The Jewish Quarter, Rome: A Visitor’s Guide

October 5, 2023

Hidden in the heart of the city, Rome’s Jewish Quarter is one of the best attractions in Rome and also one of its least-known. As the oldest Jewish community in all of Europe, this beautiful, thriving neighborhood is as central to the history of the city as it is to the Jewish faith. Follow us into the Jewish Quarter, Rome, to see how Jews have shaped the Eternal City.

An important note about this neighborhood’s history: This area in Rome where the Jewish community has lived for a long time is traditionally referred to as the “Jewish Ghetto” because of its history. But now, many prefer to call it the “Jewish Quarter” to be more respectful.

The old Jewish Ghetto is a mosaic of ancient gem with the nuances of the modern day. Photo by Anthony Majanlahti

The old Jewish Quarter is a mosaic of ancient gems with nuances of the modern day. Photo by Anthony Majanlahti

The Quarter was established in 1555 in the Rione Sant’Angelo, near the Tiber River in the southern part of Campo de’Fiori. Its borders were laid down in a Papal Bull along with various discriminatory laws about what professions Jews could and could not hold. One of the accepted professions, that of selling fish, still lends its name to streets in the area of the old fish market.  Though the neighborhood now commands some of the highest property prices in Rome, the original Jewish Quarter (known simply as the Roman Ghetto) was walled-in and crowded. It was built on low, malarial land subject to regular floods from the Tiber. Life was grim until the walls were torn down in 1888.

Jewish culture grew and thrived in the Roman Quarter, but the neighborhood also witnessed one of the most heart-wrenching episodes of the Nazi occupation during the Second World War. After the German government proclaimed that Rome’s Jews would be spared deportation to the concentration camps if a gold ransom was paid, many in the city, including The Vatican, donated their gold (though there is some debate as to whether or not the Vatican’s offer was refused). Even though the Jewish community raised the required amount, Nazi soldiers entered the neighborhood on October 16th, 1943 and deported between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Only 16 survived.

Over the years the area has grown into a beautiful neighborhood filled with restaurants, churches, and synagogues that combine jewish culture with the grandeur of Roman architecture. The ruins of the enormous ancient Portico, the Portico d’Ottavia, rise from under 20 feet below street level, at once a testament to history as well as the changes time brings.

What to see

Teatro Marcello

Photo by Herb Neufeld

Today, the top portion of the old amphitheater has been divided into multiple apartments. Photo by Herb Neufeld

Named after Marcus Marcellus, Emperor Augustus’s nephew, who died five years before its completion, the Teatro was begun by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus in 13 BC. It’s also known as the Jewish Coliseum for its resemblance to the original Colosseum. This ancient, open-air theater once held approximately 11,000 to 20,000 spectators, and the seats filled for acting, dancing or singing performances. Located in the Rione of Sant’Angelo, today it still holds different shows throughout the summer. Look up to the top floors to see swanky apartments that command beautiful views of the city center and are occupied by some of the city’s oldest Jewish families. 

The Great Synagogue

The Great Synagogue of Rome, or the Tempio Maggiore di Roma in Italian, is the largest synagogue in all of Rome and possibly all of Italy. This impressive building is pretty new by Roman standards. After people of Jewish faith were granted citizenship during Italian unification in 1870, the original ghetto synagogue was torn down and plans for the Great Synagogue began. The cornerstone was laid in 1901 and the Synagogue was officially completed in 1904, a veritable baby in the Roman skyline.

Jewish Museum of Rome

The Jewish Museum is located in the Great Synagogue. Opened underneath the Great Synagogue in 1960, it displays silverware and textiles, parchments and marble carvings from the collections of the Jewish Community of Rome. It tells the history of the Jews and the Jewish Quarter in Rome. Begin your explorations of the neighborhood here to get some context under your belt. A museum visit also includes entrance to the Great Synagogue.

La Bocca della Verità

Liars need not take pose for a photo. Photo by Javier de la Rosa

Liars better be careful posing for a photo! Photo by Javier de la Rosa

the Mouth of Truth, or Bocca della Verita, is the image of a man’s face carved in marble. Located in the entrance of the Santa Maria in Cosmedin Church since the 17th century, the sculpture is thought to be from the first century. Though we know that it’s not connected to judaism or Rome’s Jewish Quarter, legends of its origins range from being a part of an ancient fountain, to a church, to a manhole cover, but the strangest part of all is its powers as a lie detector. As far back as the Middle Ages, Romans believed that if you told a lie with your hand in the sculpture’s mouth, your hand would be bitten off!

The Fontane delle Tartarughe

The Turtle Fountain is a late Renaissance fountain in the rione Sant’Angelo. Though it might have been called the Dolphin Fountain, as it once had dolphins where the turtles now sit, they were removed because of low water pressure, and the turtles were added to make the fountain seem complete. Originally built as a drinking fountain, the water was sourced from the Acqua Vergine, one of Rome’s first aqueducts – a big deal for sixth century Romans!

…. And maybe even a Church

Somewhat surprisingly all things considered, there are more than 15 churches in the small area that comprises the old Jewish Quarter. Some of the most famous are Chiesa di Santa Maria del Pianto, Chiesa di San Tommaso ai Cenci, Chiesa di Santa Caterina dei Funari, and Chiesa di San Stanislao dei Polacchi.

Note: The Jewish Ghetto in Rome features prominently in our Rome As A Local Tour, which takes travelers to some of Rome’s most incredible under-the-radar attractions, as well as our Local Rome Food Tour: Jewish Quarter & Historic Center. If you are interested by what you read here, check out these tours – we guarantee that you won’t be disappointed

The old jewish ghetto is one of Rome's coolest neighborhoods. Find out its incredible history and why you should come visit it!
Rome's old Jewish ghetto is one of the city's greatest but least known neighborhoods. Find out what makes it so special and how to see it!

by Gina Mussio

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