The Synagogue of Florence, Italy

By Barbara Kingstone

It shouldn’t have come as a great surprise that The Synagogue of Florence at 4, Via Farini, is protected by huge cast iron gates and manned by an armed guard.

After two more security checks, one at this access and another in a small inner office equipped with television screens scanning the exterior, I am ushered into a nondescript room Enter one of the nine elected synagogue councils. An Askenazy Jews who was born in Israel, Hulda now works and lives in Florence where Sephardic Jewry is still in the majority. She explains the need for this pervasive security

“Since a young boy was killed in the synagogue in Rome in 1982 we have taken great precautions. The police don’t want the blame for anything that may happen inside the ‘shul’, so they’re always here day and night. And we do get many tourists so we never know who’s coming.”

Florence is not only beautiful but by all accounts, is religiously tolerant. The first evidence that there were Jews in Florence but still not yet a community, was in the 13th century. It wasn’t until the late 1300s that Jews were allowed to work in certain occupations such as banking. History shows however, that there were periods of great danger. As in most of Europe in the early 1500s, Jews were expelled. For instance, there were tough times in 1569 when Jews living in Tuscany had to move to either Sienna or Florence and thus ghettos were created. Today there are only 30,000 Jews in all of Italy, a country with a population of 37 million

“There are less of us now than the end of the 15th century,” Hulda tells me as we sit at a basic wood table, no Italian chic here. “Italian Jews are concentrated in a few places. There are 15,000 in Rome, 12,000 in Milan and the rest are all over Italy in small communities.” Florence has about 300 families.

The diminutive, articulate woman explains in English accented with a touch of Hebrew and Italian, more about the activities in this building. It’s somewhat of a prelude, an indoctrination before I’m actually allowed to cross the lush garden square to enter the domed synagogue. She continues to tell me that this small building where there’s a hub of activity and work noise in the background, – a community center of sorts for the Jews in Florence. It also houses the Talmud Torah School for children who come twice a week. A kindergarten closed a few years ago since the child birth rate in the Jewish community is so very small. As for Bar Mitzvahs, Hulda figures there are probably only about 7 -–10 a year. “Far more Jewish people die than are born, “ she states matter of factly. As for weddings, she explains with eagerness, “there are many more.”

“Even foreigners come to get married here because of this historical and beautiful building. But intermarriage is a problem. Mixed religious couples can’t marry in this Orthodox synagogue. Instead they have to go to the Town Hall. We lose many of our young people by intermarriage,” she says sadly. And just to fill out the loose ends, Hulda throws in that the rabbi is an Italian born Jew.

There was a time in Italy, when Jews weren’t allowed to have big synagogues. These prayer halls would have to be hidden away in larger buildings and weren’t permitted to be seen from the outside.A bit of this era can still be seen in Venice’s Piazza de Nuovo. But when the Jews came out of the ghettos, when Jews were treated as citizens, they were then able to build synagogues. With all the grand cathedrals and churches in this Florentine Catholic city, it was David Levi, a man who died without heirs, who left a fund to be given for “a synagogue worth of the city”. He felt Jews too, should have a beautiful place to pray. And he certainly got his wish.

Enter Silvia Baldi, who is the authority on Jewish life in Florence and especially this synagogue. Only after being with Silvia for my in-depth tour of both the ‘shul’ and the upstairs museum, does she surprise me when she tells me she isn’t Jewish. Her knowledge about Italian Jewish history is impressive.

As we finally cross the courtyard, Silvia tells me that originally Italian Jews were Sephardic so that the highly decorative interior is indicative of that culture. Interestingly, the synagogue doesn’t completely face east, the traditional and historically direction, but is slightly oriented to the south.

Built in 1882 there were three architects involved in the design. The Moorish style reminds me more of a cathedral with its travertine exterior, arches, Moorish styled windows, a loggia and a scalloped balustrade. The dominant central cupola and two other smaller cupolas are roofed with copper sheeting which with time has turned green, so typical of the Florentine skyline.

Like a cathedral, the end wall is apsed. The decorated walnut doors feature Arabesque and geometric carving and even the dates of the construction, 1874 to 1882, in mosaic are in Arabesque style. The design was in fact, inspired by a Turkish Byzantine church. The vaulted nave, grand columns which have been painted in faux marble and contract the fret work columns which are in brighter colours, the two octagonal turrets, are not quite like the synaogogue we see here in North Amereica. The Moorish affect is dominant.

Inside, the walls and the ceiling are intricately covered with Arabesque motifs and as Silvia suggest, “it is remarkably like the by synaoguge in Toledo Spain.” Once decorated with gold, the glitter has dimmed and only a small section of the original has been salvaged.

From The Women’s Gallery, upstairs, the exquisite lacy effect of wrought iron grating is interspersed with several very large menorahs. ( Since this area was being renovated while I was visiting the public wasn’t permitted so I felt privileged to be able to view the entire interior from this marvellous perch.)

Looking down, the marble floor is commanding with its Star of David in black and yellow marble and looking up are several intricate stained glass windows. Silvia points out a water line on the wall, at least three feet from the floor. This, she explains, is from the horrific floods of 1966. The State gave them money for some of the renovations. I tried to recall if I had ever seen organ pipes so grand in a synagogue and couldn’t really think of one.

These are located in the apse facing the area for the choir. As one could only expect, The Ark, is dominant and elaborate, flanked by black marble columns and again featuring Arabesque design.

Part of the tour includes the Museum which is upstairs, off The Women’s Gallery. About six Americans are part of the group on this very cold autumn morning and after several questions, quietly climb the stairs. The etched glass doors are unlocked and our first viewing is space creatively divided by glass display cabinets. Encased are objects which show the diverse recordings of Jewish Life in Florence. There are ceremonial objects and many photographs. But it’s the ornate coral and silver ferrule and the silver case with a parchment scroll of the Book of Esther, which catch my attention. A silver ‘yad’ is studded with precious stones and heavy embroidery is impressive on the Torah cover. Like the treasures housed in the cases, The Synagogue of Florence is an awesome paragon of beauty and devotion.