It’s a foggy fall morning, and standing atop Mount Cardeto on the east coast of central Italy, I can barely make out the deep blue of the Adriatic Sea. As I look out toward the cliff’s edge, what I do see is a vast, grassy slope dotted with gravestones. Most of the stones are circular — thick, stubby posts with decorative tops — and are engraved in Hebrew, though some are in Italian. Many are lopsided, having settled part way into the ground over the hundreds of years since they were first erected.
This hilltop cemetery — used continuously from the early 1500s to 1863 — is in the port city of Ancona, which in 2004 completed a massive restoration of its Campo degli Ebrei (Field of Jews). In all, more than 1,000 gravestones were recovered, including hundreds that had fallen into the sea. The information carved on them — name, lifespan, place of birth, occupation, names of other family members, etc. — has been entered into a digital archive that visitors can now search on-site.
The size of the cemetery attests to a once-vibrant Jewish presence in the area. The scope of its restoration attests to something altogether different: a recent interest in, and support for, uncovering and preserving the Jewish past in Italy.
Which is what brings me here. The Primo Levi Center in New York — an organization that supports research on historical and contemporary Jewish life in Italy — along with the Italian tourism bureau, has brought a group of American journalists to two regions in Italy, places where Jewish history and artifacts have often gone unnoticed. On our six-day journey, scholars, curators and Jewish community members guide us through towns in Marche, along the country’s central Adriatic coast, and in Apulia, a southern region that extends through the heel of Italy’s boot.
In Ancona, a city in Marche, Jews played a vital role in the economy, especially during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were merchants and traders of the many commodities that passed through the busy port; they were also artisans, craftsmen and moneylenders. In other Marche towns, Jews enjoyed periods of similar success, albeit with variations due to local economy or rule: Jews in Pesaro and Urbino enjoyed periodic protections under some of the Montefeltro dukes, while Jews in the free port of Senigallia prospered from the Fiera della Maddalena, one of Europe’s largest market fairs.