But hard times came during the late Renaissance, when the Church of Rome, following the Protestant schism, gave a sharp turn of the screw against the non-Christian population.
The newly elected Pope Paul IV decided to enclose the whole Jewish community (Comunità Ebraica) within a very small enclosed area, and issued strict discriminatory laws.
The neighbourhood, known as the ghetto, comprised the few narrow streets located between piazza Giudea (no longer there) by the church of Santa Maria del Pianto, the remains of the Porch of Octavia (see The 22 Rioni, Sant’Angelo for details) and the river bank by the Tiber Island.
Following Paul IV’s bull entitled Cum nimis absurdum (literally “when too much is absurd”, actually “when enough is enough”), issued in 1555, the 3,000 members of the community were forced to live within the ghetto’s boundary, originally called ‘the Jews’ enclosure’, whose total surface was about 8 acres.
The dwellers were allowed to leave this neighborhood only during daytime, while from dusk till dawn the entrances to the district were closed by huge doors, watched over by guards, whose wages the same community had to pay for.
Originally the gates were three, but only a few decades later, when pope Sixtus V had the ghetto slightly enlarged towards the river, their number rose to five. Neither the gates nor their doors exist any longer, but old maps still feature them quite clearly. Those who were left outside after the closing time were to face the implacable papal law court.
Initially, the ghetto’s only source of running water was a public fountain located in piazza Giudea, outside the boundary, thus the hygienic conditions inside the district were terrible. A smaller fountain was built inside the enclosure only many years later.
Furthermore, being one of the lowest spots in Rome, the risk of being flooded by the nearby Tiber was another constant danger.
Outside the ghetto all Jewish men had to wear a piece of yellow cloth on their hat, while women had to wear a yellow veil, or a scarf of the same colour, so to be easily recognized.
They could not own any property; the houses where they lived belonged to non-Jews, who rented them to members of the community at prices kept under control by means of a law named Ius Gazzagà.
As a custom, the rental contract was inherited by the lodger’s heirs, so that most houses were occupied by the same families for many generations.
The Jewish population, though, kept growing at a very fast rate, also because Jews from other cities within the Papal State were forced to flee to Rome: by the end of the 17th century there were about 9,000 people living in the ghetto.
The enclosure had to be slightly enlarged, and a fourth door was added.
Particular laws, that often changed when a new pope was elected, restricted the number of activities that the Jews were officially allowed to practice; at times, the only job they could live on was to sell rags.
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