The Jewish history in Bologna, Italy stretches back centuries, but it was interrupted in 1569, when all Jews were expelled from the city as part of Pope Pius V’s banishment of Jews from everywhere in the Papal domains except Rome and Ancona.
Few tangible remnants from before the expulsion remain, but they include four elaborate, monumental tombstones from the mid-16th century, which feature both intricate carved decoration and complex poetic inscriptions and epitaphs, that are now conserved and displayed at the city’s Civic Medieval Museum. Three of the monuments are at the entry to the museum, the fourth is in the collections.
These monuments are all that survive from the medieval Jewish cemetery that once existed in today’s via Orfeo. After the expulsion of 1569, the cemetery was handed over to the nearby convent of S. Pietro Martire of cloistered nuns, and was then destroyed. It is known that some of the tombstones (including two displayed in the museum) were re-used to mark Christian burials.
The most elaborate of the four is that which marked the grave of Shabatai Elkanan of Rieti, who died in August 1546, which has elaborate carving on both sides as well as a poetic epitaph.
On the front, under a shield with rampant lions and above a sculpted winged mask with ram horns, the very vivid relief sculpture of a young woman holds a cartouche bearing the epitaph (translation from the book Guide to Jewish Places in Bologna, edited by Franco Bonilauri and Vincenza Maugeri, De Luca editore, 2002):
Beneath me rests this right-minded man, a leader in the vanguard of his generation, in which he took great pride, the honored master Shabatai Elkanan; he is remembered by his son, Yizchaq Eliakim da Rieti; And may this remembrance be a blessing on him, and let there be respect for his resting day, which fell on Sunday 23 in the year Elul 5306, may his soul be kept safe in the embrace of life.
On the rear, there is a poetic text; figures of putti serve as side pillars, and a winged mask is at the bottom.
The gravestone of Yoav da Rieti, who died in 1547, was reused (on its rear) as the grave marker for Rainaldo dei Duglioli, who died in 1571 — later, the stone was cut through vertically, separating the front face from the rear.
The translation of the Hebrew inscription reads (again, according to the Guide to Jewish Places in Bologna):
With the son of Isshai, Yoav, son of Zeruya, was like the commander of an army; among the children who will redeem the world of the future, Yoav, the man from Rieti, stood as leader; Yoav resolved to make amends at the altarside, so as to escape death. This Yav established his abode in the heavens, his justness rises like a wall of stately proportions, its bare stone testifying to the honor of which this man is worthy.Read more about Hebrew inscriptions on medieval and Renaissance Jewish tombstones here: Download a detailed article by David Malkiel on 16th century Jewish tombstones in Padova Download Mauro Perani: The Corpus Epitaphiorum Hebraicorum Italiae (CEHI): A project to publish a complete corpus of all the epitaphs preserved in the Italian Jewish cemeteries of the sixteenth – nineteenth centuries