Tortoises in the Jewish Ghetto

Typical narrow street

Rome’s Jewish Ghetto has a sad history, but today it is a vibrant, busy, lovely area—one of my favorites in Rome and just a 15-minute walk south from our apartment.

Ancient building–now an apartment building

Although 2,000 Jews had lived in Rome since before Christian times, in 1555 Pope Paul IV promulgated a bull that required the Jews to live in the ghetto, a walled area with three gates that were locked at night. The Jews had to pay for the construction of the ghetto, which was located in the then most undesirable part of the city—next to the Tevere, which flooded constantly. The bull also prohibited Jews from owning property and restricted the occupations a Jew could have, including practicing medicine on Christians. Jews also had to attend Christian services on shabbat, the weekly Jewish holy day. As a result of the bull’s restrictions, life in the Jewish Ghetto was one of severe poverty. In 1882, Jews were finally allowed to move out of the ghetto, and the walls were torn down in 1888. Wiki has a fascinating description of life in the Jewish Ghetto.

We hadn’t visited the Jewish Ghetto until a week ago, but I went back three times last week. It’s intoxicating! The streets are incredibly narrow and it’s fun and relaxing to wander around there during the day, when it’s peaceful and quiet. At night, it’s a different story. It feels like all of Rome crowds into the Jewish Ghetto to eat at the kosher restaurants, drink at the bars, or promenade down the streets.

Fontana della Tartarughe

To our great delight we discovered one of our favorite fountains in the Jewish Quarter: Fontana della Tartarughe (Fountain of the Tortoises). This small, beautiful fountain, constructed in the late 1500s, is located in Piazza Mattei, named for the person who owned all of the palazzos in that piazza. Giacomo della Porta, who designed the small fountains at either end of Piazza Navona, designed the fountain, but Bernini, who designed the gorgeous Four Rivers Fountain in the center of Piazza Navona, added the tortoises on top 80 years later! That seems rude, but the tortoises are adorable!

Tempio Maggiore

Tempio Maggiore (the Great Temple) is the synagogue on the west end of the Jewish Ghetto. It was completed in 1904 and now contains a Jewish museum. Notice that its dome is square. That alone is unusual, since most churches in Rome have round domes. Two non-Jews designed it, because Italy didn’t have any Jewish architects in the early 1900s as a result of the Papal bull restricting Jewish occupations.

Portico d’Ottavio

The ancient Portico d’Ottavio, which was constructed in the century before Christ was born, greets visitors at the southern end of the ghetto. We were guests at dinner Saturday night at Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavio, a restaurant next door to the portico. The restaurant has served food since 1923, and our host treated us to a feast! We began with carciofi alla giudea (the artichokes that I told you about in my post about Ristorante Paris), fried zucchini flowers, and fried baccala (salt cod). When I say fried, I mean lightly breaded and resembling tempura, not heavily breaded and dripping with oil. All three were light and delicious, and I could have eaten the baccala for my appetizer AND my main course AND dessert! For my main course I had a scrumptious cannelloni, and Michael had sweetbreads. Happiness!

Typical display outside a restaurant

We’ll go back to the Jewish Ghetto soon to walk and eat and visit the tortoises. How I wish you could join us!


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