early years and throughout the Middle
Ages, the roman Jews had
no problems in living side by side with
the local Christian population;
their main activity was trade.
But hard times came during the late
Renaissance, when the Church
of Rome, following the Protestant
schism, gave a sharp turn
of the screw against the non-Christian
The newly elected Pope Paul IV
decided to enclose the whole Jewish
community (ComunitÓ Ebraica) within
a very small enclosed area, and issued
strict discriminatory laws.
The neighbourhood, known as the
ghetto, comprised the few narrow
streets located between piazza Giudea
(no longer there) by the church of
Santa Maria del Pianto, the remains
of the Porch of Octavia (see
The 22 Rioni, Sant'Angelo for
details) and the river bank by the Tiber
Following Paul IV's bull entitled
Cum nimis absurdum (literally "when
too much is absurd", actually "when
enough is enough"), issued in 1555,
the 3,000 members of the community were
forced to live within the ghetto's
boundary, originally called 'the
Jews' enclosure', whose total surface
was about 8 acres.
The dwellers were allowed to leave this
neighborhood only during daytime, while
from dusk till dawn the entrances to
the district were closed by huge doors,
watched over by guards, whose wages
the same community had to pay for.
Originally the gates were three, but
only a few decades later, when pope
Sixtus V had the ghetto slightly
enlarged towards the river, their number
rose to five. Neither the gates nor
their doors exist any longer, but old
maps still feature them quite clearly.
Those who were left outside after the
closing time were to face the implacable
papal law court.
Initially, the ghetto's only
source of running water was a public
fountain located in piazza Giudea,
outside the boundary, thus the hygienic
conditions inside the district were
terrible. A smaller fountain was built
inside the enclosure only many years
Furthermore, being one of the lowest
spots in Rome, the risk of being flooded
by the nearby Tiber was another
Outside the ghetto all Jewish
men had to wear a piece of yellow cloth
on their hat, while women had to wear
a yellow veil, or a scarf of the same
colour, so to be easily recognized.
They could not own any property; the
houses where they lived belonged to
who rented them to members of the community
at prices kept under control by means
of a law named Ius GazzagÓ.
As a custom, the rental contract was
inherited by the lodger's heirs, so
that most houses were occupied by the
same families for many generations.
The Jewish population, though,
kept growing at a very fast rate, also
because Jews from other cities
within the Papal State were forced
to flee to Rome: by the end of
the 17th century there were about 9,000
people living in the ghetto.
The enclosure had to be slightly enlarged,
and a fourth door was added.
Particular laws, that often changed
when a new pope was elected,
restricted the number of activities
that the Jews were officially
allowed to practice; at times, the only
job they could live on was to sell rags.
On Saturdays, the adult members of the
community had to attend the so-called
compulsory preaches, sermons whose purpose
was to convert them to the Christian
religion; they were held by the
small church of St.Gregory (now
facing the huge synagogue, built in
1904).and by the tiny Carmel Temple,
in via Santa Maria in Publicolis.