Florence, Italy. Early morning in October. It’s cold and wet from the morning dew. The taxi is late for my meeting with Silvia, a non-Jew who happens to be an authority on Jewish life in Florence. We are meeting at the Jewish Cemetery on Viale Ariosta #16. Behind the ten foot tall gate is a sight and memory I won’t forget.
When the gate is pushed opened, at first I don’t grasp the massiveness of this site. Instead, I see what looks like an abandoned lot with tilted, damaged headstones. I expected to find manicured lawns and well tended graves, considering this was the only Jewish cemetery for 300 years.
Silvia and I walk through grass and weeds that haven’t been mowed. Even though a small, somewhat down-at-the-mouth house is on the grounds with residents who are supposed to be care-taking this historical Jewish location, a guestimate would be that a lawn mower or any sort of grass cutter has touched this land for a very long time, It is, however, a serene oasis, hidden away from the bustle of this wonderful Renaissance city.
But Silvia is unaccustomed to the unkempt appearance, obvious to my dismay. She’s here to tell me about the lives of some of the Jewish people who came to Florence and ultimately were buried here. And she does it well. Our shoes are water logged and our wet feet begin to freeze, but the sight before us is so commanding we forget about this discomfort. The cemetery land was bought by the Jewish population in 1777 and is the oldest sign of Jewish life in Florence. “The population then was about 800”, Silvia offers.
Fascists took over the adjoining land at the end of the 18th century which was part of the cemetery, unconcerned d that this was consecrated land. We walk among the headstones, there is no path. The oldest tomb still available, dates back to 1825. It has the name Lampronti and Silvia tells me he was a physician.
What strikes me as odd, being an Askanasi Jew, is the opulent obelisks and large chapel-like structures so atypical in most Jewish cemeteries in North America. She explains this was part of the Egyptian culture and that the majority of people buried here were Sephardic Jews. One of these large edifices has the name Levi still prominently displayed with the date 1875 still discernable. I ask about a recurrent theme on many of the stones. Two hands and water being poured over them. Silvia explains this was the fashion for Sephardic Jews at the end of the 18th century and symbolic of the cleanliness of spirit. Even the Cohen family’s Coat of Arms is unusual with its Moorish styling and symbols and eight point star.
“There were two kinds of Jews in this city,” Silvia tells me. “There were the Italian Jews and in 1492, the Sephardic Jews arrived from Spain and Portugal, even North Africa and Turkey.” But he first Jews, she regresses, came before Christ. One of the last burials was in 1897 when this cemetery was abandoned and new land was bought on the outskirts of Florence. The Jewish population is now less than 1,000 people while before the war, they numbers over 3,000, still very small in comparison to the very large city’s population of over 500,000. “Were they Orthodox Jews,” I ask. “Yes but in a soft way,” Silvia answers. I stumble upon a headstone which seems oddly out of place. It’s modern, relatively clean and very legible. It’s that of a 15 year old girl, Vera Bolaffio, who was killed during the bombing in 1944. This was the last funeral that has taken place.
I continue to thrash through the tall grass to get a closer look at the three opulent chapels. Servadio Family’s is from 1875 in neo Egyptian style. There are columns and a Coat of Arms inside with a winged sun. The Franchetti Chapel, dating from the end of the 19th century, has a tiled roof looking very much like scales of a fish. The sarcophagus has lion feet. A crown of carved flowers drapes over the chapel of what must be another branch of the Servadio family. It’s probably the most beautiful and also from the end of the 19th century. “Jews go their names from the towns and villages they came from,,” Silvia tells me when I ask about the Italian references.
Stella Cohen who was married to Jacomo Levi share a wonderful chapel, again sowing washing of hands. Have many headstone been defaced over the years/” I ask. And indeed, many stone have been doomed by vandals. Somewhere in the background, I hear a dog barking, behind the old town walls which surround this solemn area. I leave feeling oddly touch by this strange, now peaceful sanctuary. For those wanting to visit, check with the Tourist Board since it is only opened to visitors once a month.