Now that Passover has started, thoughts turn to Jewish sites in Italy. One of the most historic is the Jewish Museum and Synagogue in Ferrara. Since 1485, the Synagogue has been the focus of Jewish life in this gracious Renaissance city, halfway between Florence and Venice. A rich financier from Rome who was employed at the Estensi court purchased it and left it in his will ‘forever for the common use of the Jews.’
You’ll find it in the old Ghetto area, an interesting place to wander in the maze of narrow streets behind the Duomo and the Castello. A plaque on the wall of the Synagogue lists those Jews who were taken away during World War II and never returned, including two members of the Finzi-Contini family. They are the subject of the semi-autobiographical novel, ‘The Garden of the Finzi-Continis’ by Giorgio Bassani, which was made into a brilliant film by Vittorio de Sica in 1971. Said to be his greatest achievement, the movie is set in the years 1938 to 1943 and it has been described as ‘the last golden flash of freedom before one of history’s major tragedies’.
The book’s title refers to the vast walled garden beside the magnificent mansion of the Finzi-Continis, a wealthy Jewish family in Ferrara, who were transported to the Nazi death camps along with hundreds more of the city’s Jews who lived a much less luxurious lifestyle. The garden still exists as the Parco Masseri in Corso Porta Mare and it is a lovely place to spend a few hours on a hot day. If you walk down to the end of Corso Mare, along the city walls, you’ll come to the 17th-century Jewish Cemetery, one of the prettiest spots in Ferrara. Giorgio Bassani (he died in 2000) is buried here in a tomb designed by the famous modern sculptor, Arnaldo Pomodoro.