The presence of Jewish people dates back to the 11th century.
The first record of a Jewish presence in Padua dates back to the beginning of the 11th century. However it was only with a substantial immigration from Pisa, Rome, Bologna and the March of Ancona in the second half of the 14th century that a great increase in the number of Jewish people in Padua was registered.
Immigrants from Germany, Spain and the Levant arrived later.
The newcomers were not only moneylenders but also students at the city's rabbinical Academy and the University faculty of Medicine (Padua being the only university in Europe to accept Jewish students).
Most of the Jewish community at the time was, however, involved in commerce, money lending, strazzaria (the cloth trade) or dealing in precious metals and gems.
From the city itself, the banking business spread to Piove di Sacco, Este and Montagnana.
During the period of the Communes (XI-XIV centuries.) and the rule of the da Carrara family (1337-1405), the Jewish community in Padua enjoyed a time of relative calm. Most of the community settled in the Borgo Savonarola district and the area round Ponte del Molino.
As trade increased, the Jews moved to Ponte Altinate, Santa Giuliana and Piazza della Legna (on the site now occupied by the Caffè Pedrocchi). The community's first official synagogue was situated in Piazza della Legna.
At the beginning of the 15th century there were Jewish banks throughout the city. However with the Venetian conquest of the mainland in 1405 things changed for the Jewish community, they lost all rights of citizenship, could no longer own land and were even obliged to sell the houses and land they already possessed.
Nevertheless, the economic power of the Jewish bank increased over the course of the century. Until Monti di Pietà was founded, moneylenders had been indispensable.
Towards the end of the 15th century the community benefited from the arrival of a number of Ashkenazi refugees, including a sizeable number of erudite rabbis. It was largely thanks to them that, within a very short space of time, Padua became one of the centres of Jewish culture in northern Italy.
By the time of the creation of the first Monte di Pietà in 1492 the community's position began to worsen in more than just economic terms. A brief period of looting began.
The first large German-rite synagogue was opened in 1525 in via delle Piazze and remained in service until 1682. In 1548 the Italian-rite synagogue opened in Via Urbana (now via S. Martino e Solferino), while in 1617, some fourteen years after the Jewish quarter had been officially established, a Spanish-rite synagogue was opened in the same street.
In 1603 the Jewish community was confined within an area formed by Via Fabbri, Via Urbana, Via Sirena and Via dell'Arco. The area had four gateways controlled by two gatekeepers -one Jewish, one Christian. Consisting of oppressive, narrow streets and grim towers, the district was squalid and caused a rapid spread of the plague in 1603.
In the centuries to come the gold trade and related business activities and the commerce of woven fabrics would supplement the commerce in cloth. There was a veritable Guild of Jewish Cloth Merchants, with its own syndics, bailiffs and stewards. Moreover, it was the Jews who first introduced silk production to Padua and the surrounding area.
In spite of the Jewish community's contribution to the economic life of the city, relations with the Christian citizens of Padua were not always easy, and competition between guilds could degenerate into hostility and intimidation.
Padua University, too, was not always consistent in its treatment of Jews. With the arrival of the French in 1797, here as elsewhere the Jewish quarters gates were ritually removed. From the unification of Italy onwards, the Padua community gradually dwindled. In 1829 the city became the seat of the Rabbinical Seminary (later the Rabbinical College).
When the race laws were passed in 1938 the community numbers dropped even further, some people managed to move to Israel, while other were captured and deported.
The Jewish quarter near Piazza delle Erbe has maintained its original appearance almost intact. From Via Roma visitors might begin their visit by turning into via San Martino e Solferino. This street used to be one of the four gateways that closed off the quarter. The first turning on the right leads into via delle Piazze and the central area of the district.
In the first block on the left there used to be two synagogues. In 1927 a fire caused substantial damage to the structure, which was totally gutted by a fascist firebomb in 1943. Today the building has been restored and hosts exhibitions and conferences.
The Italian-rite synagogue is at number 9 of Via S. Martino and Solferino. It was first built in 1548. Alterations were made in 1581, 1631, 1830 and 1865. Closed in 1892, it was only reopened after the Second World War when a fire had made the main synagogue unfit for use. This is one of the few temples in Italy with the aron and bimah placed opposite each other midway down the long side of the hall, in such a way that they divide the space into two.
There are pews all around the wood-panelled walls. From the coffered ceiling hang the numerous bronze lamps that light the temple.
Set between the 4 Corinthian columns of veined black marble, the most significant fixture is the large 17th century aron, carved from the wood of a plane tree from the Padua Botanical Garden.
At the corner with via Marsala you can still see the examples of the typical 'towers' that served as housing in the Jewish quarter. The Jewish cemeteries in the city make a separate itinerary: there are 7 in all, and some can be visited by arrangement with the community offices.
The first cemetery is at San Leonardo and dates from before 1348. Among the tombs is that of the famous rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen (1482-1565) with its carving of a cat (Katze in German).
Other cemeteries are in Via Codalunga, at Santa Maria Mater Domini, in Via Zodio and Via del Campagnola. The present-day cemetery is in Via Sorio and was established in 1862.