The Virtual Jewish History Tour
By Rebecca Weiner
Pisa may be the first city in the Tuscan region in which the Jews settled. A contract was given in 850 that registered a Jewish home-owner. By 1165, Benjamin of Tudela, on his trip from Spain to Jerusalem, discovered a Jewish community of 20 families living in Pisa.
In the 13th century, the "Alley of the Jews" (Chiasso di Giude), was recorded; there may have been a synagogue located on that street. Evidence reveals Jewish tombstones embedded in the town wall, dating back to the mid-1200's.
In 1322, regulations were imposed requiring Jews to wear distinguishing badges, however, the rules were rarely enforced. Spanish and Provencal Jews settled in Pisa, fleeing repercussions of their alleged involvement in spreading the plague of 1348. Toward the end of the 14th century, Pisa declined politically and economically and fell under the rule of Florence in 1406.
In the 15th century, numerous Jewish families came to Pisa to start banking enterprises. Vitale (Jehiel) b. Matassisa opened a bank in Pisa; he was a member of the Da Pisa family, a famous banking family, who were also cultural patrons. They had a whole network of banks throughout Tuscany, kept close ties with the Medici family, and were at the forefront of Jewish moneylending in Italy for the next 150 years. Thanks to their help, exiles from Spain arrived to Pisa in 1492.
When a Christian loan bank (Monte di Pieta) opened in Pisa in 1496, Jehiel provided more than half of the founding capital, which helped the Jews continue to work as moneylenders.
Struggles between the Medici family, which looked favorably upon the Jews, and the Florentine Republic, which did not, in addition to the war of 1494-1509, led to a negative atmosphere for the Jews. The community decreased in size and Jewish bankers were threatened with expulsion.
The situation improved in 1547 when Cosimo I. de Medici came to power. He invited Sephardic and Marano Jews to settle in Pisa and Leghorn, which, unlike Florence and Siena did not have ghettos. Another proclamation inviting Sephardic Jews to Pisa was made by the grand duke Ferdinand I deMedici, in June 1593. A second proclamation, in October 1595, allowed German and Italian Jews to settle in Pisa. The Medici family hoped to build up Pisa as a market capital of Tuscany, however, this did not materialize.
At the beginning of the 17th century, 600 Jews lived in Pisa, however, this number decreased by half in the 18th century. Jews did not gain any more political rights following Napoleons rule or the unification of Italy, since Pisan Jews had already enjoyed citizenship.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews lived in relative tranquility and were involved in developing Pisas industries, especially the cotton industry. By 1881, the Jewish population had increased and numbered 700.
Holocaust and Modern Period
The Jewish community numbered 535, in 1931. During the Holocaust, 12 Jews were sent to extermination camps. Another eight Jews were deported from Pisa. On August 1, 1944, the Nazis murdered Giuseppe Pardo Roques, who was a deputy major of Pisa, a prestigious Jewish philanthropist and president of the community. Eleven others seeking haven in Roques house were murdered, as well as, including six Jews.
Today Pisas Jewish population numbers only 100-200.
Pisas current synagogue can be found on Via Palestro 24 and is on the second floor of the building. Built in 1595 and remodeled in 1785 and 1863, the synagogue also contains a mikvah, matzah oven and archives dating back to 1660. The building belonged to the Serravallino family and was bought by the Jewish community in 1647.
Mansion of Giuseppe Pardo Roques.
Found on Via SantAndrea, the mansion today is a private residence, but its interior remains very much the same as during the 1940's. There are two commemorative plaques, one remembering Pisan Jews who died in World War I and another remembering Rabbi Augusto Hasda and his wife Bettina Segre, both of whom died in concentration camps.
Vitale Da Pisa Mansion
Located on Via Domenico Calvaca 36, this house once served as home and bank of the Da Pisa family; there was also a synagogue located on the second floor of their house.
Inscriptions on the gateway
There are inscriptions in Hebrew on the stone walls on the gateway near Porta Nuova. The oldest inscription dates to 1274, suggesting that there may have been a Jewish cemetery here.
There is documentary evidence revealing that there were at least three Jewish cemeteries, predating the current one. Gravestones dating to the 15-16th century from one of these cemeteries can be found at the Museo dellOpera. Todays Jewish cemetery of Pisa has the Lions of Judah perched on top of the interior gate.
Jewish themes in artwork
Many sites in Pisa contain artwork with Jewish/Old Testament themes, including Pisas cathedral and two murals found at Pisas train station. The murals were created by a Jew named Daniel Schinasi. One of the murals, the Battle of Mallorca, contains a figure, Schinasi, with a talit over his head.
Photo credits: Leaning Tower Copyright © Mitchell Bard, synagogue interior Copyright © Gabriel Cwilich