Urbino letter III from Michele

(October 21, 2018) -- Part of my task in Urbino is to take the students on drawing excursions, sketchbooks in hand and eyes wide open (at least, after an initial espresso or two). Tomorrow we will wander around the Via Stretta, just inside the city’s lower walls, adjacent to the main gate at the Borgo Mercatale. Inside the gate is the now closed synagogue of Urbino; I’ll have to use some ingenuity to try to get a look at its reportedly beautiful 18th-century interior. There is almost nothing left of Urbino’s very old Jewish community; I’ve heard there are only two women left who care for the building and the cemetery.

Other Italian Ghettos appear in literature from Shakespeare to Giorgio Bassani, whose novels about Jewish life in another Italian college town, Ferrara, includes the heart-rending novel Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini, the Garden of the Finzi- Contini. I read the novel about the doomed aristocratic family and the novel’s narrator, who is their admirer, when I was a student at the University of Siena, the same year I discovered that my Italian grandmother’s family was Jewish. I never discussed this with my father since everything preceding our becoming Americans seemed painful and off-limits for conversation.  Despite many childhood visits to Italy, my 21st year was the first time I was completely on my own, and full of questions. I wondered about my grandmother’s Spanish surname, Spinoza, and the persistence of the names David and Samuel in every generation since my great-great grandmother’s time. On a visit to my grandmother’s family during spring break I noticed an elaborate baroque menorah in a bookcase on a tour of the house. My cousins noticed me noticing it and on the return path to the dining room it had been removed.

My older brother, who has more time, money, and leisure than I do, had his DNA professionally analyzed in the interest of genealogical research. I think I was the only person in the family not surprised by the results. Grandmother’s family markers are of middle eastern origin but have characteristics that are only found in Iberian rabbinical families. We are a highly inbred species and traits that make us, at least partly, Spanish Jews, are said to be unmistakable.

Southern European Jewish communities have suffered not one diaspora, but scores of them. My grandmother’s family turns up in Palermo in 1492, the peak of the Reconquista expulsions of Jews and Muslims from Spain. Urbino’s history was slower and more excruciating in the grinding reduction of its Jewish population. In the time of Duke Montefeltro, consistent with his broadly humane views on nearly everything, the city’s Jewish population was estimated to be as much as a third of the citizenry, one of the highest percentages in Europe. There was no “ghetto,” Urbino’s Jewish citizens were free to live anywhere, own and sell property, engage in any profession, and employ Catholic servants. Over the centuries the population was gradually confined in the Via Stretta neighborhood, ironically just below the ramparts of the palace of the Duke who had once protected and tolerated them. None of the residents were allowed to own property and had to pay confiscatory rents to Christian landlords for the right to live in their birthplace. If any family moved away under the increasingly insupportable financial burden, the whole community was obligated to continue to pay the rents of the absentees. The last indignity was a requirement to wear a badge identifying the wearer as a Jew.

By the outbreak of World War II, the community in Urbino had all but disappeared. To the credit of their Christian neighbors, the remaining members were hidden until the Fascist government collapsed. In famously left-wing Urbino this is hardly surprising but by then there was nothing left to preserve.

After I finished graduate school I went to work for Venturi Scott Brown in Philadelphia. From time to time Bob and Denise would invite some of their toiling legion of interns out to their remarkable house for picnics. I found myself walking around the garden with Denise, who startled me by saying ‘welcome to the garden of the Finzi-Venturi,” completely without irony I have to add. I have no idea what made her say it, but Denise is also Jewish, her family name being Lakofski. We spent quite a long time talking about the novel and the Vittorio De Sica Oscar winning film that was made from it, and about the diasporas that drove her family to South Africa and mine to the US.

One semester I had a student from northern Mexico who favored open neck shirts which turned out to be the frames for a stunning antique Mezuzah, obviously an heirloom. A mezuzah is case for a scroll with quotations from the Torah, and larger versions are also attached to front door frames, sometimes in every room of the house for the truly pious. He told me his family had been in Mexico from since the late 16th century. “Its where we went when we had to,” he said.

After my father passed away I had the unwelcome chore of going through his desk and putting things in order. One drawer contained a small box I’d never seen before, inside was a tiny silver chalice, no more than 4 and a half inches tall. It was silver respoussé work with raised anthemions, a stylized Greek floral design, and entwined grape vines. It was a Kiddish cup, used to drink wine at family Seders, Sabbath dinners. They are often given to girls and boys as presents for their bat or bar mitzvah confirmations and are always considered to be important heirlooms. But what was it doing in the drawer of my Catholic father? And, as the veteran of Dominican schools and altar boy duty, who am I?

Tomorrow, when we are in the Via Stretta, we’ll talk about some of these things. We aren’t there to sketch because its quaint, we are there to understand and really see what we are looking at.

— Michael Guarino (Michele)

View a photo gallery contributed by students studying abroad during the Fall 2018 semester.