“The Great Synagogue of Rome is one of the most impressive Italian synagogues built after the Emancipation in 1870 for Roman Jews”, says architect Sara Cava.

This historical and cultural background can serve as a helpful introduction to understanding, with greater awareness, the content of my interview with architect Sara Cava and her passion for the Great Synagogue of Rome.

Sara Cava was born in Rome in 1976 where she lives and works. She graduated in Architecture at La Sapienza University. Since 2010, she has been collaborating with the Jewish Museum of Rome.

She specializes in the history of the ghetto in Rome and its synagogues and is the author of several architectural publications, as well as being a respected conference presenter on this subject.

Women’s voices in synagogue architecture and design are limited, but they are not absent.

Is there something you would like to share before we start?

Yes, and it relates to the most beautiful Roman Jewish tradition regarding women that takes place in our Great Synagogue.

Every Shabbat, after reading the Torah, there is a particular prayer about women:

He Who blessed Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah, may He bless every daughter of Israel who fashions a coat or covering (me’il or mitpachat) with which to adorn and honor the Torah, or who prepares a candle in honor of the Torah. May the Holy One, blessed be He, pay her rewards and grant her the good that she deserves, and let us say Amen.

This Italian rite is unique, and nowhere else will you hear blessings for women.

The me’il is the outer embroidered garment of the Torah scroll, while the mitpachat is the inside wimple or handkerchief created (hand sewn) by the women of the Roman Jewish community. In addition, mappot fabrics, precious handmade and embroidered fabrics which represent a long tradition of Jewish female participation: the worthy women descendants of ancestors who, in the desert, had spun the threads and woven the fabrics for the tabernacle…

And all the skilled women spun with their own hands, and brought what they had spun, in blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and in fine linen.

(Exodus 35:25)

Rome has always followed the laws of Orthodox Jewry, and so women are not called up to the Torah, or lead services, as according to tradition. Yet, halakha does allow participation of women, and the women of Italy were far more involved than the women of other countries, such as in the making of the me’il (outer embroidered garment of the Torah scroll), the mitpachat (the inside wimple or handkerchief) and the mappot (is the cloth that is in actual contact with the parchment sheets. Tradition placed females separately from the men in the synagogue, removing them from the areas where male-dominated rituals, prayers, and sermons take place. Inside the Great Synagogue of Rome, women are given their own prayer spaces adjacent to the main men’s hall. Can you tell us a little about the matroneo(women’s galleries)?

The tradition of separating the space of prayer, reserved for women apart from men, has very ancient roots delving into the history of architecture and Judaism, at the same time. Similar separations were known at the time of the Jerusalem Shrine and have also survived in Christian religious architecture, only to disappear completely.

A rigorous separation exists in every synagogue and reflects the real role of women in Judaism, especially essential when she is a mother and is therefore in a position to hand over her Judaism to her children. Far from having a marginalized role, women are formally exempted from certain precepts binding them to specific times of the day, allowing them to fully experience Judaism in the fundamental place where it can be lived, namely the home environment. Nevertheless, the architecture of the 20th century did not fail to make the galleries, an essential part of any project, sumptuous, like the other parts of the prayer hall, to the point of often formalizing their layout.

Furthermore, the three galleries of the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), located on the first floor, fully reflect the idea of a woman participating in religious life, with their wide range, distribution on each side and sumptuous pictorial decoration by the artists Bruschi and Brugnoli. Furthermore, splendid stained glass windows made by the master Picchiarini flood the synagogue with an iridescent light that idealizes the women's gallery as the place of the synagogue closest to heaven.

It can be said that the sacred Torah scrolls inside the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Torah Ark) are not only the most sacred object inside the synagogue but also the most important object making the space of the synagogue sacred. What else of importance would you like to add?

The only legitimate place for the worship of Judaism was the Jerusalem Shrine, Bet HaMiqdash. There, the service was carried out by the Cohanim whose rituals, whose clothes, and objects employed for the performance of the cult itself were invested with sacredness. The holiest recess itself, Kodesh HaKodashim was the Place of the manifestation of the divine. Places more distant and differing do not have an equal level of Kedusha.

Today the space of the synagogue is like a small shrine (Miqdash Me'at) sacralized by the word of God, written on the parchment. Often words are carved on the holy ark containing the scrolls, compelling us to pay attention to Who we face when we are in His presence. Furthermore, at the beginning of the reading of the essential core of the tefillah or prayer, we take three steps forward to ideally approach the divine presence, and, in finishing it, we take three steps backward, as a sign of respectful farewell.

Between the Fifteenth and Sixteenth centuries, the life of the Jews in Rome was characterized by substantial prosperity and relative freedom, guaranteed by tolerant Popes of Renaissance Rome. It was not until the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries that the possibilities of integration into civil and political life increased considerably, owing primarily to the Emancipation occurring in 1870 in Rome. This theme of emancipation is expressed by a variety of constructive interventions, often emerging with reference to non-European traditional design elements. How did emancipation transform synagogue architecture? How did it influence their traditional usage as a place of worship?

With emancipation, we essentially witness the abandonment of the ancient stereotype of the synagogue, generally sized in relation to the real size of the community that used it, in favor of buildings of a monumental nature. Strongly characterized in order to distinguish themselves from the neighboring architecture, the synagogues of emancipation are outlined as a typically Jewish artifact. This occurs in a remarkable variety of results that are often expressed in eclectic language. The interiors become sumptuous and the most obvious sign of evolution is the distortion of the planimetric structure consolidated over the centuries, which included the pulpit as opposed to the holy ark. In Rome, the approach of the bimah, or pulpit, took place both in imitation of ecclesiastical architecture and by virtue of the reform, formally rejected in content by the Roman Orthodox community. However, in fact, accepted in the conception of the new space of the Greater Temple.

Who were the architects and artists of the synagogue? How were they selected to construct, build and design the Great Synagogue of Rome?

Vicenzo Costa and Ovsaldo Armanni (1855-1929) were the architects. Annibale Brugnoli ( 1843-1915) and Domenico Bruschi (1840-1910) were the artists who decorated the interior of the Great Synagogue.

The project for the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue) was selected by a competition. Among them was the architect Atillio Muggia (1860-1936) already known in the Jewish community for his buildings. The criteria were for both aesthetics and economy. The aesthetic criteria included the desire for a recognizable and dignified structure. A building of importance which the Jewish community itself could be identified and known.

In the design competition of 1889-90, the first prize went to architect Attilio Muggia (1860-1936), who was noted for his particular tenets, such as squared drum and an elongated cupola (dome). The synagogue design was to be sufficiently distinguished from the conventional design of churches. It was to evoke the Temple of Jerusalem; and eclectic in style, reminding Jews that their experience had been indissolubly associated with the many places in which they had resided. However, it was the second prize-winning designs by Vincenzo Costa (?-?) and Osvaldo Armanni (1855-1929) whose ‘Eastern’ influences presently dominate the Great Synagogue of Rome’s architecture style. Can point out some of their main architectural designs?

For the Jewish community of Rome, then known as the Israelite University, Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Ammanni designed and built three synagogues. Next to the Tempio Maggiore it is necessary to remember the New Spanish Temple inaugurated in 1910 on the opposite bank of the Tiber a short distance from the first. It was born to accommodate the legacy of the ancient Spanish rite schools active in Rome at the time of the ghetto, now lost. It was an isolated building, with an urban and non-monumental character, with the façade overlooking the Lungotevere in line with the surrounding architecture.

The third synagogue they built was for the Esquilino district, in Via Balbo, not far from the ecclesiastical complex of Santa Emerenziana. Here we have a Neo-Sixteenth-century style building in which the intention of the designers to better integrate the building with the existing is evident, the synagogue being inserted on a lot then free but in a recently urbanized area.

Despite the evident difference in setting even in the prayer rooms, the exteriors communicate a language linking the three projects in the common search for a style appropriate to the place, time period, and the Jewish character of the artifacts.

Art Nouveau style triumphed in decoration during the Twentieth century. Who was the artist to decorate the stained-glass windows in Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue)? What can you tell us about the particular patterns he used?

Cesare Picchiarini (1871-1943) was the artist who won the competition for the polychrome stained glass windows of the Tempio Maggiore; with them, the artist embarked on his professional career and, for the occasion, began to collaborate with the historic Giuliani glassworks. He is known for the splendid stained glass windows made at the Casina delle Civette in Rome (based on the cartoons by Duilio Cambellotti, 1876-1960) and had taught at the School of Stained Glass of the Industrial Art Museum.

The stained glass windows are in Art Nouveau style, made important by classic geometric decorations on the external perimeter, such as meanders and spirals. More closely linked to the first style is the lily motif, stylized and proposed in a heraldic version, repeated rhythmically.

The interior decorative scheme is attributed to Annibale Brugnoli (1843-1915) and Domenico Bruschi (1840-1910) who did not introduce figurative scenes, in obedience to the biblical commandment Exodus 20:3-5: “You will not make any sculptor or image whatsoever of everything that exists from below or in the waters below the earth. Do not bow down to them and do not worship them”. However, the scenes did make reference to The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones, published in London in 1856. What are the particular color and style plates that we see within the interior of the Great Synagogue?

The interior of the synagogue is often pervaded by abundant light. This allows the paintings to shine maximally and show themselves in all their originality. Over time the tempera have kept their color rendering unaltered and the whites are still very much alive today. The colors are essentially warm and oscillate between browns and purple, and between gold and mother-of-pearl white. The paintings were produced with the help of a second artist, Domenico Bruschi, with whom Annibale Brugnoli also painted the ceilings of the women's galleries, of which the side ones are dotted with a starry sky.

There has been impressive church dome architecture in the eternal city since the Renaissance. With so much else to see in Rome, Twentieth-century buildings are often overlooked. But there is one building standing majestically on the banks of the Tiber River, the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue) with its squared-shaped dome! Why is the dome squared? Everyone enjoying a rooftop view over Rome, or looking out from the Gianicolo, wonders why?

From an exquisitely aesthetic point of view, the dome of the Tempio Maggiore is an exception in the city panorama. Immediately recognizable, it helps to define the character of the building: classical and, in some ways, exotic.

In the history of architecture, the structure does not, in itself, constitute an unprecedented image. On the contrary, it is inspired by some examples and projects, not all universally known. In particular, it has a precedent with remarkable similarity, namely the much more slender dome, designed by Alessandro Antonelli (1798-1888) for the Mole of Turin, born to be a synagogue, even if he never became one.

The architects of the time, who were engaged in the design of new synagogues or the renovation of existing ones, had a common commitment to design unique, often eclectic, artifacts in which local communities could identify. I believe that Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Ammanni have fully succeeded in this.

The Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue) is considered a fortress monument from the Segregation to the Emancipation of the Jews of Rome (1849-1871). It has endured the silence of Pius XII during World War II; it has witnessed the deportation of Rome’s Jews of October 16, 1943. It was visited by Victor Emmanuel III, who so graciously honored the Great Synagogue with its first official visit. It experienced a terrorist attack on October 9, 1982 and now is protected by Israeli security guards. It has received historic visits from Pope John Paul II in 1986, Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, and Pope Francis in 2016. Is there anything else you would like to say in conclusion to this great interview?

The main temple is not only the center of the cult of Roman Judaism but also its cultural center. It has always been a fortress for its people who took refuge there in the darkest hours, and where they gathered to celebrate the end of the Nazi yoke in the hour of liberation, June 4, 1944. A curiosity: under the occupation, the Sacred Scrolls were not found by the Nazis, these scrolls never actually left the building. Its walls were a fortress for them and, even today, still, they keep the secret of their salvation, welcoming the prayers of those who trust in them.