Medieval Jewish Cemetery of Bologna Uncovered by Archaeologists

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The medieval Jewish cemetery in Bologna
The medieval Jewish cemetery in BolognaCredit: Archivio SABAP-BO, 2017 – Cooperativa archeologia

The site of Bologna's medieval Jewish cemetery has been rediscovered, after its desecration and destruction following the pope's expulsion of the Jews in 1569.

The discoveries were actually made from 2012 to 2014, when archaeological excavations uncovered 408 graves. This was the largest-known medieval Jewish cemetery in Italy.

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The discovery announced by the Bologna and was presented Tuesday at a news conference by Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola and other officials, including Bologna’s chief rabbi and Jewish community president.

The graves discovered included those of women, men and children, the regional superintendence for archaeology stated at a press conference Tuesday. Some had been buried with ornaments made of gold, silver, bronze, hard stones and amber, the superintendance said.”

Golden rings found among the remains of the Jewish cemetery in Bologna Credit: Archivio SABAP-BO, 2017 – Roberto Macrì

The cemetery was discovered during excavation of a site slated for housing construction.

Dig up the dead

The area, which is in and around via Orfeo, was used as a Jewish cemetery from the 1390s, but it was destroyed in 1569 after Pope Pius V banished Jews from everywhere in papal territories except Rome and Ancona.

In November 1569, Pius handed over the cemetery to the nuns of the nearby cloister of St. Peter the Martyr and directed the sisters “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.”

Four ornate Jewish gravestones now displayed in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are believed to have come from this cemetery.

Scenes from medieval Bologna: The 16th century Fountain of Neptune with the 13th century Palazzo Re Enzo in the background.Credit: Ludovic Maisant, AFP

The superintendence statement said the 408 graves uncovered by the excavations were “perfectly aligned in parallel rows, with ditches dug in an east-west direction and the heads of the dead on the west end.”

No trace of tombstones had been found, and 150 graves showed clear signs of deliberate desecration, it said.

At Tuesday’s presentation, Rabbi Alberto Sermoneta said that the recovered remains needed to be given a dignified burial.

A necklace found in the dig of the medieval Jewish cemetery in BolognaCredit: Archivio SABAP-BO, 2017 – Roberto Macrì