The Roman Ghetto

The gated enclosure where by papal decree Rome’s Jews lived, worked and died

In the summer of 1870, Rome’s Jewish Ghetto was the oldest and last surviving enclosure for the Jewish people in Europe. Its walls had stood for over 300 years. When the Papal States surrendered to King Victor Emmanuel’s forces during the Capture of Rome in September 1870, following a half-hearted resistance ordered by the pope, the unification of the Italian peninsular was complete. Rome became the capital of the Kingdom of Italy a year later, and Jews, granted full rights, were no longer confined to the Ghetto, though its walls stood for another 18 years until they and the decrepit buildings within them were demolished.

A papal bull issued by Paul IV in 1555 (Cum nimis absurdum) compelled Rome’s Jews, numbering around 2,000 at the time, to live within the set parameters of a walled ghetto close to the Tiber in the rione of Sant’Angelo, an area in which many Jews had settled (as well as in neighbouring Regola and Ripa). It was a poor area, vulnerable to frequent flooding from the river. Its proximity to the Capitoline Hill and the Roman Forum meant it had a rich array of antique buildings many of which were recycled, including the Theatre of Marcellus and the Portico of Octavia, the former converted into an embassy for the Portuguese ambassador, the latter hosting the city’s fish market, La Pescheria.

‘Even if my own father were a heretic’, Pope Paul said, ‘I would gather the wood to burn him’.

Paul IV’s bull contained a slew of discriminatory measures: Jews were forbidden from owning property, were forced to attend Christian sermons on the Sabbath and compelled to wear the sciamanno, yellow badges (men) or yellow kerchiefs (women, the same identifiers as Roman prostitutes) signifying their faith. Certain professions were denied them, including operating as physicians to Christians. The eleventh point of the bull sought to avoid any confusion as to where Rome’s Jews might see themselves within society: it declared that Jews ‘are not to be addressed as superiors [even] by poor Christians’.[1] The gates to the Ghetto was closed at sunset, by which time all its inhabitants were forbidden to be without them. In a final, cruel flourish, the Jewish community were made to pay the cost of the Ghetto’s construction.

Tempio Maggiore di Roma, the Great Synagogue of Rome, completed in 1904, from the Theatre of Marcellus [Image: Wikimedia Commons, Gobbler]

As pope’s go, Paul IV ranks right up there with the most rigid, a Counter-Reformation extremist described as a ‘Renaissance Senator McCarthy’.[2] His decision to enclose the Jewish community into what amounted to an open-air prison is indicative of the spirit of a man who in his earlier guise as Archbishop of Naples had seen in the Spanish Inquisition a model worth emulating in Rome. Paul IV ascended to St. Peter’s throne ten years after the first meeting of the Council of Trent, which initiated the Catholic response to Protestantism’s increasing number of adherents. ‘Even if my own father were a heretic’, Pope Paul said, ‘I would gather the wood to burn him’. Such ostentatious proclamations of his inflexibility were matched by his actions; two further blemishes on his character were his desire to have Michelangelo’s magnificent Last Judgment destroyed (eventually watered down in 1565 to covering the genitalia of those depicted) to introducing a list of banned books to Venice. 

It is easier to understand Paul IV if we consider the decades preceding his pontificate. Alongside the inauguration of the Council of Trent in 1545, by far the most significant event had been the Sack of Rome in 1527 by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Unprecedented in its cruelty, it shook the Italian peninsula and the papacy. The pope at the time, Clement VII, reneged on an alliance with Charles and established one with Charles’ enemy, Francis I of France. Francis was captured during his army’s defeat at the Battle of Pavia in February 1525, but Charles was unable to pay the 34,000 troops that had won the battle for him, and whom forced their commanders to march on Rome.

The army was comprised of 14,000 Landsknechte, a mercenary force of predominately German Lutherans, alongside some 6,000 Spanish troops and additional Italian soldiers. These unruly forces descended on Rome’s walls exhausted by their journey and eager to make sure the trip had been worthwhile. On the morning of 6 July 1527 the assault began. At first the papal troops were successful in denying the invaders the opportunity to climb the Aurelian walls. But when a thick mist from the Tiber gave cover to the enemy, the defenders were reduced to lobbing stones and shouting obscenities; ladders assembled from vines allowed the attackers to climb the walls and push the papal troops back. Panic set in, and the pope along with a lucky few fled from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo.

The attack was ferocious, described as ‘the sixteenth century’s 9/11’ in its psychological impact.[3] Slaughter, rape and desecration ensued; the inhabitants of orphanages and hospitals were wiped out. The destruction of the city was all the worse because it was protracted, and the culprits seemed to revel in the sadism and barbarity they dished out:

Men were tortured to reveal the hiding-places of their possessions or to pay ransoms for the sparing of their lives, one merchant being tied to a tree and having a fingernail wrenched out each day because he could not pay the money demanded [4]

This sacking of the city also stood out for the Catholic Church being a direct target of the horror. Previous attacks on Rome, by Attila and Genseric, had, despite their savagery, fell short of violence upon religious institutions. The Landsknechte however, swelled with a desire for plunder and an indomitable religious conviction, gleefully headed for the churches, with those inside slain and the contents chucked out onto the streets. The relic of the head of St John ‘was kicked about the streets as a football’.[5] It was the perceived corruption of the Church that appears to have led the Landsknechte to delight in their infliction of torment:

The Cardinal of Como reported that the soldiers killed monks and priests on the altars of churches and took prisoner or raped many young nuns. One priest was killed because he refused to administer the sacraments to a mule that the Landsknechte had dressed in clerical vestments. The 80-year-old cardinal of Gaeta and Ponzetto, who could hardly walk, was forced to parade around the city in in a Landsknechte cap and uniform.[6]

Such was the historical context of Paul IV’s formative years, then known Gian Petro Carafa of the Theatine Order. (the Theatines’ house in Rome was plundered during the sack, forcing them to relocate to Venice). A quarter of a century later at Paul IV’s accession, and despite Rome’s recovery, this event had not been forgotten. On top of this memory, the ongoing threat posed by the teachings of Martin Luther, whom the church had excommunicated in the Edict of Worms only six years before the sack, did not encourage moderate tendencies within the Church. It may well be the case that Paul IV would have been as adamantine and inflexible even if the Church not suffered humiliation and defeat at the hands of Charles V a generation earlier. But it is unwise not to see the Sack of Rome as an influence on the Church’s rigidity in its treatment of minorities and the erection of the Ghetto walls (indeed Europe’s first ghetto for the Jews in Venice had been established during a period of existential threat to the Venetian Republic).[7]  

The Portico of Octavia. The original structure was built in late-first century BC by Augustus; it was twice rebuilt following destruction. Sant’Angelo in Pescheria, a church, was built in its ruins in the eighth century, from which the rione gets its name.

In addition to his anti-Semitic policies, Paul IV’s reign is characterised by an attempt to curb the excesses of the Church whilst also imposing an unbending authoritarianism. He was somewhat successful in curbing papal corruption, but also, regrettably, in implementing censorship and austerity, burning books ‘by the thousands’.[8] The harsh measures imposed by Paul IV upon the carnival-loving people of Rome drew their enmity. He was not yet dead when the inhabitants of the city began rioting. His statue, recently erected on the Capitoline, was decapitated, dragged through the streets and dumped in the Tiber, a yellow cap having previously been placed on the statue’s head. He had reigned for a little over four years.  

His legacy would last much longer. Paul IV’s successors Pius IV and Pius V (for an insight into the latter’s character, see Scipione Pulzone’s portrait of 1578) did not reverse his decision to confine Jews in the Papal States and Rome. In 1569, Pius V issued a bull expelling Jews from all of the Pope’s territories aside from Rome and Ancona, where another Jewish ghetto had been constructed. The Renaissance spirit of humanism, openness, and the eager exploration of ancient texts to comprise a new body of knowledge fell into decline. Rome, ‘seen from afar by those who envisaged Italy with chastened eyes, became a place to shun, not a storehouse of cultural riches’.[9] The assembly of the gated and guarded Ghetto walls during this time is a bitter reflection of this cultural and spiritual myopia.   

Life in Rome’s Ghetto was as hard as could be expected. Poverty was widespread and the area was overcrowded, causing illness to spread easily in the unsanitary conditions. For the privilege of living there, Jews were forced to petition every year to remain in the city. As elsewhere in Rome, there was no fresh water supply in the Ghetto. In the 1570s, following the reconstruction of Acqua Vergine, fountains were constructed across Rome by Giacomo Della Porta, including at Piazza Del Popolo, Piazza Navona and in front of the Pantheon. One site earmarked for a fountain was Piazza Giudea, in the heart of the Ghetto, by a city committee. However one committee member responsible, Muzio Mattei, a nobleman, had other plans: the fountain intended for the Ghetto was instead installed outside his family residence nearby. When Paul IV had ordered the Ghetto’s construction, it was to the Mattei family that he had granted one of the keys to it gates.         

The defeat of the Papal States with the capture of Rome by the Kingdom of Italy put the pope in his own self-imposed, more lavishly decorated, walled enclosure at the Apostolic Palace whilst the Savoy swept into a city they had already proclaimed the capital of their new kingdom before it was in their possession. Yet the closure of the Ghetto was only a temporary respite for Rome’s Jews, who in the twentieth century were, like Jews across Europe, subject to privations and indignities by a more determined, messianic enemy. On September 26, 1943 Rome’s Gestapo chief Colonel Kappler ordered Roman Jews to hand over 200 kilos of gold with the warning that 50 family heads would be deported if they failed to do so. The gold was delivered, but less than a month later, on 16 October 1943, German police surrounded the Ghetto and began rounding up Jews. Some 1,800 were arrested and deported. Others were protected by Catholic institutions or by ordinary Romans. Of the 12,000 Jews living in Rome in 1943, more than 10,000 survived.[10]

The Ghetto is gone, but the Jewish presence in the area lives on, including Kosher restaurants and a Jewish school. The permanent presence of police officers on Via Del Portico d’Ottavia attests that the anti-Semitism that saw the Ghetto’s walls constructed is not dead but dormant. However, on the same street, an elegant rebuttal to their earlier persecution is to be found: the Tempio Maggiore, Rome’s main synagogue, an imposing, handsome structure – and the only square-domed building in the city – was built in 1904. It is a proud monument to the perseverance to Roman Jews.


[1] Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, Pope Paul IV “Cum Nimis Absurdum”:  

[2] Kneale 2017: 217

[3] Kneale 2017: 197

[4] Hibbert 1985: 158

[5] Hibbert 1985: 158

[6] Kneale 2017: 201

[7] See The Secrets of Italy by Corrado Augias, chapter 11, ‘The Invention of the Ghetto’.

[8] Gilmour 2011: 91

[9] Aston 1996: 18

[10] United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘Rome’:


Aston, M (ed). 1996. The Renaissance Complete. London.

Augias, C. 2014. (trans. Price, L. A.) The Secrets of Italy: People, Places & Hidden Histories. New York.

Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, Pope Paul IV “Cum Nimis Absurdum”: – accessed April 2019

Gilmour, D. 2011. The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, Its Regions and Their Peoples. London.

Hibbert, C. 1985. Rome: The Biography of a City. London.

Kneale, M. 2017. Rome: A History in Seven Sackings from the Gauls to the Nazis. London.  

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ‘Rome’: – accessed April 2019

Jake Plenderleith

Writer and editor, passionate about Rome.

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