For Italian Judaism, not only the synagogue but also the cemetery is a place with a very strong identity. From the second half of the 19th century with the attainment of civil and religious rights, the cemetery became a new form of “visibility” in continuous dialogue between normative-religious issues related to tradition, and formal stylistic choices tending to adopt the architectural and decorative orientations of the period.
In order to understand Jewish cemeteries it is also necessary to clarify some rules on funeral rituals and burial methods, which along with the succession of historical circumstances and the place where they were observed have had a strong influence on the image of these places. The land is usually on an east-facing slope to allow the tombs to face Jerusalem. Laws permitting, the corpse is lowered into the grave wrapped in a simple sheet to speed its return to earth, and for this reason cremation and exhumation are strictly forbidden. Essentially there are two types of tomb: the partially buried perpendicular tombstone known as a stele is very common and traditionally Ashkenazi, and the tomb consisting of horizontal stone slabs which is normally used by families of Sephardic origin. In addition to symbols of the Jewish religious culture (the seven-branched candelabra, star of David, scroll of the Law etc.), a picture of the deceased can be seen in some tombs, in line with a usage adopted after emancipation but not conforming to Jewish tradition.
As for the history of Jewish burial places in Bologna, over the centuries scholars have referred to ancient cemeteries, the largest of which was allegedly the 16th century one in what is now via Orfeo at a nuns’ convent. The four monumental gravestones in Bologna’s Civic Medieval Museum are said to come from this cemetery. The first information on the establishment of a new burial place in Bologna Certosa for the reconstituted 19th century Jewish community comes directly from the memoirs of Marco Momigliano, Chief Rabbi of Bologna from 1866 to 1896.
The present Jewish area covers a vast area of around 7000 sq. m. split into three parts. The oldest section of approximately 1000 sq. m. with around 384 tombs and the mortuary chapel, currently consisting of one single very simple room with no fine architectural features, has over time taken on a monumental appearance. It is therefore worthy of historical-artistic consideration and also represents a cross-section of the community’s history from its foundation in the early decades of the 20th century. As for the design of the tombs, the eclectic mix of styles, linked in particular to the orientalist iconographies which characterised synagogue architecture from the second half of the 19th century to the first two decades of the 20th century, foresaw a non-trivial transposition into individual funerary architecture.
According to the architect Marco Treves, a central figure in the architectural definition of the new image of post unification Italian Judaism, “a truly “Judaic” style that as far as I know does not exist”. This is why the designs of the wealthiest Jewish families’ burial monuments often tend to follow a “Jewish declination” of the characteristic architectural eclecticism of the period. Reference is often made to Solomon’s Temple, adopting a character between the Assyrian-Babylonian and Egyptian one, or to the style of the second Temple, which in addition to the two previous styles included features of Greek art. In Bologna Jewish cemetery also, the traditional simple steles were very soon flanked by real “monuments” which in addition to creating an iconographic transformation gave rise to a new general view of the place.
It is worth recalling in this connection the Liberty tomb built in 1911 by the sculptor Silverio Montaguti for the Zamorani family, the “oriental” chapels of the Padovani (1872), Zabban (1924) and Del Vecchio (1929) families, the large enclosure with a chapel built in the thirties for the engineer Attilio Muggia’s family, and the Finzi shrine, a fine example of modernist architecture designed in 1938 by the architect Enrico De Angeli. 2008 saw the completion of a first upgrading phase of Bologna Jewish cemetery, with the restoration of 89 of the most historically and artistically interesting tombstones. This work was intended to initiate an enhancement strategy for the cemetery, which in addition to preventing its progressive deterioration may also promote knowledge about this very special place, an interweaving of architecture, sculpture, nature, and individual and community memorials.