Rome's Jewish Landmark; a Basilica of the Snows

Great Synagogue: a Phoenix by the Tiber

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 29, 2004 ( July 28, 1904, marked the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of Rome’s Great Synagogue. Centenary celebrations have been going on throughout 2004 and activities have included conferences, exhibitions and concerts.

The most notable event took place on May 23 when Cardinals Camillo Ruini and Walter Kasper joined Rome’s chief rabbi Riccardo di Segni and Israel’s chief rabbis Yona Metzger and Shlomo Amar along with other dignitaries in a grand public ceremony.

The inauguration date was selected for a specific reason. The Jewish ghetto in Rome had been established on July 27, 1558, under Pope Paul IV, who built a wall enclosing a four-block area where the 1,750 Jews of Rome were obliged to live. The ghetto walls were demolished by Pius IX on April 17, 1847.

The Jewish community has been present in Rome for at least 2,000 years, dating to before the sack of Jerusalem by the Roman general Titus. Local lore has it that the community dates to the time of the Maccabee kings and their request for Rome’s assistance, leading to the Roman absorption of Jerusalem in the first century B.C.

Furthermore, the Church of St. Peter in Chains allegedly contains relics of the Maccabee brothers.

After the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many immigrated to Rome under Pope Alexander IV and settled in the area between the river and the historical center — the district that would later become the ghetto.

The legislation regarding the ghetto also prohibited the Jews from having more than one synagogue. This was circumvented through the establishment of five “scholae,” or congregations, under a single roof. These were places of prayer and study as well as meeting and administration. The “scholae” were Roman (Tempio and Nova) as well as Catalonian, Castillian and Sicilian. They were all destroyed to produce the new synagogue and today only the intriguing street name of Cinque Scole remains.

As in other parts of Rome, the area closest to the river was the unhealthiest part of the ghetto, subject to flooding and disease. It was this same space, after the destruction of the Jewish quarter, which saw the rise of the Great Synagogue of Rome like a phoenix from flames.

The new synagogue was fruit of an architectural competition launched in 1889. The design program announced that the new building “must be capable of containing 1,000 people comfortably … be of a monumental and austere nature and be appropriately decorated, with the absolute exclusion, however, of any human or animal figures.”

The winners of the competition were Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni, who planned a monumental building with a remarkable feature: a rectangular dome, which stood out on the Rome skyline in contradistinction to the many rounded church domes from St. Peter’s to the Gesù.

As part of the centenary celebrations, the Jewish Museum of Rome, originally a few rooms inside the synagogue, has been expanded to include the large vaults under the synagogue as well as a garden area.

The first exhibition in the new space is called “The Great Temple of Rome, 1904-2004” and displays hundreds of documents and drawings relating to the building of the synagogue, from the competition program to the land purchase agreements and early designs of Costa and Armanni.

The real treasure trove of the show consists of photographs of the area, from 1890 to the present, showing the dramatic alterations to the ghetto over the years. A series of yellowed, grainy, black-and-white photos escort visitors from the five “scola,” to the creation of the embankments of the Tiber and finally to the new synagogue dominating the riverbank neighborhood.

Then follows the reopening of the synagogue after the end of the Nazi occupation. The next photos are glossy, 1960s images showing the synagogue as part of the Roman cityscape in Italian cinematic productions while the last series, in vivid color, bring the display into the present, including the pictorial record of John Paul II’s historic visit to the synagogue on April 13, 1986.

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St. Mary Major’s Day of Glory

For those who have lived in Rome, one of the most beloved and uniquely Roman feast days of the year is the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, celebrated on Aug. 5.

The fantastic origins of this stunning basilica date all the way back to the fourth century. According to popular legend, a wealthy childless couple desired to make a gift of all they owned to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

They prayed to Our Lady to know what she would like them to do, and on the night of Aug. 4-5, the husband, his wife and Pope Liberius (352-366) all had the identical dream. In it, Mary appeared and told them that wherever snow should fall that night in the city, should be the site of a church dedicated to her. The next morning, snow had fallen on the fashionable Esquiline Hill, and there the church was built.

As it happens, this legend, as well as the basilica’s official title of Santa Maria ad Nives (St. Mary of the Snows), both date from about the first millennium, and therefore have been discounted by most historians. But it is not so simple to erase a cherished story from the minds of Roman citizens.

Santa Maria Maggiore is not merely one of Rome’s most beautiful churches with its exquisite mosaics, Cosmatatesque floors and ceiling gilded with the first gold brought from the New World.

Nor is it only one of Rome’s four patriarchal basilicas, boasting relics of the Baby Jesus’ crib, the tomb of St. Jerome or the miraculous image of Santa Maria “Salus Populi.” It is also one of the most popular churches in Rome, with a constant ebb and flow of pilgrims and locals throughout the year.

Many times I have heard it uttered that Rome has 900 churches but they are all empty. Yet try finding space at the 10 a.m. Sunday Mass at Santa Maria Maggiore, where old, young, foreign, Roman, families, students, religious and others crowd into the church singing and praying together.

Or drop by any afternoon to join the large group gathered for afternoon rosary, or the lines for the sacrament of reconciliation where the Dominican confessors are reputed to be some of the best in town, or the assembly of faithful in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament.

But Aug. 5 is the basilica’s day of glory. The dedication Mass will be presided over by the newly appointed archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Bernard Law, before an overflowing congregation. The elderly women of the city will arrive early to get the best seats at the front, parents will be herding unruly children along the side aisles, latecomers will be perched along columns straining to watch.

During the singing of the Gloria, in memory of the legend of the Miraculous Snow, the ceiling coffer before the altar will be removed and white rose petals dropped into the church. A very brave few will battle the Roman housewives after Mass to gather up some of the petals. I have it on excellent authority, however, that the petals turn brown immediately and are therefore not great mementos.

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Stung by Vandals

In the fifth century, the Vandals (whence our term “vandalism”) came from Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) and began migrating across Western Europe. They devastated Gaul (France) and finally settled in Spain in 411. From there, they invaded North Africa and in 455 subjected Rome to a two-week-long sack.

Legend has it that Pope Leo the Great pleaded personally with the Vandal chief to spare the lives of the Romans and to limit himself to pillaging the city.

Vandals return sporadically to Rome, under various forms — drunken tourists, bored Roman kids or the lone madman. Every now and again Rome relives the echo of destru
ction wrought upon its beautiful monuments.

Tuesday, July 20, Romans awoke to the news that the Bee Fountain had been defaced during the night. The Bee fountain was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1644 for the Pope Urban VIII Barberini. It consists of a large travertine shell fanning open above a basin with three sculpted bees, the Barberini family symbol, perched on the rim above rivulets of water tricking into the basin.

Today the fountain stands in Piazza Barberini, at the beginning of Via Veneto, one of the grand tourist boulevards. It was originally placed at the other end of the piazza, on Via Sistina, where it was used to water animals.

The vandal chipped off the head of one of the bees although police are unsure as to whether it was an act of wanton destruction or a souvenir-seeking prank.

Whatever the reason, this latest outrageous act comes hard on the heels of two other attacks that have reminded residents of the vulnerability of the art in this city: the defacing of statues in the Borghese park, and of an ancient Roman sculpture on the footpath overlooking the Piazza del Popolo.

Other assaults on artwork in Rome have included the damage to Bernini’s “Four Rivers Fountain” caused by someone swinging on the statues in 1987 and most famously the attack on Michelangelo’s “Pietà” in 1972.

The latest outbreak of violence against cultural and artistic treasures is not confined to Rome. In Venice, an apparently deranged man is in custody after having taken a sledgehammer to several statues.

One of the great joys of living in Rome is the intimacy that one establishes with the works of art. You can have your morning coffee sitting on the rim of the Trevi fountain or stand right underneath Bernini’s elephant statue outside Santa Maria sopra Minerva. You can touch the spot where Julius Caesar was cremated. The sculptures and monuments are like old friends always waiting to greet you on a street corner.

Over the years, this privilege has been abused by thieves or vandals and has been consequently diminished through the installment of alarm systems and police guards. Once a source of summer relief, today a dip in one of Rome’s outdoor fountains incurs a 200-euro fine.

Nonetheless, Rome remains trusting and generous with her art. Offered for the benefit of the public by emperors, popes, cardinals and princes, the city maintains her tradition of offering beauty to all who enter her gates.

Let’s hope this is the last barbarian invasion for a long while.

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Errata Corrige: Thank you to the several alert ZENIT readers who pointed out that the church of “Die Wies,” mentioned in last week’s column, is in Bavaria, not in Austria.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University. She can be reached at

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