Monday, March 9, 2009

Italy: Vercelli Synagogue History, Architecture & Restoration

Italy: Vercelli Synagogue History, Architecture & Restoration
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) On her Blog Jewish-Heritage-Travel Ruth Ellen Gruber points to a recent article in Italian about the restoration of the massive 19th century synagogue in Vercelli (Piedmont), Italy. Ruth adds some of her own photos of other synagogues in Europe also influenced by the Tempelgasse Synagogue in Vienna, one of the sources for Vercelli.

Vercelli -- Synagogue under Restoration

An article (in Italian) on the web site of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities describes the process of restoration that is current under way for the synagogue in Vercelli, between Milan and Turin in northern Italy. The synagogue stood almost abandoned and in very dilapidated condition for years. But some restoration work was carried out in 2003 and 2004, and a €700,000 project was begun in 2007. A very small Jewish community lives in Vercelli; community president Rossella Bottini Treves says that once restored, the synagogue will serve as a cultural space for the city. Read full article (in Italian).

In an essay about the synagogues in Piedmont which I wrote some time ago, but which was only recently published in catalogue Ebrei Piemontese: The Jews of Piedmont (New York: Yeshiva University Museum, 2008) (with beautiful photos by Alberto Falco), I wrote this about the Vercelli synagogue:

Discussion leading to the erection of the great Tempio of Vercelli began as early as 1864 in the paper L'educatore israelita, when members of the community broached the subject of building a synagogue better adapted to the growing community (then about 600), and for the prestige of the city. 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.

A prayer room had existed in the ghetto of Vercelli from at least 1601, when Pope Clement VIII prohibited construction of a new synagogue.
In 1630 a property belonging to the monks of Sant'Agata was outfitted as a synagogue. In the 18th century the synagogue was located in a house belonging to the friars of San Francesco.[i] It was this synagogue that was replaced following a decision to build in 1863. The synagogue is designed in the Moorish style and occupies the location of the previous oratory. Because of the size and cost of the project, work went slowly. Demolition of the earlier building and new construction did not begin until 1874, and the building was completed in 1878. To celebrate the occasion, the Jewish community struck a bronze commemorative medal in the tradition of Italy's Renaissance princes and popes.

The tri-partite facade is influenced by synagogues erected in Central Europe in the mid-19th century such as the Templegasse Synagogue in Vienna (1853-58)[ii]Choral Temple in Bucharest (1864-66[iii]), which had a similar arrangement of a higher central bay, and four small turrets.
and the The Vercelli facade is only slightly less ornate than Vienna, employing a pattern of white and gray horizontal stripping. This recalls stripping on the Rumbach Street Synagogue in Budapest designed by Otto Wagner (1869-72)[iv] and many other synagogues, but also calls to mind many famous Italian cathedrals such as Orvieto and Siena, as well as scores of other churches built from the Middle Ages to modern times.

Inside, however, the style is more traditionally classical in the Italian manner, consisting of a
long central nave flanked by aisles separated by arcades carried on columns. These aisles in turn support galleries vaulted by three high barrel vaults set perpendicular to the main nave, recalling the immense arches of the Basilica of Maxentius in the Roman Forum in Rome. The barrel vaults of the central bay help support and buttress a dome that rises on pendentives from the middle of the synagogue nave. The gallery walls are pierced with tall round-headed windows in the end bays, and by large round windows in the central bay under the dome. The facade also has a large round window prominently placed in its center. The nave terminates in a massive apse -- open the full height of the building. Ark and bimah are combined within the apse and raised several steps above the floor level of the rest of the synagogue, reminiscent of the altar arrangement in Roman Catholic churches. Halfway along the nave a large wooden pulpit is wrapped around a supporting pier -- similar to what is found in typical preaching churches throughout Italy. Only the decoration sets the building apart from contemporary Christian structures. It is an odd mix of Classical and Moorish elements, and includes Hebrew inscriptions the length of the nave arcade.

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.

[i] On Vercelli see T. Sarasso, Storia degli ebrei a Vercelli (Vercelli.; 1974); D. Colombo, D., "Alcuni appunti sul ghetto di Vercelli," Rassegna mensile di Israel, 42:7-8 (1976), 374-77; R. Bottini Treves, R., Storia del ghetto di Vercelli, Societa storica vercellese, (Vercelli, 1993)and Sacredoti and Tedeschi Falco, op cit., 155-167. On the synagogue see C. Caselli, “Il tempio israelitico di Vercelli dell Comm. G. Locarni,” L’ingegneria civile e le arti industirali XIV (1889), 8-15.
On Vienna’s Tempelgasse synagogue see Krinsky, Synagogues of Europe (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 191-194.
Krinsky, op. cit., 153-154.
Krinsky, op. cit., 159-162.

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