When one thinks of historical Italian treasures, renowned places such as Venice’s Grand Canal, St. Mark’s Basilica, Santa Maria del Fiore, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon come to mind. While we were fortunate to see each of these beautiful landmarks with rich and inspiring history, perhaps Italy’s greatest treasure is kept in the small town of Pitigliano. Nestled in the hills of the Tuscany region is a town with quaint charm, beautiful handcrafted goods, and people who are welcoming and excited to share their history- a history that includes a thriving Jewish community that has given Pitigliano the nickname “Little Jerusalem in the Maremma”.
After traveling several miles through the Tuscan countryside, we arrived in Pitigliano. As someone who loves history and architecture, I was in sheer amazement that this town is carved out of volcanic stone. After marveling at Michelangelo’s David in Florence, I was especially impressed that an entire town had been carved into the mountain without the use of modern-day machinery. Upon entering the town of Pitigliano, it is immediately evident that there is pride in the town’s history, especially at Pitigliano’s Museum of Jewish Culture.
Italy is known for having some of the world’s most astounding museums, but the Museum of Jewish Culture allows its visitors to have a first-hand look at the integral role the Jewish community had in the busting town of Pitigliano, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. Jewish residents became carpenters, weavers, shoemakers, tailors, bookbinders, moneylenders, winemakers, and bakers. When Pitigliano came under control of the Medici family in 1608, Jews were no longer permitted to own their own land. In 1622, a ghetto was established in a small area near the town’s synagogue; a section of the ghetto has been excavated and is now part of the Museum of Jewish Culture.
Walking inside the Museum of Jewish Culture takes the visitor on an underground time machine that transports back to the 17th century when the ghetto in Pitigliano was established. Upon walking down the stairs to the excavated area, the visitor can immediately sense what life must have been like in the ghetto. The excavation showcases the ancient furnace where unleavened bread was baked for the community until 1939; the Kosher slaughterhouse, where the shochet (the butcher) prepared the meat for the community; the Kosher wine cellar; and the ritual bath, where rainwater flowed to the bathtub that is still partially visible today.
Standing in the excavated parts of the ghetto left me wondering about the generations of Jewish families who lived in the ghetto. From the first families who were forced into the ghetto in 1622 to the families who were subjected to the anti-Semitic campaign that began in 1936 and resulted in racial laws that were instituted in 1938, each of those families had a story to tell. Inside the walls of the ghetto were stories of celebration and joy but also stories of heartbreak and suffering. Perhaps the spirit of the once thriving Jewish community of Pitigliano lives on in a local delicacy, sfratti. The local legend places sfratti’s roots to the ghetto in 1622 when the local police would force the Jews into the ghetto by using long batons. The long, baton shaped biscuits filled with walnuts, honey, nutmeg, and orange peel are a testament to the Jewish community in Pitigliano, who found a way to take the heartbreak and sorrow of living under racial laws and make something sweet and joyful for their community.
Inside the Museum of Jewish Culture are pictures of life inside the ghetto, which are the true hidden treasures. None of the people in the photos are named, but these pictures have frozen a moment in time, similar to the excavation, that offers people an opportunity to think about the dreams, hopes, and aspirations these people must have had. The four women who were baking unleavened bread never looked at the camera, so, with certainty, they could not have imagined that moment in time would be placed in a museum. However, these women are teaching visitors about a time when life was uncertain, but customs and traditions provided some comfort in troubling times. While individual stories are left untold, the collective story of the Jewish community in Pitigliano lives on through this underground treasure.