Bologna had a thriving Jewish population – one measure of this is that Jewish history was a taught course in Bologna’s University dating back to 1488. Following the Papal Bull, though, an area of the city – including Via dell’Inferno, Via dei Giudei , Via Canonica , Vicolo San Giobbe, Vicolo Mandria (once Via del Ghetto), Via del Carro and via Valdonica, was enclosed by three gates – one in Via
dei Giudei; the secondo where Via del Carro meets via Zamboni; and the third in via Oberdan.
The streets listed above today are amongst the most charming of Bologna’s medieval city centre – with restaurants and small shops dotted amongst the small narrow cobbled streets. Think back, though, to what it must have been like for Bologna’s Jewish population, to be locked into these dark streets nightly, knowing that hostility stirred beyond the gates. Jews in Bologna at this time also had dress regulations – a yellow cap for men (later changed to red), and a veil of the same colour for the women. They were also restricted to certain professions – selling used goods, or money lending.
Bologna’s Jewish Ghetto was short-lived, but not because of some enlightenment. The Jewish Population of Bologna, in 1593 was forced to leave the city – again under Papal orders. Two Ghettos were set up for all the Jews in the Papal states – one in Rome, and one in Ancona. Later further Ghettos would be created in Ferrara, Lugo and Cento (where many of Bologna’s Jewish familes eventually moved). It was a dark chapter in the city’s history.
Walk down Via dell’Inferno to #16, the Casa Buratti (Buratti House) and you will see a plaque signalling all that remains of the historic synagogue of the Ghetto (there were 11 in total). After the Unification of Italy, and the restoration of full civil rights to Jewish Italians, the Jewish population of Bologna slowly grew, and a new synagogue was built, outside the Ghetto, in 1928 in Via De’ Gombruti 9 (near Piazza Malpighi). This synagogue was badly damaged during the war, but rebuilt in the post-war period and is a still functioning house of worship for Bologna’s Jewish Community.
In 1999, the Museo Ebraico di Bologna opened in Via Valdonica 1/5, in the ex-Palazzo Pannolini – a building rich in history, and once the site of a college for the indigent. The Museum, a small but wonderfully rich and well-thought out space with multi-media exhibits dedicated to examining Jewish identity, and documenting the rich history of Jewish life in Emilia-Romagna in particular.
The Museum as well as having a permanent exhibition space also holds various temporary exhibitions and events, and also organises guided tours of the Ghetto area.
Between Piazza San Martino and Via Valdonica is the tiny piazzetta Marco Biagi. This was the scene of another sad moment in Bologna’s history, though much more recent. On the evening of the 22nd of November 2002, Professor Marco Biagi, a jurist and academic specialising in labour and industrial relations, was shot and killed by the new Red Brigades, just outside his home in Via Valdonica. This nearby piazza was renamed in his honour.