Salambo Blog

Living in Rome

One of the oldest ghettos

If I could choose an area to live in Rome, I would probably choose the Ghetto. It has a special character, as if two thousand years of the city’s history were concentrated and captured in this small neighbourhood. Today, it is an interesting and lively mix of antique and contemporary Rome. Next to the ruins of the ancient Portico d’Ottavia, built by emperor Augustus for his sister Ottavia, one can find contemporary art galleries, trendy bars as well as more traditional Kosher restaurants and shops. It is one of the few places where one can see clearly how Rome was built over two millenia. On one of the medieval buildings on via del Portico d’Ottavia, the supporting structure is provided by a solid stone beam dating from Roman times, which is still apparent on the external wall with its latin engravings.

medieval house on a Roman stone structure in the Ghetto

Rome’s ghetto is very different today to what it used to be. It was created in 1555 by Pope Paul IV, the extremely intolerant and rigid pope from the Carafa family, who issued his Cum nimis absurdum bull soon after being elected. The new law forced the Jewish people to live in a secluded area locked at night, and wear a distinctive sign: a yellow patch on hats for men and yellow shawls for women. Jews, who had been living in Rome since the Antiquity, became second class citizens losing immediately most of their rights, including the right to own property and choose a profession.  A wall was built around the predominantly Jewish area in the rione Sant’Angelo (name of the ghetto’s neighbourhood), and the ghetto was created. For centuries, its inhabitants had to live in insalubrius conditions, restricted to a couple of narrow streets. It is only when Italy became a unified country in 1861 that the Roman Jews regained their full rights. The ghetto was consequently transformed, mainly to make way for the construction of the river banks to prevent floods. A large part of the old ghetto was destroyed and a new synagogue was built. The via del Portico d’Ottavia at the heart of today’s ghetto is one of the few streets left from the old area. Through the 20th century, Rome’s ghetto had to go through tragic times again, when on 16th October 1943 the Nazis threatened to take the ghetto’s Jews to concentration camps unless the community provided 50 kilos of gold within 24 hours. The demand was met with the help of other Roman citizens. The Nazis took the gold and still captured 2091 Jews.

relief in memory of the 16th October 1943 in the Ghetto

When I first came to Rome to look for accomodation, I visited an appartment just opposite the synagogue. I loved it but at the time, decided not to rent it because it was too far from our children’s school and needed too much work for a temporary accomodation. Still now, a few years later, every time I go to the ghetto, I look at the building to see if “my” appartment is occupied. I did spend many dreamy hours refurbishing it and living in it in my mind. Maybe one day…

One comment on “One of the oldest ghettos

  1. Dorothy
    May 19, 2011

    Thank you for talking about this very special area.
    I would like to add the reason why this district makes me dream too: there is a very small pastry making at the bottom of the building seen on your article which is managed by a line of picturesque women. This little pastry, always overcrowded deserves a turning. They make fabulous typical Jewish cakes with grilled almonds, fruits and spices for the pleasure with the greedy ones.


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This entry was posted on May 19, 2011 by in Ancient Rome, Contemporary Rome, Daily life in Rome, English and tagged , , , , , .
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