14 March 2009

Italy: Vercelli synagogue restoration project

The Union of Italian Jewish Communities website recently featured an extensive article in Italian on the restoration of the 19th-century synagogue in Vercelli (Piedmont), Italy. The two photos in this posting are from the community website.

Ruth Ellen Gruber's blog - Jewish Heritage Travel - pointed to the article and translated it. She also includes some of her own photos of other European synagogues that were influenced by Vienna's Tempelgasse Synagogue, a source for Vercelli.

The article (read it in Italian, if that's one of your languages) describes the process of restoration for the northern Italian synagogue in Vercelli, located between Milan and Turin. Although nearly abandoned and in very bad condition for years, some work was carried out in 2003 and 2004 and, in 2007, a €700,000 project was begun.

Today, there's a very small Jewish community. Once restored, says president Rossella Bottini Treves says, the building will serve as a city cultural space.

Native-born architect Marco Treves designed the synagogue which was dedicated in 1878. He also designed the Florence synagogue.

With its Moorish-style striping and flat, tripartite facade with a raised central portion, it resembles several important synagogues in Central Europe whose design was inspired by the Tempelgasse synagogue in Vienna, designed by Ludwig von Foerster and built in the 1850s, which was destroyed on Kristallnacht - these include the destroyed synagogue in Zagreb and the Choral Synagogue in Bucharest, among others.
Architectural historian and preservationist Dr. Samuel D. Gruber (Ruth's brother) (president of the International Survey of Jewish Monuments and writes the Jewish Art Monuments blog), wrote about the Piedmont synagogues. The essay was recently published in Ebrei Piemontese: The Jews of Piedmont with photos by Alberto Falco (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 2008).

Vercelli began planning the synagogue as early as 1864 as the growing community then numbered about 600 (down to about 275 in 1931). The Vercelli ghetto had a prayer room from at least 1601. In 1630, a building belonging to the monks of Sant'Agata was made into a synagogue and, in 1830, it was located in a building of the friars of San Francesco.

The architect Marco Treves (1814-98) was invited to study the project. He was a prestigious architect, and a native of Vercelli, and had designed the classical style synagogue in Pisa (opened 1863). He was subsequently active in Florence, where he had participated in the construction of the great Tempio (1874-82) and he also served as superintendent of the Louvre in Paris. Treves's project was grandiose, but the Community decided to expend even more than he projected. Ten years later, in 1874, the community invited engineer Giuseppe Locarni to carry out an expanded project.

Construction began in 1874, and was completed four years later. To mark its completion, the Jewish community minted a bronze commemorative medal, following the tradition of Italy's Renaissance princes and popes.

Dr. Gruber's article is very detailed and discusses its tri-partite facade, with white-and-gray horizontal striping. Inside, there is a long central nave, with aisles separated by arcades on columns, and the aisles support vaulted galleries which support a dome. Walls feature tall top-rounded windows at the ends and large round windows in the central bay.

The raised ark and bimah (seen in the photo above) are reminiscent of Roman Catholic church altars, the decor is Classical and Moorish, with Hebrew inscriptions the length of the arcade.

According to Gruber:

As much as the Mole Antonelliana in Turin, the Vercelli synagogue speaks to the (perhaps overblown) aspirations of the emancipated Italian Jewish community. The fact that the synagogue stands silent today, in desperate need of repair, is moving testimony to just how misguided those aspirations were.

The Piedmontese Jewish communities had always been small, and with Emancipation came migration and assimilation, reducing them even more.

Even without the effect of the Holocaust, it is unlikely that a city like Vercelli (which had a Jewish population of only 275 in 1931) could have maintained a Jewish community large enough to need and strong enough to support a building this size.
Thank you to Samuel Gruber for providing this information. See Ruth's site for photographs.

The community website offers more articles (in Italian), and includes information on restoration projects in Bologna, Pisa and Biella.

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