Pitigliano… Medieval Wonder and Jewish Heritage
Pitigliano, precariously perched on a lava rock precipice, is on the eastern side of Lake Bolsena in southern Tuscany. Like the town of Bolsena on the Latium side of the lake, medieval Pitigliano is built in volcanic stone. While Bolsena’s lava stone is black/gray, Pitigliano’s porous stone is yellowish. As we strolled through the town not long ago, I reflected on how the porous yellowed lava rock of this medieval hilltown reminded me of the grizzly and stubbly face of an old man, skin weathered by sun.
While wandering the charming backstreets, Pino and I did meet an elderly man (though of rosy complexion – in spite of years laboring under the sun – which made him look much younger than his 79 years!), Giovanni. He was gingerly carrying a bunch of grapes and I stopped to ask him what sort of grapes they were. He stopped to talk to us with pride about his vineyards of the anzonica and trebbiano grapes.
In fact, he was on his way to his sister’s home to bring her his bunch of anzonica – but insisted on sharing it with us as we talked. We talked about the rapid changes in the fabric of the tiny hilltowns of central Italy, all once agricultural centers.
In fact, still today, many a Pitigliano family has tracts of farmland (fields, vineyards, olive groves) in the countryside below the lava rock precipe on which Pitigliano is perched – but few still farm and many now rent out their land as does Signor Giovanni.
Giovanni shared with us bittersweet memories of the past: how he and his wife lived principally on boiled potatoes for quite a few years so that they could save to buy the house they now live in. For many years, he boarded a bus at dawn with other field hands for the hour-long ride to Mt. Argentario where they picked tomatoes in the fields til dark.
They arrived home late for a few hours of sleep til boarding the bus again at dawn. Giovanni worked his own land but also worked as a bracciante (hired field hand – the name means quite literally “one with arms”) for others – for extra cash – for almost 60 years. As a bracciante, he picked tomatoes, harvested olives, and hoed sugar beets dawn to dusk. He still feels strong in the arms but arthritis in the knees mean he is out of the fields.
After our chat with Giovanni, we visited the synagogue of Pitigliano tucked into a picturesque backstreet of what was a populated ghetto in the 16th century. During the following two centuries, the town enjoyed – for the most part – a period of peaceful cohabitation for the citizens: in fact, later in the early 1800’s, the Christians of Pitigliano defended the Jewish quarter against the Napoleonic troop aggression The Synagogue was restored completely in 1995 but there is no longer a Jewish community in the town as there are only three or four Jewish persons living there today.
The matzo bread oven, the kosher butcher workshop, the kosher wine-cellar and the wool-dyeing areas were ingeniously built into volcanic tuff rock under the Synagogue but were last used in 1939 when the racial laws were put into effect. After our Synagogue tour, we stopped at the “Ghetto pasticceria” for local breads and sweets, including the sfratti. “Sfratto” means “eviction” in Italian and the honey and nut-filled sweet resembles the wooden rods used to drive the Jewish residents from their homes in times of persecution. In happier times, the Jewish residents began to bake sweets resembling the rods, thus turning bitter memories into sweetness. The Jewish residents were eventually peacefully assimilated into the town population and their sweet, the sfratti, became the beloved Christmas sweet of Pitigliano.
A taste of sfratti is a taste of history.
Read about another charming town, not far away