The first documents indicating a Jewish presence in Mantua, Italy, date from 1145. The Jewish community grew substantially during the 1400s, when Roman and German Jews migrated to northern Italy to pursue economic opportunities. In 1500, the Jewish community surpassed 2,000 members, approximately seven percent of the city’s total population. Around this time, Jews voluntarily created their own quarter in the San Pietro area of Mantua. This district is bounded by Via Calvi and Via Bertani, two nearly parallel streets that lead into the historic center of the city. The Jewish quarter obtained a papal dispensation to officially open the first synagogue of Mantua in 1513, which is today known as the Norsa Synagogue. In 1751, the Norsa family transformed the synagogue into a baroque structure, giving the synagogue its contemporary name and style. The city erected walls and gates around the Jewish quarter in 1612 in order to create the Jewish ghetto, which was the second largest in northern Italy after Venice. The ghetto was reduced in size over time, forcing the Jewish community to build higher and shrink their inner courtyards. Buildings went as high as four stories, which was very rare in other quarters of the city. The area of the former ghetto continued to be lived in mainly by Jews after they were emancipated by the French in 1798. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the city destroyed the former ghetto area citing health concerns. Only three of the seventeenth-century buildings survived. All of the synagogues were demolished; however the Norsa Synagogue was reconstructed using its original wooden furnishings soon after this urban renewal campaign.
How We Helped
Through WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program conservation work began on Norsa Synagogue in 2002. Conservators noted a thick layer of black particulate matter on the Torah ark, absorbed by the protective varnish on its surface and deposited in cracks and fissures that had developed over the years. Some wooden elements were broken and others were missing. In many cases, the gilt layers and their preparatory support were flaking, and the wooden structure was severely worm-eaten. WMF carefully cleaned the surfaces of the Torah ark and removed the protective varnish. The gilt surfaces were consolidated and anti-woodworm treatment was used within the existing holes and along the cracks. In addition to WMF’s work on the Torah ark, conservation of the synagogue’s shutters and lead-glass windows, its central pendent chandelier, and its internal walls was also completed.
Why It Matters
At least six synagogues were established in Mantua between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, reflecting the diversity of Italian and German traditions at the time. Many Mantuan Jews left for Milan at the beginning of the twentieth century, leaving about 500 in Mantua in 1931. Many of the remaining community members were deported to Nazi extermination camps during World War II. Today, the Jewish community has approximately 100 members. As the only functioning synagogue in the area, Norsa Synagogue serves as the central religious space for the local Jewish community and as an important reminder of the significant history of the Jewish community in Mantua.