Casale Monferrato: The synagogue

Inconspicuous entrance to the synagogue.

This website has dozens of posts about churches, but this post is the first that has a synagogue as its subject. And a very special synagogue to boot, as the Jewish house of prayer in Casale Monferrato has an incredibly rich Baroque interior. Although the synagogue is still used for celebrating Jewish holidays (such as Rosh Hashanah or Jewish New Year), the regular liturgy has been suspended. The reason for this is both understandable and sad: the Jewish community of Casale has simply become too small. There are just six Jewish people living in and around the town, and they belong to just two families. And as the lady that gave us a tour of the building explained, the presence of at least ten men is required to read from the Torah.


The history of the synagogue of Casale Monferrato goes back to the end of the sixteenth century. At that time there had been a Jewish community in the town for about a hundred years, which included people who had been expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the previous century. Jews were important for the economy of Casale, for instance because they acted as moneylenders (a profession Christians were not allowed to practice). Around 1570 Guglielmo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantova and Monferrato, had granted his Jewish subjects the right to practice their religion freely, provided this would be done in a way that did not give offence to the Catholic majority in his territories. In practice this meant that synagogues could not look like synagogues from the outside. The synagogue of Casale, which opened its doors in 1595, met this requirement to the letter. It had no street presence whatsoever and still does not have it even today. Fortunately the Jewish community that administers the building has put up information signs and banners, otherwise potentially interested visitors would miss the synagogue completely. This is a perfect example of a “hidden synagogue”.

Sacred Ark (Aron ha-Kodesh).

The name of the original architect of the synagogue has apparently not been recorded and virtually nothing remains of the late sixteenth-century interior of the building. Only the bas-reliefs at the back which feature the cities of Jerusalem and Hebron date from this era. The arrangement of the benches and the position of the Sacred Ark (Aron ha-Kodesh) was altered completely in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Originally the benches were placed facing each other, a bit like in the British House of Commons. The Ark stood along the long west wall, oriented towards the east and to Jerusalem. In 1720 a floor was added to the synagogue, which was fitted out as a matronaeum, a gallery for the women. I assume that the ceiling of the synagogue was raised on that occasion, as from the gallery one can look into the prayer hall. The present Aron ha-Kodesh was crafted in 1765 and then embellished in 1787. The Ark now stands against the short south wall, and the benches are currently arranged in two rows, just like in a Christian church. The changes all date from the nineteenth century, a century that was very important for Jews and other non-Catholics in Italy.

So what exactly happened in that century? On 29 March 1848 a new Constitution had been promulgated in the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia[1], of which Monferrato was a part, the Statuto Albertino. The Constitution was named after the former king Charles Albert from the House of Savoy, whose son Victor Emanuel later became the first king of a united Italy. The Constitution granted freedom of religion to all subjects, also to the Israeliti Subalpini. From now on the Jews were allowed to build synagogues that actually looked like synagogues and to practice their religion in public. The new freedom did not lead to the addition of a spectacular façade to the synagogue of Casale Monferrato. This did happen in cities such as Rome, Florence and – to mention a Piedmontese example – Vercelli, but it should be noted that the synagogues there were themselves only built in the nineteenth century. What did happen in Casale Monferrato was a thorough renovation of the interior of the synagogue. The work was completed in 1866. A rabbi named Salomone Olper (1811-1877) played an important role in the process. The alley where the synagogue can be found is named the Vicolo Salomone Olper after him.

Interior of the synagogue.

Cantoria of the synagogue.

At the end of the nineteenth century the economy of Casale Monferrato went into decline, and as a consequence many Jews left the town and migrated to big cities such as Turin and Milan. The Holocaust then led to the almost total annihilation of the remaining Jewish population. The once splendid synagogue was neglected for decades, so at the end of the 1960s it had become completely dilapidated. Fortunately a restoration project was launched in 1968, led by the architect Giulio Bourbon (1936-2018). Thanks to the restoration the synagogue had been saved and visitors today can still admire this very special monument with its spectacular Baroque interior. The synagogue in fact looks a lot like a Catholic church, the most important difference being the total absence of images of people and animals. This is prohibited by Exodus 20:4, and the ban on images is strictly enforced here.

Visiting the synagogue

We visited the synagogue on a Sunday and found the doors wide open. On other days it is probably necessary to make a reservation. Those interested in a visit should ask for more information at the local tourist information office, which is housed in the castle of Casale. From the Vicolo Salomone Olper visitors enter a corridor. On the left wall of the corridor is a monument for the victims of the Holocaust from Casale and nearby Moncalvo. The entrance to the synagogue is next to the monument. This entrance too was only created in the nineteenth century. Visitors must enter the synagogue with a guide, and tours in English are available. Men are required to cover their heads in conformity with Jewish custom and to take a seat in one of the benches on the left. Women use the benches on the right. The guide provided us with a lot of information about the history and decorations of the building, and gave us plenty of room to ask questions. Taking pictures is allowed, which was a pleasant surprise considering the aforementioned ban on images in Exodus 20:4. The fact that the synagogue is now in the first place a monument is no doubt relevant. Visitors are expected to make a donation before or after their visit, so please donate generously.

West wall, with the matronaeum and Hebrew texts.

Reference to the Constitution of 1848 and to King Charles Albert.

There is a lot to see in the synagogue. I already mentioned the Sacred Ark or Aron ha-Kodesh. The cabinet with the Torah scrolls is covered with a curtain or parochet, designed by Emanuele Luzzati (1921-2007). The platform in front of the Ark is called the bimah or tevah. From this platform texts from the Torah are recited. On the left wall we find a balcony for the singers, which can be compared to a cantoria in a Catholic church. According to our guide, such a balcony is quite uncommon in a synagogue. While images are completely absent, Hebrew texts are omnipresent (see the image above). The texts on the walls can be divided into two categories: texts about historical events and texts from psalms. In translation, the Hebrew text on the ceiling of the synagogue reads: “This is the gate of Heaven”. The guide explained to us that, as nothing is allowed to come in between God and the faithful, it is forbidden to build a floor above the ceiling. In the whole building we find but a single text in Italian, on the wall to the left of the Sacred Ark. The text gratefully refers to the Constitution of 1848, which turned Jews into full-fledged citizens.

Many elements of the synagogue have been gilded. That also goes for the grilles of the matronaeum. This gallery is currently being used by the Museo degli argenti, which focuses on Jewish art and history. Next to the Museo degli argenti we find a second museum, the Museo dei Lumi, which is dedicated to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. “Hanukkah” means “dedication” and refers to the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE. All in all the synagogue of Casale Monferrato is an attraction that cannot be missed.

Further reading: The Synagogue | Comunità Ebraica Casale Monferrato (


[1] The House of Savoy had acquired Sardinia in 1720 in exchange for Sicily. Until 1847 members of the House were formally only Kings of Sardinia, although their capital was at Turin on the mainland. The 1847 Fusione perfetta ended all administrative differences between the island and the mainland.

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  1. Pingback:A walk in Casale Monferrato – – Corvinus –

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