The Jewish community in Florence is one of the oldest continuous congregations in Europe, with origins dating to the early fourteenth century. Protected by close ties to the Medici family, Florentine Jews were spared from repeated threats of expulsion that began in the fifteenth century. Growing numbers of Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal, as well as the arrival of Jews from the Papal States, created a significant Jewish population in Florence by the middle of the sixteenth century. Segregated in a Jewish ghetto from 1571 until 1799, when Napoleonic forces occupied the city, the local community was given full civil rights in 1848 under a new constitution, and the ghetto was razed. The Great Synagogue of Florence was built in the wake of emancipation in the nineteenth century. Unique in a city of remarkable buildings, the Great Synagogue was built between 1874 and 1882. Its enormous copper dome, elaborate marble façade, and intricate interior decoration were influenced by a range of architectural traditions, including from Moorish and Byzantine motifs. The building attracts over 50,000 tourists a year and houses a museum and cultural center. Badly damaged during World War II, the synagogue suffered further in the floods that inundated Florence in 1966.
How We Helped
In 2003, WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program supported the restoration of the synagogue’s cupola, which was part of a larger conservation program already underway and partially supported by the Italian government. Unforeseen conservation problems with the apse delayed working on the cupola, but by 2005 restoration efforts resumed and were completed.
An assessment carried out in the fall of 2017 revealed that a number of the wooden pieces that decorate the inner cupola were in danger of detaching. The Opera del Tempio di Firenze, stewards of the Synagogue, are raising funds to carry out emergency repair works on the cupola to secure the integrity of the lavish ornamentation.
Why It Matters
The Great Synagogue of Florence is testament to a long history of Jews living in Italy, particularly in Florence. It is of significant architectural value, and considered by many architectural historians to be a masterpiece. Influenced by the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the synagogue is cruciform in style, with horseshoe arches flanking its façades and towers. The synagogue continues to be a center for worship, and as such functions as a living memorial to Jewish cultural heritage in the region.