The Jewish Ghetto of Lerici

A Piece of Jewish History in Italy in a Small Ligurian Town

Map of Lerici, Liguria  c. 1773  Matteo Vinzoni.
Lerici, Liguria  c. 1773  Matteo Vinzoni.

Imagine, here in Lerici - one of Liguria's most beautiful places - there was a ghetto for Jews for almost two centuries. A street where the gates at each end locked in the residents at night and Sundays. Imagine, here in Lerici - as in all of gracious and tolerant Italy - Jews were required to wear a yellow badge, and were subject to special discriminatory laws and fines. Remarkably, Via del Ghetto and most of its original buildings still exist, steps away from the dock for Cinque Terre boats. You can visit this small street, and, if you bring imagination and knowledge, you can visit the Lerici ghetto as well.
                                                          Jews in Lerici History
Jewish Ghetto Sign, Liguria Italy
Jewish Ghetto Sign, Lerici Liguria
The presence of Jews in Lerici dates at least from the 15th century as shown by family names in the town archives. This evidence indicates that the Lerici mayor in 1487, Giovanni de Saulo, was Jewish. This region was not an especially desirable location for Jews in 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. The Republic of Genoa, of which Lerici was a part, was decidedly ambiguous in its attitudes, expelling Jews from the city in 1545-1550, and from all its territory in 1567. Subsequently, it allowed the establishment of ghettos in Genoa beginning in 1660, but not due to an enlightened change of attitude - an outbreak of the plague in 1656-57 killed as many as half of Genoa's population.

Older part of Lerici, Liguria seen from its Castle
The older part of Lerici seen from its Castle. The San
 Rocco bell tower was originally a Roman watchtower.
Genoa was somewhat more accommodating toward the settlement of Jews in the further reaches of its domains. In 1654, Jews were officially allowed to settle in the La Spezia region, and from that point the Jewish population in Lerici increases. Unfortunately, there are few census numbers available, and none which list Jewish residents separately. However the numbers are not large, for Lerici overall (without San Terenzo) had a population of about 1,524 in 1607 and about 4,000 in 1756.

Location of Jewish Ghetto, Via del Ghetto, Lerici Italy.
Via del Ghetto. Click to enlarge.
In the latter half of the 17th century, the increase in Jewish population in Lerici was due to the arrival of Sephardic Jews from Livorno, in Tuscany, who found Lerici an advantageous location for trade - especially with Genoa's Sephardic Jewish merchants. Livorno was Italy's largest and least oppressed Jewish community, and it was overwhelmingly Sephardic (Sephardic refers to Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal and their descendants). Due to the intelligent self-interest of the Medici, they had lived and done business freely since 1551. After Genoa's Jewish population was reestablished, despite heavy taxes and the restrictions of the ghetto, Jewish maritime merchants prospered, and developed strong business ties with Livorno's Jewish merchants. This directly benefited Lerici, which was midway between the two, and more Jews settled here as a result of the increase in trade.

Site of locked gate for Jewish Ghetto, Lerici, Italy
At night an iron gate at this arch
  locked Lerici's Jews in the ghetto.

The Ghetto
The exact scenario of the establishment of the Lerici ghetto is not documented, due to missing and destroyed town records, but it was around 1676. The ghetto was located entirely on Via del Ghetto, and it was originally a giudecca (Jewish neighborhood) before it was required to be a ghetto. Via del Ghetto is just off Piazza Mottino which is off the large Piazza Garibaldi. From the waterfront, it's behind the yellow building with a restaurant called '1918' and near the restaurant 'Da Louisa'.

Former Synagogue in Jewish ghetto, Lerici, Italy.
The synagogue building, 1 Via del Ghetto

At the lower end of the street was an iron gate, at the arch in our photo. It was used from the ghetto's establishment around 1676 until 1848 when Lerici became part of the Savoy Kingdom of Sardinia, and Jews gained civil rights. Beyond the arch, the first building on the left, was the Synagogue. Old Lerici residents interviewed in the 20th century had memory of the iron gate and that the 'Church of the Jews' was located behind it with a plaque with Hebrew characters. About 1955-1960, workers restoring this building at Number 1 Via del Ghetto discovered a hollow space inside a wall. Upon investigation, they found three badly deteriorated sheepskin scrolls on wood rollers wrapped in decayed velvet with gold embroidery – a Sefer Torah - had been hidden there. The workers gave their find to the local priest. An inquiry years later by a historian concluded the Torah was subsequently simply discarded by the priest, an unintended desecration.

Jewish Ghetto, Via del Ghetto, Lerici Italy.
Via del Ghetto, Lerici. Empty of people, but crowded with memories.
As you move up the street, bear a few considerations in mind. First, this small area would have been bustling. In this era, people lived very densely, and this was especially true in an area of restricted size. People lived with many social interactions, and they were outdoors a lot. Second, artificial light was not a real option for most tasks, so much work would have been done in the street outside or in windows. There would be workbenches and tools and supplies outside the buildings, and people using them in daylight. Third, there were no indoor bathrooms, no running water in homes, and no refrigeration; the daily habits, the smells, and the food would perforce be quite unfamiliar to us today. Water was probably carried from a fountain either near the synagogue or in Piazza Mottino and it was probably not used for drinking due to pollution. Washing was probably carried out at a communal facility or fountain, human waste was gathered in chamber pots and dumped in the ocean. At the end of the street where it meets Salita Revellino and where there's a little out building, there was a second gate at the end of the ghetto. 

The livlihoods of ghetto residents would have been diverse. In many Italian communities, Jewish lenders were invited to begin doing business (since Christians were prohibited from charging interest), and this introduction lead to the arrival of other Jews practicing different trades, such as tailors, doctors, traders, tutors, embroiderers, etc. This was probably part of the pattern in Lerici, but records also show other activities. Several citations, including one from 1839, record that the tanning of skins was one of the principle activities, and a distinctive concave piece of marble designed for holding skins during scraping was found during the renovation of another house in Via del Ghetto.

Entrance to Jewish Ghetto, Lerici, Italy
The uphill gate of the ghetto was located here at Salita Ravellino.
The ship building and ship outfitting industries were prominent at Lerici, and there are indications that Jewish trademen were active in those fields, particularly in metal work, as early as the latter half of the 16th century. A foundry operated by Jews probably existed near Piazza Mottino (just outside the ghetto) making products such as bronze cannon. A document from 1711 shows that one Gabriel Fonseca della Costa was constructing a falucca (a large, masted fishing vessel) on the beach at Lerici, approximately where the ferries dock today. Della Costa was a member of a well-known Italian Jewish family prominent in maritime commerce and boat building. It is also likely that he employed Jewish workers, as there are many records documenting arrests on the docks of Jews who were not wearing the required patch of yellow cloth on their chest. These unfortunates, workers or businessmen, were locked in the castle until they paid a stiff fine.

The last Jewish family residing on Via del Ghetto was that of Salomone Funaro, originally from Livorno, who operated a clothing store into the beginnings of the 20th century. Today it is estimated that only 530 to 700 of Liguria's 1,642,000 residents are Jewish, almost certainly fewer than 300 years ago.

Visiting Lerici
For a broad description of Lerici, see our popular story Castle to Castle Along the Gulf of the Poets

Travel Tip_____________________________________________________________________
Renting A Car in Italy. If you drive in urban areas at home, you can drive in Italy. Car rental prices are important, but don't rent based solely on low price and stick to well known companies. We have two articles to help you:  Link: Independent Car Rental Reviews for Italy and Link:Car Rental Tips for Italy - Pick It Up Right 
In them, we recommend the car hire broker Auto Europe where you can compare companies, reserve with a low price guarantee, purchase no deductible insurance, cancel easily, and have 24/7 customer service before and after the car hire. If you will rent a car and want to do us a favor, please use this link: Auto Europe.
Visiting Jewish Italy
The history of Jews in Italy is as fascinating as it is complex and poorly documented. Jews were present in Rome and other parts of the Roman empire starting around the 2nd century BC. There were Jews in small numbers in only a couple dozen Italian cities until the 12th century. In the following centuries, Jews appear in slowly growing numbers in a hundred or so Italian cities. If you are visiting Italy, here are some ideas.

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Venice. The first Jewish ghetto was in Venice, and today it still has a Jewish presence. The name ghetto came from the Venetian dialect word for foundry and was the name of the island where the ghetto was established. There is the small Jewish Museum of Venice - a tour of which includes visits to three of Venice's five synagogues. The neighborhood is relatively free of tourists, has some nice cafes and galleries and such, and has a peaceful, historic atmosphere that many people enjoy. There's an excellent article on ghetto life on the website, Europe for Visitors, Venice Ghetto.

Pisa. Just beyond the city wall from the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, and the Baptistry is the Jewish Cemetery (Cimitaro Ebraica) visitable on Sunday morning (10-12:30) and Wednesday afternoon 16:00-18:00 June-Oct, 14:00-16:00 Nov-May. According to the local Jewish community's Italian website Pisa Ebraica, Pisa is one of the world's oldest Jewish burial sites. The present cemetery dates from 1674, and it was preceded by three others with origins dating to the 1200's. Here's a nice article about the cemetery by a local blogger: At Home In Tuscany.

Pitigliano in Tuscany has a unique Jewish history
Pitigliano in Tuscany has a unique Jewish history.
Pitigliano. This little town of Etruscan origin is on a spectacular site in southern Tuscany. It is north of Rome, south of Florence, and west of Orvieto. It has preserved interesting aspects of its unique Jewish heritage, including the former Jewish neighborhood, among its charming medieval streets. There's a museum which features a synagogue, displays of religious items, and has fascinating underground facilities including a ritual bath, a kosher slaughterhouse, bakery, cantina, and tannery. A good history of the Jewish presence is on the Comune of Pitigliano Website.

Rome. Historically prominent, the Rome ghetto is now a trendy neighborhood with only modest reminders of its history. Many people enjoy the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Rome Synagogue. The guide Micaela Pavoncello  is very well regarded and has a useful website Jewish Roma. For the basics, there's Rick Steves on the Rome ghetto

Ferrara. While the Jewish presence in Ferrara has a long history, there is just a small neighborhood that was the ghetto and three synagogues (with limited hours).  However the new National Museum of Italian Judaism & the Shoah has made Ferrara a worthwhile stop for anyone interested in Jewish history.  The city is also special to those who enjoyed the 1971 De Sica film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based upon the book by Georgio Bassani. The film is a must for anyone interested in good films or the social history of Jewish Italy. For practicalities, see this Trip Advisor post.

Numerous other Italian cities have aspects of Jewish heritage for those who are historically oriented and imaginative - your research will be rewarded.

For an overview of Italian Jews and their history, Wikipedia has two good articles. Italian Jews  and  History of the Jews in Italy

Two presentations in Italian “La comunit√† ebraica di Lerici” by Alessandro Manfredi to the Circolo Rotonda of Lerici were of great help. Part 1 La comunita ebraica  Part 2. La comunita ebraica  Mr. Manfredi developed an interest in Judaism and Jewish history after hearing of the discovery of the scrolls in the ex-Synagogue in his youth.

An exhaustively researched book: “Nel cuore di Lerici Via del Ghetto” di Valerio M. Botto, Edizioni Cinque Terre, was the basis of much of Mr. Manfredi's presentations. This book is still available in Lerici bookstores.

An article titled Una Ricerca sul Ghetto by Valerio Botto in the newsletter, “Lerici In...”  February, 2009, supplied additional information.

We thank Gino Cabano for the Vinzoni maps. Facebook Storie-e-Notizie-del-Monte-Caprione-di-Lerici

Written by Martha