Was the ghetto cleaner…?

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Let me open with the words of Luigi Maria Benetelli di Vicenza, docente di ebraico in Padua and Venice, in 1603. He tells the following story: A Jew falls in a well, but it is Shabbat, the Sabbath, and so he says to a Christian who wants to save him: Sabatha sancta colo, de stercore surgere nolo. ‘Observing the Sabbath is my bit; allow me, then, my rest in this vile and stinking pit.’ To which the Christian replies the following day, Sunday: Sabbatha nostra quidem Salomon celebrabis idem. ‘On our Sabbath, too, will you delight in the same foul stew.’ Comment here is superfluous: offal is where the Jew belongs – for is it not his, or her, customary place? – the offal in question being Judaism itself. And what this offal needed most was flushing away, a job fit for the waters of a river, namely, the Tiber, which brings us also to Rome and its Jews. Referring to the Tiber floods, Rose Marie San Juan has said that: ‘As a metaphor, water's flow disguises a preoccupation with urban boundaries.’ Witness the words of a poem composed right after the flood of 24 December 1598, once again targeting the Jewish dog: It [the river] seized at once…the piazza of the Jews, this place is one of a kind…Then it went inside the ghetto to find the false, wicked and fraudulent Jews and if naked, naked made them leave their beds. To them it would do…disrespect, because they deserve it: these Jewish dogs, who are the enemies of all Christians [perche lo mertan questi Giudei cani che son nimici di tutti i Christiani]. It is as though the Jews and their filth are flooding the city, which takes its revenge by flooding them back. The conflict between purity and impurity is clearer yet in the words of Filippo Maria Bonini, from 1663: This obstinate people got some benefit from the flood. They refuse to wash off the filth of the soul in baptismal waters; but at least those of the flooding Tiber wash off the dirt and stench of their bodies. [So obstinate are they, that they would rather] trust in their God [than have a priest come to their aid].

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRome, Pollution and Propriety
Subtitle of host publicationDirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781139028479
ISBN (Print)9781107014435
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2012.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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