The Roman (Jewish) Ghetto (Italian: Ghetto di Roma) was a ghetto located in the rione Sant’Angelo, in Rome, Italy, in the area surrounded by today’s Via del Portico d’Ottavia, Lungotevere dei Cenci, Via del Progresso and Via di Santa Maria del Pianto close to the Tiber and the Theater of Marcellus. In Italian, the ghetto was called “Serraglio delli Ebrei” (“Enclosure of the Jews”).
The Roman Ghetto was established as a result of Papal bull Cum nimis absurdum, promulgated by Pope Paul IV on 14 July 1555. The bull also required the Jews of Rome, which had existed as a community since before Christian times and which numbered about 2,000 at the time, to live in the ghetto. The ghetto was a walled quarter with three gates that were locked at night. The wall was built under the direction of the architect Giovanni Sallustio Peruzzi. The money for its construction – 300 scudi – had to be paid by the Jewish community. The area of Rome chosen for the ghetto was the most undesirable quarter of the city, subject to constant flooding by the Tiber River. At the time of its founding, the four-block area was expected to contain roughly 1,000 inhabitants.
The bull also revoked all the rights of the Jewish community and imposed on Jews a variety of new restrictions such as prohibition on property ownership and practising medicine on Christians and compulsory Catholic sermons on the Jewish shabbat.
However, the ghetto was welcomed by some Jews who thought that its walls would protect the small Jewish community from possible attacks by Christian mobs and from the drain which must follow from assimilation, at the same time enabling Jewish religious customs to be observed without interference.
Jews were not allowed to own any property, even in the ghetto. Christian owners of houses in the ghetto could keep their property but, because of the “jus gazzagà” (right of possession) they could neither evict the Jews nor raise rents.
Initially, there were two gates in the wall, but the number increased to three in the 16th century, and under Sixtus V to five, and finally, during the 19th century to eight. The additional gates came about as the ghetto was successively enlarged. The gates were opened at dawn and closed every night, one hour after sunset between November and Easter, and two hours at other times. The area had a trapezoidal shape, and contained hardly any noteworthy buildings. The only important square – Piazza Giudea – was divided in two parts by the wall. All the churches which stood in the ghetto were deconsecrated and demolished soon after its construction.
Life in the ghetto
Life in the Roman Ghetto was one of crushing poverty, due to the severe restrictions placed upon the occupations that Jews were allowed to perform. Roman Jews were allowed to work only at unskilled jobs, such as ragmen, secondhand dealers or fish mongers. They were permitted to be pawnbrokers (which had been prohibited to Christians); and this activity excited the hatred of many Christians against them.
In the lottery game, they were allowed to bet only on low numbers (from 1 through 30), and all belonging to the same group of 10. In case of a draw of five numbers of that kind, the Romans said that on that day in the ghetto there was taking place a great feast.
When Jews went outside the ghetto, the men had to wear a yellow cloth (the “sciamanno”), and the women a yellow veil (the same color worn by prostitutes). During the feasts they had to amuse the Christians, competing in humiliating games. They had to run naked, with a rope around the neck, or with their legs closed into sacks. Sometimes they were also ridden by soldiers.
Jews had to petition annually for permission to live there. They paid a yearly tax for the privilege. Jews of Rome were required to swear yearly loyalty to the Pope at the Arch of Titus, which celebrates the Roman sack of Jerusalem of 70 CE. Each year, on the Campidoglio, the Rabbi had to pay homage to the chief of the city counsellors (“Caporione”), receiving by him in exchange for it a kick to his bottom. This “ceremony” meant that the Jewish community had been allowed to stay one more year in Rome.
Every Saturday, the Jewish community was forced to hear compulsory sermons [in front of the small church of San Gregorio a Ponte Quattro Capi, just outside the wall.
At the time of its construction, in the ghetto – as almost everywhere in Rome – there was no fresh water. However, some years later the Popes built several fountains in the rione. One fountain, designed by Giacomo della Porta, was to be placed in the Piazza Giudea, the site of a market, inside the ghetto, but Muzio Mattei used his influence to have the fountain, called Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) located in the Piazza Mattei, in front of his residence.
As the Jewish community inside the ghetto grew, there was severe overcrowding. Since the area could not expand horizontally, the Jews built vertical additions to their houses, which blocked the sun from reaching the already dank and narrow streets.
Of course, the great number of people living in such a small area, together with the poverty of the population, caused terrible hygienic conditions. The district, lying very low and near the Tiber, was often flooded. During the plague of 1656, 800 of 4,000 inhabitants died because of the epidemic. Sant’Angelo, which was the rione with the smallest area, was also, because of the presence of the Ghetto, the one having the largest population density.
When the Roman Republic was formed in 1798 and took over the Papal States, it annulled the requirement for Jews to live only in the ghetto; and a Tree of Liberty was planted in Piazza delle Cinque Scole. However, when the Papal States were restored in 1799, the ghetto was reestablished and Jews who had left were compelled to return to the ghetto.
In 1848, at the beginning of his pontificate, Pius IX permitted Jews to live outside the ghetto. However, after returning from exile in 1850, following the crushing of the Roman Republic, which made strong anti-Church measures, the Pope issued a series of anti-liberal measures, including re-instituting the ghetto. The Jewish head tax was abolished in 1850.
The Papal States ceased to exist on 20 September 1870 when they were incorporated in the Kingdom of Italy, but the requirement that Jews live in the ghetto was only formally abolished in 1882. The ghetto walls were torn down in 1888 and the ghetto was almost completely demolished, and the area around the new Synagogue of Rome was reconstructed.
The Roman Ghetto was the last remaining ghetto in Western Europe until they were reintroduced by Nazi Germany in the 1930s.