Jewish Heritage Europe

Medieval Jewish Lecce and its “not-knowing-for-sure” Jewish museum

Map of new Jewish museum in Lecce, Italy

The Prague-based educator, curator, and filmmaker Martin Šmok reviews the  privately established Jewish museum that opened in 2016 in Lecce, at the very tip of the heel of Italy’s boot, where Jews flourished in the middle ages but were expelled half a millennium ago. He found his visit a “refreshing and energizing experience” in a museum “filled with question marks.”

Medieval Jewish Lecce and its new Jewish museum

By Martin Šmok 

I have to admit that visiting small regional Jewish museums in Europe can be quite a stressful experience for an educator involved in anti-stereotype education, a person like me.
I have spent the last fifteen years teaching educators that a racist group label remains a racist group label even when it gets flipped into positive, that Nazi racial laws are not valid anymore and that the Communist label of “person of Jewish origin” is based on nothing else but the Nazi Nuremberg laws. Sometimes the well-meant local exhibitions end up promoting stereotypical claims about “the Jews,” featuring only the rich, famous and influential families, using unnecessary atrocity imagery for shock impact at the end of their narratives, mistaking it for Holocaust education.  

One of the founders of the museum, Michelangelo Mazzotta, in the latrine

That is why visiting the private Jewish museum in Lecce was such a refreshing and energizing experience for me. Of course, I did not come to Lecce, a baroque city in Puglia, Italy, because of its Jewish Museum. I came there to explore the city nicknamed the Florence of the South, former capital of Terra d’Otranto. But once there, I was intrigued and attracted by the tourist attraction called “Palazzo Taurino – Medieval Jewish Lecce”. The museum is located in what is now the underground area of a baroque palazzo. The cellars that used to house a restaurant were rented by a group of private investors and cleaned of the modern alterations only after it was determined that this was the site of a 15th century synagogue and mikveh.

The story the museum presents is filled with question marks and “not-knowing-for-sures” — it was this admission that was so appealing for me.

Quite a few important features of the space were destroyed when it was adapted into a restaurant some 20 years ago, such as the steps leading to a medieval mikveh. There are other pools visible now under a glass floor, but why use a whole set of mikvaot like that? Or were these pools rather connected to the prevalent Jewish trade of textile dyeing? At this point the exhibition and the guide explain the role of a mikveh in Jewish life. Similarly, the exact function of the niche in the eastern wall is unclear, but the exhibition makes sure to explain the role of orientation towards Jerusalem in Jewish prayer and includes a map delineating that direction for the South of Italy. The guides do not hide gaps in factual knowledge, but point to potential answers, especially in the context of other Jewish communities in the region: Trani, Otranto or Bari. A 3D outline of the Jewish quarter of Lecce is being created, which the visitor could juxtapose against the baroque city above the ground.

From the educational point of view, of great value is the exhibition content exposing the deep roots of anti-Jewish hatred – and also the obsession with Judaic artefacts after the destruction of Jewish life.

Museum information panel about a forged plaque on display

The yellow signs Jews had to wear on their garments in medieval times are represented in church frescoes throughout the region, hinting to us the inspiration for the yellow stars of the Nazi days. A forged Jewish bronze funeral tablet on display in the museum captures the romantic craving for Jewish artefacts at a time when no Jews were left in Lecce.

After the city came under the direct rule of Ferdinand I, King of Aragon, there was an outbreak of violence against the Jews. Many were murdered, survivors were forced away. What else could better document the hatred of everything Jewish then combining the expulsion, destruction and obliteration with denigration and offence, such as the fact that a stone slab containing a Hebrew inscription, originating from the Lecce synagogue, got inserted into the ceiling of a latrine, making sure that the holy Hebrew words would be facing downwards?

It clearly is the passion of the private persons behind this museum that drives its “work in progress” feel.

Forged plaque in the museum (and noted as a forgery)

I met two of the founding fathers, prof. Fabrizio Lelli, who teaches Hebrew Language and Literature at the University of Salento, and Michelangelo Mazzotta, owner of a Bed and Breakfast in Via della Sinagoga. Both are continuing the search for remains of medieval Jewish Lecce, striving to educate the locals, inspiring them to join in the hunt for clues. Michelangelo continues to document the subsequent evolution of the synagogue space, which, like elsewhere, became a church, at least in part serving converts from Judaism. Today, even this church is gone. But Michelangelo located a precious few early 20th century photographs in which its original cross can still be seen.

We immediately felt the strong bond that links those who hunger for knowing more. For tourists and visitors with a similar craving, I can only recommend a tour of the Jewish Museum in Lecce.

August 28, 2018

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Martin Šmok, Senior International Program Consultant for the USC Shoah Foundation, focuses on 19th and 20th century Jewish issues in what is now the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He has curated several exhibitions including The Jewish Community of Prague since 1945 until the present day installed in the Jubilee synagogue in Prague; Shattered Hopes, about the history of Jews in the Czech lands in 1945-1953; Through the Labyrinth of Normalization: The Jewish Community as a Mirror for the Majority Society about the period from 1968 till 1989; and Forgotten in the midst of the tourist crowds, exploring the erased memory of the largest Jewish community of interwar Czechoslovakia, in Královské Vinohrady (Königliche Weinberge). Šmok also scripted two documentary film trilogies, one about the attempt to rescue Jews during World War II by paying ransom to the Nazis; one about the post-WWII involvement of Communist Czechoslovakia in the Middle East.

Read Šmok’s JHE long-read article about Vinohrady

3 comments on “Medieval Jewish Lecce and its “not-knowing-for-sure” Jewish museum

  1. I too enjoyed reading his piece. It’s very hard to sort out Jewish life in southern Italy.

    I’ve not seen the museum, but some of the enigmatic features reminded me of perhaps similar features in the ghetto/museum in Pitigliano, in Tuscany. Maybe you’ve been there? I never can quite understand the mikveh arrangement in Pitigliano, for instance. Maybe that’s similar and maybe comparison could illuminate them both. (Pitigliano is a bit later, but its settlers came from Rome, and they may have come from the South . . .). Also in the lower part of the ghetto in Pitigliano, there is what seems to be a niche and a large form in an eastern wall under the synagogue. If I remember, it has been hypothesized that this room was the original, temporary synagogue, but the eastern wall object is hard to figure out.

    I would like to hear what you think if you go to Pitigliano or if you’ve’ been there and seen these features.

    Steve Siporin

    • I’ve been to Pitigliano several times (including when the synagogue was still a ruin) but I don’t remember any of the specific features you mention. If I go there again this fall, I can check. I also have some reference material that I can check.

  2. I loved this piece — among with a general yearning for Puglia, and the “Castle of Otranto,” this makes me want to return to Lecce. BTW, the short bio for Šmok says he’s at the USC Shoah Institute — maybe he’ll be around when you’re in L.A. in December. Do you know him?

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