On July 14, 1555, Pope Paul IV issued his bull “Cum nimis absurdum,” which subjected the Jews under his dominion to a long list of restrictions and humiliations, most notably the requirement that the Jews of Rome live within a closed area. This became the Rome Ghetto, the mandatory home of the city’s Jews until its abolishment in 1870.
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Pope Paul IV (1476-1559) was an unusually rigid and intolerant pontiff. He had been the leading figure in the establishment of a Roman Inquisition in 1542 (the papal bull that created the Inquisition stated, “Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him"), and had overseen the burning of the Talmud in Rome in 1553.
Less than two months after his ascent to the papacy on May 23, 1555, he issued “Cum nimis absurbum” – meaning literally, “Because it is completely senseless ” After those opening words, the proclamation continues: “and inappropriate to be in a situation where Christian piety allows the Jews (whose guilt -- all of their own doing -- has condemned them to eternal slavery) access to our society and even to live among us” before laying a long and detailed list of restrictions on Jewish life.
The first in the list of rules was one requiring all Jews in any given town to live in a single district, which was to be enclosed with a wall, and locked at night. The Jews were not allowed to own any property in the ghetto, and were permitted to have but a single synagogue for prayer. Any others that existed at the time of the promulgation of the bull were to be destroyed.
Jews were obligated to identify themselves with a yellow head-covering. Professionally, they were limited to the rag trade, unless they were trained physicians, in which case they were forbidden from tending to Christians. They were also prohibited from working on Sundays or on Christian feast days, among other restrictions.
The Roman Ghetto was established on the banks of the Tiber river, one of the least desirable sections of the city, if only because of its tendency to flood when the river’s waters rose. The Jews, who had their own dialect, called Giudeo-romanesco, had to finance its construction, which was designed by architect Giovanni Sallustio Peruzzi. Initially, it could be entered or departed by only two gates, although by the time the walls were demolished, in the 19th century, that number had increased to eight. Since the area of the ghetto could not expand, the only way to add living space was to build up, to as high as seven stories. This helped to block the sun, making the ghetto a dark space.
On the positive side, Christian landlords could not evict their Jewish tenants, nor could they raise rents. At the same time, the Jews were required to go through an annual ritual by which they requested permission to reside in the ghetto, a privilege for which they also had to pay a tax. Before that procedure was instituted, the Jews had to participate as performers in an annual carnival of humiliation.
The abolishment of the Roman Ghetto took place over a period of nearly a century, beginning with the brief period in 1798-99 when the Papal States were overtaken by the Italian Republic. Again in the mid-1800s, there was a period when Jews were permitted to live outside the ghetto, but this too was temporary. Finally, in 1882, 12 years after the final abolition of the Papal States, the ghetto, the last remaining one in Europe, was formally abolished and its walls torn down.