Archaeologists working on behalf of the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma will share the results of recent excavations on the grounds of the Palazzo Leonori, the new seat of the insurance company AdiR, at Viale delle Mura Portuensi, 33, in Rome's 16th municipal district. An extensive restoration of the early 20th century structure provided the opportunity to dig deeper not only into the building's history, but also into that of the surrounding area close to the Tiber docks in Trastevere, today outside the walls, but once a threshold to Rome from the ancient Porta Portuensis, the fifth-century CE city gate demolished and rebuilt in its present location as Porta Portese by 1644.
Before and after the rebuilding of the Trastevere defences, a crooked plot of land on the right side of the street, behind the churches of S. Francesco a Ripa and San Biagio, was known as the "Campus Judaeorum" (or Campo/Orto dei Giudei, etc.). This "Field of the Jews" on the city's extremity was a Jewish cemetery, in use by the thirteenth century, and expropriated three centuries later in 1587 by Pope Urban VIII, not long after the institution of the Roman ghetto on the Tiber's left bank. Headstones and other artifacts were uprooted during the completion of a new wall circuit in 1644, during the pontificate of Innocent X, which seem to have used commemorative stones from the graveyard in their construction, while collectors pocketed the smaller goods. Like other burial grounds, the Trastevere site was within the city boundaries at the time it was in use, and owned and administered, at least in its final phase, by a Jewish charitable society, the Compagnia della carità e della morte Israelitica (Ghemiluth Chasadim).
The location of this Jewish cemetery is no mystery: it was behind the Church and Monastery of S. Francesco a Ripa, and reached the walls and gates of the ancient Porta Portese (roughly 500 meters beyond the actual gate, heading away from Rome's center: a good way to mark the site of the older gate today is to look across the river and see the walls on the left bank, going toward the Porta S. Paolo, which still follow the ancient circuit). On historic maps, the site looks grassy and empty, but actually it was close to a commercial zone, the "Bufalara" or loading dock for cattle, and not far from the well-trafficked via Portuense. Due to its proximity to the Tiber river, in fact, the area remained relatively uninhabited, well into the industrial age, for it was considered unhealthy to live so close to the fresh water marshes on such low and flood-prone grounds.
Even before the cemetery was dismantled in the late sixteenth century, and the Jews were obliged to move their burial activity to the slopes of the Aventine Hill overlooking the Circus Maximus, in an "Ortaccio degli Ebrei," that, in turn, fell out of use in the late nineteenth century, with subsequent oblivion by order of the Fascist regime in 1934, excavations at the Portuense gate by land owners and antiquarians brought up a number of inscribed marble capitals and sculpted fragments, as well as other types of Roman and Medieval era finds. The ruins of the "Gardens of Caesar" "Gardens of Gallus", and "Naumachia of Augustus" were believed to lie nearby, as well as an intriguing cult shrine to Syrian gods. Ancient building remains were especially visible in the early Modern period in the land cooperatively owned by Rome's Jews, but the uprooting of the Jewish cemetery itself might not have been all that systematic, as pieces of epitaphs in Hebrew (or reused grave markers in Greek and Latin, for Jewish burials during the Late Antique and Medieval periods) continued to turn up in subsequent building activity well into the 19th and early 20th centuries, though most of these inscribed rock tablets no longer seemed to be in situ to mark a grave.
In later years, an "Osteria degli Ebrei" existed in the vicinity, and a building marked by a Hebrew inscription escaped destruction on the vicolo delle Palme (today's vicolo dell'Atleta), in the heart of the Medieval "Contrada Synagoghe" or "Contrada Hebraeorum". But the "Campus Judaeorum," along with surrounding vineyards, were built over in the last century as trains and other types of vehicular traffic criss-crossed the zone.
Today, there seems to be a lot of asphalt over the grounds, but the San Francesco complex, rebuilt and enlarged in the seventeenth century, might preserve some material traces of the neighboring Jewish cemetery. It would be well worth hearing from the Italian authorities during a press conference at the National Roman Museum on March 20 what the next steps will be toward reclaiming more evidence of past Jewish populations in Rome, and how the on-going documentation of Jewish cemeteries relates to other urban developments over time.
(Author: Jessica Dello Russo)