The best mayor of Rome

By Anna Foa*

As the municipal elections of the city of Rome get closer and closer, a new book by Fabio Martini recalls the figure of Ernesto Nathan, mayor of Rome from 1907 to 1913, thought to be the best mayor of the city. Several initiatives, conferences and publications have recently been dedicated to him, on the centenary of his death in 1921, coordinated by Marisa Trythall, director of the Nathan Project. Nathan was born in England. He was a Jew, a Freemason and a Mazzinian.
His mother, Sara Nathan, was one of the most interesting and bright female figures of the Italian nineteenth century. Under Fascism, Nathan was censored and forgotten. His descendants had to hide in order not to run into Nazi raids. He was a complex figure who showed great culture, intelligence, and organizational skills. He was able to surround himself with expert collaborators who were remarkably honest and righteous.
But now let us try to imagine what it must have been for Rome to have a Jewish mayor in that year, 1907! It was still the beginning of the twentieth century: a period that was going to be terrible, even before the Libyan War and the Great War. Only 37 years had passed since the opening of the ghetto. Those who had lived there were still alive, and often young, and those who had closed Jews there for centuries were just beginning to renounce their self-confinement in the Vatican palaces. Yet only the Catholic press raged against him!
Accepting that the city of Rome, the heart of Christianity, had a Jew at its head, was certainly revolutionary, culturally speaking. A cosmopolitan Jew, open to the world. Secular, but still a Jew! It seemed to many, I believe, that a road towards mutual tolerance of religious beliefs and cultures had just unlocked its doors. The future seemed bright. We now know that it was not going to be that way but let us try to imagine a scenario like that of Nathan’s Rome, before nationalism and Fascism led to the destruction of all the values on which that Rome was founded.
Why not? After all, history is not a steamroller that crushes everything out of necessity, but a journey made by men time after time.


Translated by Gianluca Pace and revised by Antonella Losavio, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities.