I was deeply moved by my visit to Florence. Of course, no one would be surprised by that reaction, but for me it wasn’t a result of the city of Florence itself (in contrast to Venice). Rather, in several of Florence’s buildings, monuments and works of art, I glimpsed at the heights of human physical creativity. On other occasions I’ve been inspired by G-d’s creations, but this time I was inspired by G-d’s creation’s creations. (Visiting with an art historian, Marc Michael Epstein of Vassar College, surely helped!) Pondering their accomplishments, it became clear to me that when a person creates for a purpose beyond themselves, they can even surpass their own limits. They can transcend. My pictures don’t do them justice.
This transcendence is also manifest in Florence’s Jewish community. Their magnificent synagogue soars above the city’s landscape. Viewed from atop Michelangelo Hill, the Duomo stands supreme, but second to it is the ‘New Temple,’ constructed in 1882. Designed in the Moorish style, the synagogue’s intricate design overwhelms the senses, inspiring those in its presence to think beyond themselves and even beyond the physical.
Moorish design was a symbolic and popular motif in late nineteenth century synagogue architecture. It reflected the confidence of Jews during the time of emancipation. The Moorish style was meant to indicate the ancient Middle Eastern origin of Judaism. According to historians, it attempted to place Jews in an independent and prominent position vis-a-vis their Christian neighbours. Of course, for Sephardic Jews, such architecture likely also alluded to their Iberian origins. (Krinsky, Carol H. Synagogues of Europe: Architecture, History, Meaning. New York: Dover Publications, 1996, Page 84).
One of the most remarkable aspects of the synagogue is the fact that it was ever created in the first place. Centuries earlier, in 1571, after requiring all of Tuscany’s Jews to wear an identifying yellow badge, Cosimo I de Medici established a ghetto in Florence. All of Tuscany’s (Italian) Jews were compelled to relocate into it. This cramped ghetto lasted for over three hundred years! Cosimo wanted to curry favour with the Pope and to be declared the ‘Grand Duke of Tuscany.’ He therefore complied with Rome’s degrading Jewish policy. One recent historian, however, has argued that Cosimo created the ghetto to consolidate his rule and to make it easier for him to govern his scattered Jewish residents. In fact, the ghetto actually strengthened Jewish life, bringing isolated Jews together under one communal body. The Medici ghetto is all the more curious in light of the fact that only twenty years later (1591) the Medicis invited Portuguese Sephardic merchants to settle in Tuscany’s seaside Livorno and Pisa. Unlike in Florence, they were not required to wear a badge or to live in a ghetto.
When Tuscany was incorporated into Italy in 1848, the Florentine ghetto was finally abolished, and Jewish emancipation followed in 1861. Whilst unification and the removal of any special ‘Jewish policy’ led to the decline of Jewish Livorno, it also led to the growth of Jewish Florence. Many Livornese Jews moved to Florence, at first the new capital of Italy. This newly invigorated community, with its many members unaccustomed to ghettoised Judaism, was inspired to construct a marvellous synagogue outside of the historic city centre and ghetto. In the ghetto the original Italian Jews had worshipped apart from the less numerous Sephardic Jews. However, in the new synagogue, the community unified and worshipped according to the Western Sephardic tradition which had dominated in Livorno.
Like many communities in Italy, Florence’s Jewish presence is not as strong as it once was. Still, like its building, the Jewish community stands proud, and remains steadfast in its traditions. Personally, I left Florence feeling inspired by their story and by their soaring synagogue.