Spend a few days in Rome and you’ll probably hear mention of the Jewish Ghetto. And your mind might wander around that provocative title. You might start imagining a crumbling place and poverty. Or you might already know that a Jewish Ghetto is great place to get some food. Or your curiosity might jump to World War II and the life of the Jews under fascism. Each of these thoughts has its place in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto where, like in every other quarter of Rome, there’s an evocatively layered history bubbling to a lively surface waiting to be discovered.
Rome’s Jewish Ghetto was created in 1555 by Pope Paul IV. His idea was to separate Rome’s Jewish population from the Christians, which he did by building walls around the area that borders the Portico d’Ottavia. The walls had three gates (and gained more as the area grew) that were locked at sunset. Within the walls the Jews suffered privation and incessant flooding when the Tiber River swelled with winter rains. Only in the 1860s, when Italy became a country and the Papal States ceased to exist, did Rome’s citizens demolish the ghetto’s walls. Unfortunately, German Fascists instated the ghetto again less than 100 years later. In 1943, Hitler emptied the area of about 2,000 Jews. But with the 1945 liberation of Rome there also came the final liberation of Rome’s Jewish Ghetto.The Turtle Fountain in Piazza Mattei
What to see and do in the Jewish Ghetto today
Now, the Jewish Ghetto seems to bear little resemblance to its insulated past. Via del Portico d’Ottavia on a weekday afternoon at lunch or in the evenings when the kids are let out of school is cacophony of old and young who all seem to know each other. Stop by the unimposing bakery Boccione, also called forno del ghetto, on the corner (Via del Portico d’Ottavia, 1) and pick up a bag of sweets. Here the no-nonsense women bake bars of pasta frolla and delicious crostata with cherries and almonds. Their desserts are distinctly burnt and their walls and counters distinctly bare. Take your sweets down to Piazza delle Cinque Scole where you can see the only remaining piece of the confining wall.
Meander down the Via Portica d’Ottavia, passing all the restaurants calling your name with their pyramids of artichokes, to the ruins of the portico to see what is left of the building Augustus built for his daughter. Behind the crumbling portico and covered in scaffolding is Santa Maria in Campitelli, a baroque church. Within the portico there once was a fish market—chosen because of its nearness of the Tiber and the conveniently scattered pieces of ancient marble on which the fishmongers would display their catches of the day. (Note that this was not within the ghetto’s old walls.)
Towards the river from the portico is the Great Synagogue built in the early 1900s in an effort to revitalize the ghetto. Inside you can find the Jewish Museum that draws out the history of the Jews in Rome in more detail through archives and artifacts.Via dell Reginella
Take a turn down Via della Reginella if you’re interested in doing some shopping. There’s Doddo at #8 where you can get a pair of personalized and tailor-made jeans (for €250) or some already sewn (for €75). Then check out the two photography shops: the first (Museo del Louvre, at #25) sells matted old black-and-white prints and the second (at #28) has a large collection of photography books for sale. At the end of the road and nearest the Turtle Fountain is Peperita, a specialty food shop selling all your spicy needs, from peperoncino-infused oils to hot sauce, which are all produced on the owner’s farm in Tuscany.
In the center of Piazza Mattei is the elegant Turtle Fountain. It was built in the late Renaissance, but the turtles, which the four young men play with and gave the fountain its name, weren’t added until the 1600s when the fountain was restored. If you’re hungry, see our recommendations of where and what to eat while you’re in the Jewish Ghetto.