For most of the last millennium, the red-brick Basilica of San Antonio, with its soaring arches and rose-window façade, has been the main religious attraction for visitors to Padua, Italy.
But connoisseurs of rabbinic history have long made a pilgrimage to the city’s 16th-century Jewish cemetery — one of several that remain from its medieval heyday — to pay homage to the grave of Rabbi Meïr Katsenelenbogen, a renowned Ashkenazic scholar and dynastic patriarch of the 1500s.
And with the recent opening of the Museum of Jewish Padua, in a beautifully restored synagogue from the rabbi’s era, Jewish travelers have another Paduan heritage destination of their own.
Indeed, myriad Jewish points of interest await visitors to Padova, as it is called in Italian. When the Jewish community was at its zenith, Padua was a city-state that rivaled Venice; the fabled Scrovegni Chapel, with an interior bursting with colorful frescoes by Giotto, is a visual testament to that time (the chapel’s advance reservation system, a must for those hoping to visit, is sadly a testament to the present).
Today, Padua is a popular side trip from Venice, also in Italy’s northeast region of Veneto, and a short jog from either Bologna or Verona. San Antonio’s town gets its share of tourism — but after the cruise ship crush of Venice, tourists will find Padua a breath of fresh medieval air.
Padua’s public spaces are an open-air museum of Italian Baroque splendor: grand palazzos, Romanesque busts, marble fountains, piazzas, colonnades and yes, even canals. But while Venice is flat and watery, Padua nestles into the verdant Euganean hills of Veneto, whose beauty has inspired poets from Petrarch to Shelley (along with a surfeit of fizzy-wine makers).
Youthful Padua has been a popular college town since roughly the time of San Antonio. And for nearly as long, Italian Jewish mothers have been nudging their sons to go there: The University of Padua was reportedly the first in Europe to accept Jewish students into its medical school.
In this city of learning, a culture of Jewish scholarship also flourished in Talmudic academies, while the families of Jewish merchants and moneylenders built a community in the early centuries of the last millennium. That community thrived for hundreds of years in the area still visible around Piazza delle Erbe, until harsher rule forced Jews into a contagion-riddled ghetto and their fortunes declined.
It’s a far more complex story than that, obviously, which is where the new museum helpfully comes in.
Modern-day Padovans obviously cherish their heritage, including the Jewish legacy that (remarkably) survives in numerous synagogue buildings and cemeteries. Today, Jews worship at the 1548 “Italian” synagogue, whose gilded interior boasts ornate wood carvings and a lavish marble floor.
The most-visited cemetery, on Via Isidoro Wiel, dates from the same period. Visitors can inspect the tombs of numerous rabbis, scholars and important Italian-Jewish families. Some worshipped in the Italian shul; other Sephardim, in a temple that followed the Spanish rite; and still others, primarily Ashkenazim, in the so-called “German Synagogue.”
The latter, a pink building that opened in the 1520s, was completely restored before its transformation into the Museum of Jewish Padua two years ago. Inside the museum, eager guides show visitors around the stuff of Italian-Jewish life: ketubot, kipot, sacred scrolls and metal ornaments. Texts and tours are available in English, and a film provides historical context.
This week, the Museum of Jewish Padua will host events as part of the annual European Days of Jewish Culture, a continent-wide festival whose theme this year is “Diaspora.”
From Padua, if you’re heading to Venice, consider a scenic trip along the Brenta Canal, an offshoot of the Brenta River that links the two cities. The canal begins in the valley just east of the Euganean Hills, meanders across a flat, verdant plain, flows under several picturesque bridges and winds up near the Venice Lagoon.
Hopeful entrepreneurs have dubbed the waterway the “Brenta Riviera” for the profusion of 17th- and 18th-century villas that line its willow-shaded shores — the erstwhile weekend retreats of wealthy Venetians.
Several boat outfits offer cruises down the canal, often accompanied by guided tours of the area’s history and the villas. Some find the leisurely ride enjoyable; others prefer the independence of a handy public bus or choose to bike the canalside route, stopping (or not) at the villas and whizzing past patches of prosaic modern blight.