The opening of the first large building of the “Meis – Museo Nazionale dell’Ebraismo Italiano e della Shoah” (National Museum of Italian Judaism and Shoah) (Meis), with the exhibition “Jews, an Italian history. The first thousand years “, represents a milestone of considerable importance in the construction of the Museum, instituted by the Parliament of the Republic with the 2003 law, amended in December 2006.
The former Ferrara prison has been impeccably renovated in order to be used for the new purpose assigned to it. It is therefore preparing to assume, in a sort of counteraxis from a place of segregation and exclusion, such as it has been for the entire duration of the twentieth century and in particular in the dark years of fascism, the role of a centre of culture, research, didactics, confrontation and dialogue, and therefore, more than ever meaningful.
The Meis will then be completed by the end of 2020 with the construction of five modern buildings. They all will be characterized by fittings that recall the five books of the Torah, intended to host, next to the exhibition spaces, also public receptions, the museum shop, library, archive, documentation and cataloguing center, auditorium, educational laboratories, restaurant and cafeteria, thus giving rise to a large museum and cultural complex.
The generous contribution of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism, which guaranteed the entire economic coverage of the shipyard, thanks to the strong and convinced support of the Minister Dario Franceschini, who was, moreover, the first signatory of the proposed law establishing the Museum, was decisive for the achievement of this important objective. The institutional aims assigned to MEIS by the aforementioned law provide that it must be a cultural pole on Judaism, testifying in particular to the events that characterize the two-thousand-year-old Jewish experience in Italy; to make the life, thought and culture of Italian Judaism known from its origins to the present, including, with special attention, the period of persecution and Shoah in the specific experience of Italian Jews; be an open and inclusive place, a laboratory of ideas and reflections that tell you what it means to be a minority; stimulate the debate on Judaism, its future in Italy and the value of dialogue and encounter between different cultures.
The subject of the narration of the Meis, which begins with the exhibition on the first thousand years, will therefore be the more than two millennia of vital and uninterrupted presence of Jews in Italy, with their traditions and the fundamental contributions made to history, and the culture of the country and Judaism as a whole.
Although it is a minority, the role of the Jews was, in fact, already at the forefront since Roman times and then in the Renaissance, to continue in modern times, in the economic development of Northern and Central Italy, and then in the process of national and resurgence unification, until the contribution to literary and scientific production of the twentieth century. In addition, over the centuries they have contributed to establishing numerous relationships between Italy, Europe and the other shores of the Mediterranean. It can therefore be rightly argued that Jews are an indispensable reference point for understanding Italian history and civilization, between more serene periods of cohabitation, with progressive interactions, and others, tragic, of persecution and expulsion, culminating in the tragedy of the Shoah.
From this point of view, the inaugural exhibition is not merely a temporary exhibition on a particular theme, but takes on the character of a real exhibition of the Museum’s prefiguration, of which it will substantially represent, from a scientific and exhibition point of view, the first large section. It is assigned the objective of communicating the uniqueness of the history of Italian Judaism, describing – for the first time with such breadth – how the Jewish presence in Italy has been formed and developed in successive phases and how, from generation to generation, the Jews of Italy have built their own unique identity, even compared to the rest of Judaism. An exhibition that the curators Anna Foa, Giancarlo Lacerenza and Daniele Jalla, in collaboration with Studio Tortelli and Frassoni of Brescia, intended to create in an absolutely original way, conceiving it as a representation of temporal, spatial, social, cultural contexts, through authentic objects or reproductions, written texts, fixed or moving images, able to communicate to visitors the interpretation of the first thousand years of the history of the italian Jews.
More than two hundred objects, many of which are very precious, including twenty manuscripts, seven incunabula and books from the sixteenth-century, eighteen medieval documents, mostly coming from the Genizah of Cairo, forty-nine epigraphs of Roman and medieval age and one hundred and twenty-nine rings, seals, coins, lamps, amulets, little known or exhibited for the first time, lent by many important Italian and foreign museums, point out the great importance that the initiative will have in the cultural landscape of the country.
To the curators and their collaborators, consultants, designers, Italian and foreign scholars, authors of the essays in the catalogue, communication experts, lenders, sponsors and all those who have worked on this complex but fascinating operation together with the Board of Directors and the Scientific Committee, and in close coordination with the Director of the Museum Simonetta Della Seta and his meagre, but efficient and passionate staff, goes the most heartfelt thanks. No less gratitude is due to the person in charge of the procedure of the complex site from the beginning of the works to last September, Carla Di Francesco, today Secretary General of MiBaCT, and to Rita Berton, who collected the witness and to all those who accompanied us for all the works with great commitment and professionalism. A sincere and non-formal thanks should also be addressed to those who were the protagonists of the first part of the history of the Meis, and deep gratitude should be expressed to the Municipality of Ferrara and the Emilia-Romagna Region.
With the “Comunità Ebraica di Ferrara” (Jewish Community of Ferrara), with the “Unione delle Comunità Ebraiche Italiane” (Union of Italian Jewish Communities) and with the “Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea di Milano” (Centre for Contemporary Jewish Documentation in Milan), the constant dialogue and close collaboration have created a strong and fruitful synergy, which should be acknowledged with gratitude. Only thanks to this truly choral effort has the Meis been able to reach this first, important goal and will be able to face the not simple challenge of completing the complex, ambitious, but indispensable, project, at a time when the dialogue between the many components of our country’s society is more than ever a fundamental objective to pursue with tenacity and farsightedness.
*Dario Disegni is the President of the Meis (National Museum of Italian Judaism and Shoah)
Translation by Milena Porsch, student at Regensburg University, intern at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.