Little Jerusalem: Pitigliano, a town extending over volcanic rock
Sometimes, it is our mistakes that lead us to discover a beautiful location or an unexpected story, the maps that are turned in the wrong direction, a letter mistaken for another, a path taken in one direction rather than the other, missing a metro stop or the bus stop.
With the technology we have available today, this happens more and more infrequently, and so, to leave us gazing in open-mouthed amazement, a place has to be especially fascinating, it must possess something that re-connects us to that part of our brains that we have forgotten about since our childhood – wonder.
Pitigliano is just the place to produce this kind of epiphany, a small town in Tuscany not far from Lazio. When you arrive, after negotiating the twists and turns in the road that provide glimpses to the nearby fields, you are presented with a vision, a town that lies in a plain of volcanic rock, or tuff, where the town rises in perfect continuity with the essence and colors of the rock, where the work of man and that of nature come together in a way that is seldom seen.
The town most likely dates back to the Etruscans, in fact, in the malleable rock the typical “vie cave” were found, underground passages that allowed escape in the event of an attack and that were part of a network of roads that joined several settlements. In Pitigliano, Etruscan genius is complemented by more austere Medieval additions, as evidenced by the grid of streets and lanes that extend beyond the town.
The Renaissance is the period that left the greatest mark on the town. Palazzo Orsini, which is the largest civic building, has some of the most famous architectural elements of the era: the coats of arms, the ashlar doors, the small piazza with a colonnade.
The Medicean Aqueduct is also remarkable, with is slender arches, which dominates the southern face of the city. The structure was completed in 1649 and is an excellent example of hydraulic engineering.
Pitigliano is made even more unique by its ghetto. The Jews sought protection here beginning in the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V began the counter-reformation persecutions. The large community of Jews was completely accepted by the local population, who did not impose any restrictions on them. The so-called “Little Jerusalem” still remains a central part of community life even today, especially after it was refurbished. The Synagogue, with the Torah ark in the back and central Tevah, features a women’s gallery, beautiful chandeliers, and painted decorations with the inscription attesting to the year it was founded, 1598. Under the synagogue, dug out of the tuff, are the kosher kitchen, the ritual bath, the kosher butcher and the oven for unleavened bread.
The cuisine provides perfect evidence of the mixing of local customs and those imported from Jewish traditions. The local specialty is known as “sfratto”, which derives from the short period when the Jews were expelled from Pitigliano on the order of Cosimo II de’ Medici.
It is a dessert in the shape of a long staff. It is prepared by rolling out unleavened dough and adding a mixture of apples, walnuts, and orange peel. It is then rolled up, brushed with oil, cooked in the oven and served in thin slices. The staff shape derives from those used by the Jews that were expelled at the beginning of the 1600s.
It goes without saying that from any viewpoint, whether north or south, you can enjoy breathtaking views from the plain of the surrounding high ground. The panorama to the south is particularly noteworthy, as it looks out over the Meleta valley.