Shining a Light on the Hidden History of Jews in Siena

Fri, 12/16/2022 - 14:07
Interior of the synagogue of Siena, Italy
Inside the synagogue of Siena / Photo: Dietmar Rauscher via Shutterstock

The first time I visited the Jewish ghetto in Siena was by accident. I’d just stumbled my way out of the Palazzo Pubblico — the civic seat of the Sienese Republic, today a museum — and my focus was singularly on tracking down a plate of pici for lunch. But my tunnel vision was broken by marble plaques I spotted along the street, memorializing, in Hebrew and Italian, two tragic events in the history of Siena’s Jewish population. 

Peering closer, it became clear that behind this unadorned façade were Siena’s synagogue and a small museum sharing the story of the city’s Jews. Feeling that familiar push-pull of belonging and struggle, I knew then that the site would become a place of comfort for me, a Jewish American doctoral student writing her dissertation on Renaissance Siena.

Connecting with community history in Siena

Historical photographs on display at the Jewish Museum in Siena
A family- and community-focused display area in the Jewish Museum of Siena / Photo courtesy of Julie James

I wasn’t totally new to Italy, nor to exploring my identity within it. I’d visited the Venice ghetto and, in Rome, had inadvertently come across some of the brass “stumbling stones” commemorating Holocaust victims in view of the Portico d’Ottavia. I was living between Florence and the US at the time of my serendipitous visit to Siena’s synagogue, and occasionally walked by the Tuscan capital’s (far more conspicuous) bluish-domed Tempio Maggiore, never quite finding the time or nerve to venture inside. The interest in Siena’s history arose much more organically than the self-inflicted “shoulds” I felt about exploring eredità ebraica — Jewish heritage — in more famous communities. Like any good researcher, freed from the tyranny of the “should,” I went down the rabbit hole even more willingly. 

The presence of Jews in Siena was recorded as far back as the 13th century, and the community was vibrant, comprising Italians, Spaniards and northern Europeans. Given Siena’s long history as a banking capital, the city’s Jews also had their own bank, established in 1335 by a certain Vitale di Daniele. While Jews were officially exiled from the city following the Black Plague, some persevered, remaining clandestinely enshrined in the local population. 

A century later, they were given permission to practice openly and founded a Jewish seminary, or yeshivah, which became a hub of Jewish learning and attracted more Jews to the city. These freedoms didn’t come without a cost, however: Following a rise in antisemitism spurred on by the preaching of San Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) and his contemporaries, Jewish men were required to wear physical markers — usually yellow hats — to denote their identity, though they were still able to live and work freely in the city. 

Jewish ghetto of Siena
The former Jewish ghetto of Siena by day / Photo: Simone Crespiatico via Shutterstock

In 1555, Florence and the armies of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici conquered Siena. Sixteen years later, Cosimo established the Jewish ghetto, a year after he’d enacted a similar policy for Jews in Florence. But Jews were still able to attend Siena’s university: Over the course of the 16th century, at least 10 matriculated to study medicine. Archival records show that the Jewish population rose during the grand ducal period, ballooning from approximately 100 residents in 1612 to 500 in the 17th century.

With the growth of the community came the move of the synagogue in 1730 —  to the very location, a medieval building, that I’d almost breezed by unaware. Renovation work on it began in 1750. But the move and subsequent changes weren’t entirely about growth-related expansions or “upgrades.” The raised sanctuary on the second floor (or primo piano, in Italian terms)  and the unassuming façade were precautions taken by a population who feared attack. (Given that I was slow on the uptake several centuries later, their approach seems to have been an effective one.) Still, the sanctuary itself, designed by the Florentine Zanobi del Rosso, doesn’t downplay its beauty. It’s elegantly appointed, with a large marble ark where the torahs are stored and white decorative lattice grates demarcating the women’s balcony.

A brief rebirth, followed by persecution and perseverance

Facade of the synagogue of Siena with commemorative plaques
Synagogue of Siena, with commemorative plaques / Photo: Alexandros Michailidis via Shutterstock

Things started to look up for Siena's Jewish population — at least briefly — with the arrival of the French at the end of the 18th century. In March 1799, the French abolished the ghetto, granting citizenship to the Jews, and the doors to the ghetto were publicly and ceremoniously burned in the nearby Piazza del Campo. But this independence was short-lived: In June of the same year, members of the anti-Napoleonic Viva Maria movement seized control of the city and embarked on a pogrom, a riot that saw 13 Jews publicly burned alive in the very piazza where they had, just months before, burned the ghetto gates in a moment of rapturous liberation.

Siena’s ghetto remained active until 1859 and the rise of the Italian unification movement, when the gates were once again blown open — but this time, for good. Jews were integrated into Italian society, though their population in Siena dwindled over time. Sienese Jews were nonetheless proud of their heritage, fighting in World War I as members of the Italian Army. In 1938, however, the Fascist regime enacted new restrictions with the Leggi Razziali, or Racial Laws, and 14 Jews were deported to Auschwitz in 1943 and ultimately murdered. This is the tragedy — along with the pogrom of 1799 — that is today commemorated on the plaques outside the synagogue and that pulled my attention far from lunch on my first visit. 

The streets of the ghetto were reorganized as part of an urban renewal project in 1935, but visitors today can still explore the synagogue, visit the Jewish cemetery, and view the ghetto fountain, although its main sculpture of Moses was removed in 1875 and is now housed in the Palazzo Pubblico.

A reflective return to Siena amid the holiday season

A document attesting to the contemporary connection of Jewish people to their city
A document attesting to the Jewish community's contemporary ties to its city / Photo courtesy of Julie James

This year — long after I first stumbled upon the synagogue and the story of Siena’s Jews — I had a chance to return at the height of the holiday season. While twinkling Christmas lights lavishly festooned much of the city center, the synagogue’s street remained unadorned. Yet there was a warmth inside the building that, for me, the lights — as much as, admittedly, I love them — couldn’t touch. The story of Hanukkah itself reminds us of the power of perseverance; like the miraculous oil that managed to burn for eight nights instead of only one, the Jews of Siena have managed to prosper despite many attempts to limit them. A document now hanging in the atrium of the synagogue attests to the contemporary bonds between the Jewish people of Siena and their city. Dated 5778, or 2018 by the Gregorian calendar, a central illustration depicts the nearby Palazzo Pubblico. In Latin, the city’s motto, cor magis tibi Siena pandit (Siena opens a wider heart), is displayed across a green banner while the city’s name is inscribed in Hebrew transliteration: סיינה. Jewish people have always been nestled in the heart of the city, though it’s taken time for citizens to welcome them with open arms.

Learning about Siena’s synagogue prompted reflection on my own intersectional identity as a Jewish doctoral student studying the art of Renaissance Siena — a duality that, previously, I might have all too readily written off. It also offered a new lens through which I might consider not only the art of centuries past, but the recent spikes in antisemitism in Italy and the larger world. Facing this as a teacher and an art historian, I’m heartened by news that just yesterday, UNESCO launched a virtual learning program for US educators to “address the antisemitism, the distortion and denial of the Holocaust in schools,” and that last month, the Uffizi Gallery finally identified Jona Ostiglio, the Jewish artist of a number of unattributed paintings that he illegally produced for the Medici court.

This holiday season, the stories of Siena’s Jews can serve as a reminder for all — regardless of how we do or don’t worship, how we do or don’t identify — to persevere in times of trouble.

If you go

Jewish Synagogue and Museum of Siena
Vicolo delle Scotte, 14, Siena
Tel. +39 0577 271345