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  • Writer's pictureArchie Cornish, PhD

A Brief History of the Great Synagogue in Florence

What is the Great Synagogue?

The Great Synagogue is a colourful 19th-century synagogue that houses a museum of Jewish history.

Great Synagogue

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Great Synagogue History

A Jewish community has existed in Florence since the 12th century. Their first great stride towards security and official acceptance came in 1437, when Cosimo de’ Medici – founder of Florence’s ruling dynasty and patron of its early Renaissance – expressly encouraged Jewish settlement. The community enjoyed good relations with the regime of the man described by Pope Pius II as ‘king in all but name’. But in 1570, pressure from Pope Pius V caused the enclosure of Florence’s Jews within a ghetto. Less harshly regulated than some of its equivalents in contemporary Europe, it was a gated community located north of the Mercato Vecchio – site of today’s Piazza della Repubblica.

The ghetto lasted until the 18th century, but Italy’s Jews only achieved formal emancipation in 1848, with their civil rights guaranteed under the new constitution that resulted from Italian rebellion against Austrian rule. A prominent Jewish Florentine, Cavalier David Levi, wished to commemorate his community’s liberation with a ‘monumental synagogue’, and by 1882 this magnificent house of worship had been built.

Three architects designed the building, including Mariano Falcini, who also oversaw the main hall of the city’s grand Post Office. A similar spirit of confident grandeur pervades the synagogue: its central area is spacious in height and width. Its rich geometric decorations are the work of Giovanni Panti, the forms and colours recalling the North African Arab style known to Europeans as ‘Moorish’. On the other hand, there are also recognisable Christian influences: the sheer walls and foursquare structure recalling early Romanesque churches, and the cross-shaped plan, unusual in a modern synagogue. This stylistic diversity reflects the complex origins of Florence’s Jews. Originating perhaps in self-identifying ‘Italian’ Jews from the Papal States, the community soon expanded with the addition of Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain. As early as 1600, tensions existed between these two groups; Levi’s grand synagogue attempts to synthesise their disparate histories.

Many visitors observe a similarity with the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul, and the experiences of Jewish communities around the Mediterranean region have much in common: the once-flourishing community of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir), for example, moved from the centre of that city to the wealthier suburbs, just as Florence’s Jews moved from the ghetto to leafy Mattonaia.

When Fascist Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, things got worse rather than better for Italy’s Jews, who had already suffered persecution under Mussolini. Nazis invaded Italy and occupied Florence, looting its synagogue. Of 243 Florentine Jews deported to Nazi concentration camps, only 13 returned at the end of the war. Before the Holocaust, Italy’s Jewish community numbered about 60,000; roughly a sixth of them were deported. However, a Jewish community remained in Italy after the war and a healthy number still worship here at Florence’s synagogue. As they left the city, German soldiers tried to blow this building up, laying mines among its foundations. Thankfully for the city of Florence, they were thwarted.

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