Saturday, March 30, 2013

Little Jerusalem Pitigliano Italy


Cari Amici (Dear Friends),

I found myself exploring the town of Pitigliano, Italy, recently thanks to my friend Caroline. Pitigliano lies south and east of the more famous Grosseto and is very close to the southern Tuscan border. Pitigliano has a history dating back to the Etruscan times, but in 1293 the Orsini family gained control and began its history warring with Siena.

The city emerges above the tufa rock, rising from organic to geometrical forms, with caves visible in which I was told that hermits used to occupy. Those spaces closer to the paved road that leads into the city were once used to keep donkeys. Now they are simply storage rooms.

I thought it was funny that the map of this city perched on an elongated peak looks a bit like a slug from above, since my traveling companion and tour guide described this city as beautiful, but a bit claustrophobic. She said she could not life there because of the closeness of everything, namely the narrow streets. I knew that I wanted to come back to explore this place longer than the two hours or so that we had there.

While there are few if any Jewish people living in Pitigliano today, it was historically a town quite friendly to the Jewish population. My friend Caroline and I visited the former ghetto in the historic district, now a small museum. We learned that in 1556, a Jewish cemetery was created by the nobleman Niccolò Orsini IV, who had always been supportive of the Jewish population in his territory. He gave the land for this purpose to his personal physician, David de Pomis, a Jew. You may see this cemetery in the last image of this post, below the cypress trees on the left and above the bridge of arches.

The Ghetto was officially begun in 1622 by the ruling Medici family. In the 1800s one-fourth of the population of Pitigliano was Jewish and the community became known as “Little Jerusalem” (a name given by the Jews in Livorno, a city to the north). The brochure says that after the Unification of Italy in 1861 and the emancipation of the Jews, many Jewish people left Pitigliano for larger cities. It is also reported that the remaining Jews were helped out of the city by their supportive neighbors as the racial laws and dangers of World War II came about. Today the city is reported to have so few Jews that they cannot gather enough for a minyan, the minimum number of ten adults required for specific religious gatherings.

The thick stone walls of “Little Jerusalem” give one the impression of being in a cave. In truth, the Jewish people simply adapted the existing spaces when they settled in this part of Pitigliano. And people for centuries have understood the value of going underground for consistently cooler temperatures to store wine and other goods. A couple of the upper rooms near the entrance housed Jewish items, many of which I found quite beautiful, such as this woven Havdalla Candle for use on a Saturday evening. I also found the scroll and the Hebrew writing lovely.

The image of the room with the black bars in front of it is the butcher’s area. It was here that animals were slaughtered in accordance with the Jewish laws. After death, the blood is drained from the animals so that the people will not consume it since “blood is life.” [I do not quite understand this idea (do we not eat to live?), but then it may be that the brochure has simplified a lot and I did not intend to do an in-depth study of cultural rites, however interesting.]

The Synagogue of Pitigliano was built in 1598, but collapsed gradually in the 1960s. It was restored in 1995 and contains furnishings from the 17th and 18th centuries. One cannot enter the prayer room; however we followed the stairs to a balcony. A beautiful wooden rail in a lace-like pattern protected us from falling. It was quite high, but I did manage to stick my arm out above the top rail to show you the downstairs, as well as the ceiling.

You might wonder why I am writing about ruins and such when this blog is usually about art. In my mind, everything is connected. And as my late friend Vasily Fedorouk liked to say, “The artist is the best kind of scientist because he studies everything.” I think the word “best” is something lost in translation for my Ukrainian-born friend, but I think you can grasp his sentiment for artists.

Gadget

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