While exploring Etruscan tombs in Tuscany, my sister Constance and I stumbled upon the ancient hilltop town of Pitigliano.
We saw many other lovely towns…
…and picturesque villages.
But I loved this place like nowhere else in Italy. Its story was the key to my heart. Pitigliano had provided a rare refuge for Jews driven from Spain during the Inquisition. After the Pope and the Medicis forced Pitigliano’s Jews into the ghetto in 1600, they still accounted for twenty percent of the population. After the war and the Holocaust, a small handful returned to care for the synagogue and to tell the story.
“How small?” I asked a local. She shrugged. “Maybe five.”
The Jewish bakery was closed for the Sabbath, and the synagogue was closed because there weren’t enough Jews for a minyan.
But a shop sold matzoh and a confection called Sfratto, the Italian word for eviction. Sfratto has a filling of honey, walnuts, and oranges, baked into a smooth-crusted loaf shaped like a police baton. It was invented by the Jews of Pitigliano to commemorate their eviction from their homes and into the ghetto by officers using sticks to beat on their doors. Four hundred years later, they’re still telling the story, and we’re still eating it up.
In a narrow alley across from the synagogue, I shivered to hear the haunting strains of a lone Klezmer violin drifting down from a second story window. At first I thought it was a recording, until the music trailed off. It had to have been played by human, or perhaps ghostly hands.
Nearby was a doorstep decked with flowers as colorful as the town’s history. Two cats curled up in a big flowerpot, one cat a black and white mix, the other all black, but I was an English major, and I saw them as symbols of the concrete world of black and white, living in harmony with the fluid world of shadow and story. The scene was framed by dark medieval walls backlit by the sunny valley, while the valley was alive with vineyards and olive trees…
…yet riddled with ancient tombs.
The paradox seemed to capture the essence of Pitigliano, and of all Italy. But before I could capture it on film, the cats bolted, and I lost the moment. Or so I thought. That night in our apartment in Orvieto, Constance painted…
…while I wrote about Pitigliano. I loved it for its unique history, for providing refuge when so few others would, for its tiny but stalwart population of Jews determined to protect a precious legacy, for the stories and ghosts that linger in every back alley.
Then Constance showed me her painting. Alive with color, it conjured the fragrance of honey and walnut, the haunting strains of a lone violin. And there were my cats, just as I remembered them, a perfect balance of black and white, and shadow.
It was reassuring. In arts or in letters, by word of mouth, or in the guise of a Jewish confection, so long as there is someone left to tell it and someone willing to listen, the story will survive.
All words and images copyright Naomi Baltuck