The leaning tower of Pisa (Photo: Envato)
Pisa is one of the most popular cities in Italy, mainly because of its famous monument, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Piazza dei Miracoli and the other beautiful monuments surrounding it, are definitely must-see attractions.
Pisa provided a haven for the Jews
Pisa’s rich history depended mostly on its seafaring activities. In fact, as strange as it may seem nowadays, until few centuries ago Pisa was right by the shores of the Mediterranean Sea (by the late Middle Ages its decline started when the coastline receded by about 10 kms due to the continous debris carried and deposited by the 2 rivers flowing in the area). During the Roman period, it was a major port and around the year 1000 C.E. it became one of the 4 Italian Sea Republics, together with Genoa, Venice and Amalfi, that controlled the commercial activities in the Mediterranean Sea. Its navy was instrumental in defeating the Saracens, thus beginning Pisa's rise as a sea power. This is one of the reasons that brought Jews to settle here already from 850 CE.
In the 13th century the famous Spanish Jewish explorer and geographer Beniamino de Tudela described its local Jewish population as engaged in activities related to the port and numbering at about 80 individuals. Throughout the centuries, Pisa increased its Jewish population as it proved to be a safe haven for many Jews expelled from other areas of Italy and Europe. In fact, whereas in cities like Florence and Siena, both under the Medici’s rule, Jews had been closed in ghettos, Pisa and Leghorn never had a ghetto. Actually, they encouraged Jews expelled from other areas, such as those expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, to settle in their territories.
Interior of the synagogue in Pisa (Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
Visiting the Jewish areas of Pisa
I visited Pisa many times, but this time I wanted to enjoy it from a different angle and discover its Jewish footprint. I started my tour from the main attraction in Pisa, Piazza dei Miracoli, where, amongst other beautiful monuments, stands the iconic leaning tower. Interestingly enough, the Jewish cemetery is located just outside the walls surrounding Piazza dei Miracoli.
From here, I proceeded to downtown Pisa, which the area where the Jewish population used to live. I visited the synagogue which is still standing in the same place where the very first synagogue was built around the year 850 AD. The present day lay out, decor and embellishments are from 1860-1865, when the synagogue was renovated following the Reunification of Italy with the consequent emancipation of the Jewish population and the desire for styles that this brought along. Interesting to note that, like in many other synagogues redone throughout Italy in this period, the layout of the space and the arrangement of the furniture followed those of the churches.
I then passed by the building that used to host another synagogue established here in the XV century and proceed to Casa Pardo Roquez, named after Abramo Giuseppe Pardo Roquez, president of the local Jewish community in the early years of the XX century and known for his philanthropic activities in favour of all of Pisa’s population. As a plaque on the wall of the house indicates, here in 1944 German soldiers slaughtered him, his whole family and several neighbours.
Houses in Pisa along the Arno River (Photo: Envato)
Houses in Pisa along the Arno River (Photo: Envato)
Exploring the Borgo Stretto District
After walking around the streets of the downtown area, I strolled through Borgo Stretto. It is the most important shopping street in all of Pisa. However, it’s not just for shopping; it’s the perfect place to admire the beautiful Italian townhouses painted in terracottas and pinks with their wooden shutters and hanging washing. The ancient street passes adjacent to the river Arno and has many narrow lanes shooting off into cute squares. Walking Borgo Stretto, I admired the stone archways with columns under which are cute boutiques, cafes and restaurants.
After walking so much, I stopped at one of the cafes in Borgo Stretto for a coffee and to recharge. Now, I was ready to resume my walk of the narrow streets to discover more of the city, like the “Tuttomondo” mural by the artist Keith Haring that brought new life to this old wall of the Sant'Antonio Abate Church. This explosion of bright colors results in the largest mural in Europe. You can also enjoy this city by bike. Rent a bike and discover its main spots: Palazzo Blu, Piazza Cavalieri, Don Bosco Park and the City Wall.
Not just the Leaning Tower, Pisa is a legacy of centuries of story and art with an endless number of must-see attractions. Discover the Jewish history and its community in this beautiful city.
Andrea Alcalay from La Tour I-Talya. LaTour I-Talya is a project established and managed by a team of Italian Jews working together with one of the largest and most prestigious Italian Tour Operators. LaTour I-Talya is specialized in tour packages which focus on the amazingly rich Jewish historical and cultural heritage found throughout Italy.
Read more articles from our Hidden Gems of Italy series:
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The Jewish beauty of Florence
Mantua: First stop in the Renaissance cities of Northern Italy
Pitigliano: "Little Jerusalem" in the Tuscan Maremma Region
Cividale del Friuli: Jewish Tours of Italy off the Beaten Path
The Charming Padova (Padua)
The Marche Region: Undiscovered area of Central Italy