Memoir set mainly in Verona
Talking Location with author Michelle Cameron – ANCONA
14th April 2020
TalkingLocationWith….. Michelle Cameron, author of Beyond the Ghetto Gates, set in Ancona, Italy.
Ancona, Italy. Even though the place haunted my waking hours – even several of my dreams! – while I was writing Beyond the Ghetto Gates, I’ve never been there.
I’d never even heard of Ancona before stumbling across the name in Michael Goldfarb’s Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews Led to Revolution and Renaissance. There, he told the story of how the young Napoleon Bonaparte, leading the French Army of Italy in 1797, first encountered a Jewish ghetto. Being the impetuous general that he was, he dispatched Jewish soldiers from his forces to dismantle the gates – an action he’d repeat in several other Italian cities he conquered.
So I decided to set my novel in this beautiful place – and was soon entranced by what I discovered. The Greeks called it an “elbow,” and the name Ancona derives from the Greek word. Rising sharply from the harbor, the city is sheltered by three mountains: the rocky Monte Conero, which protects the bay from southerly winds, Monte Astagno, and Monte Guasco, upon whose peak sits the stately cathedral, Il Duomo di San Ciriaco. The cathedral would soon become a critical part of my book. Buildings built from white and rose stone crowd the hillsides, and the sight looking up from the harbor remains just as breathtaking today as it did back in 1797. Upon arriving in the city, one of my characters remarks upon “the sight of the red-tile-roofed buildings rising from the edges of the sea, elbowing one another in their climb up the sheer cliffside, surrounding the bay like an amphitheater of rose-tinted stone.”
Trajan’s Arch towers prominently above the harbor wall. The monument is supported by two pairs of fluted columns with a steep marble staircase leading upward. Twice as high as it is wide, its white stone gleams brightly against sunny blue skies. Built by the Senate and people of Rome during the reign of Emperor Trajan, the arch prompted Napoleon to compare himself to the Roman leader, both being commoners and generals. This passage in Beyond the Ghetto Gates hints at Bonaparte’s conquests to come when he, like Trajan, expands the French Empire to a historic degree.
In the middle of all this beauty was the squalor of the Jewish ghetto. In 1550, Pope Paul IV forced the Jews to congregate on a single street, Via Astagna, and closed it off by an iron gate to discourage mingling with the city’s Catholics. Via Astagna starts near the mouth of the harbor and traverses the hillside. Through the decades and centuries, the Jewish houses rose higher and higher to accommodate a growing population. As my heroine observes: “Tall buildings loomed on either side of the street. Mirelle was used to the narrow space, but today the air seemed more fetid than usual, the close-packed homes more menacing. The buildings—many built centuries before and precariously expanded upward—were crumbling at their foundations. Apartments exuded the smells of a hundred cooking pots, paint curling under the sweat and filth of packed living.”
As you’d expect in a novel called Beyond the Ghetto Gates, the gates play a pivotal role in this story. They are shut at sundown every evening and not opened until sunrise, imprisoning the Jews in their cramped quarters. Because these particular gates no longer exist, I didn’t know precisely what they looked like, so I borrowed from photos of other Italian gates, describing their ornate ironwork with swirls and curlicues that my heroine runs her fingers along while waiting for a friend.
Photos were one way I was able to “travel” through Ancona, and one was particularly poignant. While the Jews were trapped inside their ghetto gates, they were given special dispensation to bury their dead on a rocky hilltop overlooking the harbor. Following a bloody riot in the ghetto, Mirelle visits the cemetery with its unique white pillar gravestones and curved tops. I’m grateful to the unknown person who took and posted this picture!
Even amid the narrow streets, the Jews of Ancona were creating works of incredible beauty. Through my research, I discovered that the city was renowned for creating exquisite Jewish marriage contracts, or ketubot. In fact, the scribes and craftsmen of Ancona were the first to add illumination to these contracts. They also added a pointed “ogee arch,” reminiscent of Gothic architecture, that made it possible for me to point to ketubot in exhibits of Judaica in such far-flung cities as Toronto, New York, and Edinburgh, and recognize that they had originated in Ancona. Learning that Ancona was the world center of ketubot gave me an occupation for Mirelle’s father, who owned one of the famed workshops.
The tension between the Jews and Catholics in the city intensified as Napoleon’s march through Italy aimed straight in their direction. It would grow to a fever pitch by an occurrence in the city’s cathedral. Il Duomo di San Ciriaco is a majestic structure on the mountain top where a temple to Venus once stood. Flanked by red marble lions, built from white stone from Mount Conero, its Lady Chapel displayed a portrait of the Madonna. Based on a Vatican examination that describes the incident, this portrait seems to have come to life, weeping and smiling, startling my real-life characters: Francesca Marotti and her daughter, Barbara. In my novel, I used the miracle Madonna to spur the Catholics of the city into the historical riots that took place in the ghetto prior to Napoleon’s arrival. Anecdotally, this portrait of the Virgin Mary would unnerve General Bonaparte when he saw it after taking control of the city – a great jumping-off point for subsequent sub-plots.
While I haven’t been fortunate enough – yet – to walk the steep, cobbled roads of Ancona, to visit the turquoise harbor, the magnificent cathedral, the Jewish graveyard, and the remnants of the ghetto, my own imaginings of the city have taken full possession of me. And while I’m certain the 21st-century harbor city will have changed from when Napoleon occupied it, I’m looking forward to the day when I can see these places with my own eyes.
Thank you so much to Michelle for such an informative piece on this period of history in Ancona!
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