The medieval Jewish cemetery in Bologna that was destroyed by order of Pope Pius V in 1569 has been rediscovered and is the focus of a research project by academic institutions with the cooperation of the Bologna Jewish community.
Archaeologists uncovered 408 burials of men, women, and children, arranged in rows, during excavations carried out in 2012-2014 in relation to the construction of a residential complex, the Bologna and regional Superintendence of Archaeology announced. Some of the burials included jewelry “made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones, and amber” as well as other items, it said.
It said the cemetery area
has now disclosed 408 burials perfectly aligned in parallel rows, with [graves] dug in an east-west direction and heads of the dead at the west. The rational layout of the graves and the presence of especially precious ornaments are peculiarities which are hardly found in other cemeteries of the same period.
The Superintendence announced the find this past week, and it was presented to the public Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi Alberto Sermoneta and Jewish community president Daniele De Paz.
Merola called it a unique discovery” and “an enrichment of the cultural story of our city and of the presence of the Jewish community in Bologna” that was a “unique opportunity for study and research.”
He said a working group from the Superintendence, the University of Bologna, the Bologna Jewish Community, and independent experts were carrying research on the find as part of a project aimed at studying and enhancing the cultural heritage and history of the Jewish community in Bologna.
According to a statement, they are cooperating on an anthropological study of the burials that will focus
on examining many of the biological characteristics of the buried individuals using an integrated approach combining morphological, microbiological, molecular and tomographic analyses in order to retrace the history and life of the community in question.The demographic composition of the group will be reconstructed, as well as the state of health, diet, any specialisation in terms of work activities, aspects related to funerary rituals, and the geographical origin linked to any relocation from other areas of Europe. To achieve these results, the Laboratory of Bioarchaeology and Forensic Osteology will examine the aspects that involve piecing together the skeletal remains in order to proceed with reconstructing the biological profile (evaluation of the age and gender of the buried), health and nutritional status by examining all bone and dental alterations and pathologies, and of the work activities they carried out during their lifetime.
The statement said the resulting “integrated study model, which combines the information gathered from historical and documentary sources and archaeological and biological data, along with the cooperation of the Jewish community of Bologna, is unique in its kind” and is “unprecedented in Italy and almost unparalleled in Europe.”
After completion of the research, it said, the recovered skeletal remains will be returned to the Jewish community “to honor the memory of this medieval community.” At Tuesday’s news conference Rabbi Sermoneta underscored that the remains needed to be given a dignified burial.
The cemetery, located in an area near the Cloister of San Pietro Martire bounded by Via Orfeo, Via de’ Buttieri, Via Borgolocchi and Via Santo Stefano, is the largest medieval Jewish cemetery to have been discovered in Italy. (The old Jewish cemetery on the Venice Lido dates back to 1386 and was used until the late 18th century. Devastated over the centuries, it now occupies a much smaller area than in past centuries; it includes an indeterminate number of burials but more than 1,000 tombstones, many if not most brought from destroyed parts of the cemetery and arranged around the perimeter or erected without regard to burials.)
According to archival sources, the area of the Bologna cemetery was purchased by a Jew in 1393 and presented to the Bologna Jewish community for use as a burial ground. It functioned until 1569, when Pope Pius V banished all Jews from everywhere in the Papal States except Rome and Ancona.
On November 28, 1569 he presented the cemetery to the nuns of San Pietro Martire and gave them permission “to dig up and send, wherever they want, the bodies, bones and remains of the dead: to demolish, or convert to other forms, the graves built by the Jews, including those made for living people: to remove completely, or scrape off the inscriptions or epitaphs carved in the marble.”
The cemetery was obliterated, and the site was used for other purposes — though it was still remembered as the “Jewish garden.”
The Superintendence statement said no tombstones were discovered during excavations, but 150 of the discovered graves showed clear signs of deliberate desecration.
The four monumental 16th-century tombstones featuring intricate carved decoration and complex poetic inscriptions that are now displayed at the Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from the cemetery. Two of these tombstones were re-purposed to mark Christian graves.