Whose Streets?

Ghetto Streets

This is the seventh article in the ‘Whose Streets?’ feature. Articles in this series focus on different street localities and are accompanied by a StoryMap (a free tool developed by Northwestern University Knight Lab). Each StoryMap appears after the article and pioneers an experimental form of spatial history-telling, taking you onto the city streets of the past.

Historical maps capture a snapshot of a faded world. Each street represents the joys, losses, and hopes of innumerable families and communities. Projects like the University of Toronto’s DECIMA (an interactive digital map of Florence) and the multi-institutional Hidden Florence (an app with augmented reality and interactive map functions), seek to animate the cartographic surfaces with the names, occupations, and addresses of those who lived hundreds of years ago. It is the layering of maps, census data, and media such as music that allows these projects to bring two-dimensional landscapes to life.

In the case of the 1748 map of Rome by Giambattista Nolli, we have the unique opportunity to combine a geographic record with the diary of Anna del Monte, a young Jewish woman who was abducted from the Roman ghetto in 1749 and taken to the Casa dei Catecumeni or ‘house of converts’ (here and after referred to as the Casa). Together and in context, these sources reveal an episode in an ancient struggle for power and survival as the Jewish people of eighteenth-century Rome used the streets to fight for a sense of control over their lives.

Born in 1733, Anna del Monte was part of an upper-class Jewish family. The Roman ghetto where she grew up was built in 1555, located on the banks of the Tiber in Rome’s S. Angelo Quarter. It was a walled, closed precinct, approximately two and a half modern city blocks in size. Enclosure in the ghetto, enforced by curfew and laws governing free mingling with Christians, took root in the sixteenth century, and by the eighteenth century Jewish life was defined by the boundaries of the ghetto. A clear visual barrier, the walls were surrounded by a secondary aural perimeter defined by the church bells’ ever-present reminder of the power that ruled the city. Jewish people reclaimed these barriers, describing their enclosed streets as a “sacred precinct” or kehillah kodoshah–a holy community and a refuge from those outside that was likened to Jerusalem.

With a population of approximately four thousand people, the streets of the ghetto were so tightly packed that finding a place to live could result in legal battles. When Anna walked through the ghetto, she would have found not only crowds of people, but scents heightened by the closed-in streets. These aromas reflected her religious customs, as Robert Bonfil describes: “[the] diversity [of the scents] derived from […] the total lack of the mixture of animal fat and milk products, otherwise so characteristic of Mediterranean cooking.” At the same time, Anna would have been hearing a dialect form of Italian where the genders of words would have shifted from masculine to feminine and vice versa, as required by spoken Hebrew. Through these sensory experiences, the streets of the Roman ghetto impressed a community fingerprint on each inhabitant. This was a powerful assertion of culture and identity, which made Anna’s removal by the papal police an even more traumatic form of assault – you can read Anna’s account of these events in an appendix to this piece.

Frightened by the increasing threats to papal power in Rome, the Casa’s conversion program gained new fervour in the eighteenth century, forcibly removing any Jewish individuals who had been “offered” to Christianity and imprisoning them in the Casa for twelve to eighty days to test their faith. Captives experienced sensory deprivation and emotional torture, and very few managed to leave the Casa unconverted. This trauma began during the removal process, which often took place at night to prevent riots. However, in Anna’s case her removal took place at noon, when the streets would likely have been busy. Sandwiched between two papal guards, Anna was not allowed to change her clothes or even remove her apron, and her family was physically assaulted as she was dragged from her house, through her streets, and into a carriage with the papal sheriff, which was likely the first time she had been alone with a man from outside her family. Women who returned home from the Casa were virtually unmarriageable, marked by their time away and perpetually at risk of being removed a second time. This risk was even more pronounced if they became pregnant or had young children who could be used as leverage. This means that as Anna was publicly humiliated, forced through streets that reflected and defined her cultural heritage–she was stripped of her identity.

The Casa was fifteen minutes from the ghetto, and as the carriage drove away, Anna would have heard the familiar sounds of home–the river, the bustle, the language–fading slowly into the distance.

For Anna, as well as many Jewish people in eighteenth century Rome, the ghetto streets were sacred, and each time the sensory environment of this sanctuary was invaded, it violated the heart of the Jewish community. Streets, community, and identity were woven into a shield against the hovering sword of the papal police. As soon as Anna had been ripped from that protection, she would have known that her life and future had been changed forever.

For optimal viewing please view the enlarged version of this StoryMap by following this link.

Anna’s Diary

Below is a segment of Anna’s diary describing her removal from the ghetto, translated into English by Dr. Kenneth Stow. To listen to an audio recreation of this section of the diary (in English), please follow the “Accessing Anna” link provided in the final Storymaps slide, and click through the presentation until you are listening to ‘The Removal’. Content warnings are listed in the section of the presentation titled ‘Introduction’.

Without warning, on the 20th of April, 1749, at the end of the Passover Festival, Sunday, at about 17 hours, I was kidnapped and taken away by force thanks to a false denunciation made against my family by a scoundrel [rash’a] […] I was totally innocent, but he tricked the Vice Regent into issuing an order that led straightaway to the Bargello and his men bursting into my home and seizing me. They sandwiched me in between them with their pistols drawn. They did not even give me the courtesy, or the time, to change my clothing, or to say a word to my mother and father, as though I were a whore, slapping everybody around, and paying no attention to people’s rank or even their state of health. They snapped me up like a guitta [a buffoon] in such haste that I still had on my abito di cucina [my apron]. When my father tried to speak to me, they shoved a pistol into his face. Only God saved his life. I was pushed into a carriage next to the Bargello and taken with the speed of the wind to the Casa dei catecumeni.

Text translated by Dr. Kenneth Stow

One Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *