Unexpectedly Stumbling Upon a Unique Jewish Destination in Italy

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Rabbi Robert Leib with Francesca Perotti and Giuseppe Cavali
Rabbi Robert Leib with Francesca Perotti and Giuseppe Cavali (Photos courtesy of Rabbi Robert Leib)

By Rabbi Robert S. Leib

Sometimes, life’s unexpected surprises are to be found at arm’s length or, quite literally, around the corner! But I digress …

Earlier this summer, my two younger daughters and I spent a week in Italy primarily to celebrate my niece’s (their first cousin’s) wedding, which took place on beautiful isola d’Elba, the Island of Elba.

Before our departure for Napoleon’s once-temporary home, we spent our first two nights in the bucolic northern Italian town of Crema, my niece’s husband’s parents’ ancestral home.

Less than an hour and a half’s drive from Milan, we could not have asked for a more delightful, picturesque town, one dating to the Sixth century: a veritable maze of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with brightly painted, flower-bedecked homes; elegant, private palazzos behind ornate, wrought-iron gates and fashionable boutiques leading to the central “Piazza Duomo,” awash with outdoor restaurants and cafes.

Crema, however, is not your typical tourist’s destination. On the contrary; I suspect that few Americans have ever ventured into the town but Asians, for example, are now arriving in unprecedented numbers. Why? Because Crema was chosen as the site for the full-length 2017 award-winning movie Call Me by Your Name, directed by Luca Guadagnino, who just happens to be a local resident. Imagine my daughters’ surprise when they were told that the movie’s two male stars, Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer, also stayed at our charming, six-bedroom B&B on Via Vimercati.

Crema, a town of approximately 34,000, has apparently no Jewish residents nor are there to be found any synagogue remains. I was told, however, that a tiny Jewish quarter was once situated directly behind and in the shadow of the Duomo, the cathedral that continues to dominate the main piazza.

I had asked my wife, Randy, to purchase a National Geographic map of Italy before our departure. I was interested and curious to know where we were going to be. Imagine my surprise when, after finding Crema in the Lombardy region of the country, I couldn’t help but notice that one of the closest geographical places to Crema was none other than Soncino. I was astonished; all I knew was that the village associated with Jewish printing was in Italy but, to all intents and purposes, it might well have been hundreds of miles away. On the contrary; it was just around the corner. Literally.

I asked my niece’s now father-in-law, Alberto, if he wouldn’t mind taking my father and I to visit the Museo della Stampa, the Printing Museum which also houses the Centro Studi Stampatori Ebrei Soncino, the Soncino Hebrew Printers’ Study Center. Alberto was only too pleased to help. He promptly called and was told that the museum was only open that day from 10 a.m. to noon. By then it was already 10:15 a.m.; we hadn’t a moment to lose. It was now or never, for we were all leaving bright and early the following morning for the coastal town of Piombino to take the ferry over to Elba.

After driving for about 20 minutes through corn fields and nondescript industrial plants, we duly arrived at 8 Via Lanfranco, a tall, old brick building dedicated to the history of the printing press but also to Soncino’s truly unique Jewish history: it was here, supposedly on the very site where the museum is now located, that the world’s very first edition of the Hebrew Bible was printed.

Those of us at all familiar with translated Biblical and Talmudic texts recognize the unsurpassed quality of the iconic Soncino Press printers’ mark (with its iconic tower probably connected with the neighboring municipality of Casalmaggiore), universally acknowledged as, arguably, the oldest and most venerable Jewish printing house in the world.

The history of Jewish printing is forever linked with the village of Soncino (2018 population just over 7,800, including one Jew) thanks to a Jewish family that, due to anti-Jewish discrimination, had fled the German city of Speyer, near Mainz. Due to an edict authorized by Francesco Sforza, the Duke of Milan, Israel Nathan B. Samuel’s family was given permission to set up a loan business in Soncino in 1454.

After some three decades, the family decided to embark on a new business — printing — and published their first work, the Talmudic tractate Berachot, on Feb. 2, 1484. However, the so-called Famiglia Soncino, (Sonchino in Italian) made history when, on April 22, 1488, they printed La Prima Bibbia Ebraica Completa, the first complete edition of the Hebrew Bible with vowels. It should be noted that the Soncino’s printing house was the only one of its kind in Italy from the last decade of the 15th century to the first quarter of the 16th century.

The late Gothic-style, tower-like building on Via Lanfranco and its carefully planned masonry — with inner tough bricks suitable to support the planking and outer waterproof bricks — together with the larger rooms on the ground floor and the ogival windows on the upper floors, suggest that it might well have been the very site of the Soncino’s printing house and home. It was renovated and officially opened in 1988, to mark the quincentennial anniversary of the first complete printing of the Hebrew Bible.

A translation of the marble plaque affixed to the outside brick wall reads as follows: “This building has been designated as the home of the Jewish printers who named themselves after the town of Soncino and printed numerous books in this village from 1483 to 1492 among which was the first complete Hebrew Bible in 1488. The owner, Dr. Francesco Cerioli, gave it to the local authorities so that it would become the venue for the study of the Soncino Printers. 22 September 1991.”

I am extremely grateful to Francesca Perotti, the museum’s curator, for the time she spent with us and for her invaluable insight. She made a freshly-minted copy for me of Pagina iniziale della Bibbia stampata a Soncino il 22 aprile 1488, the very first page from the very first printed edition of the Hebrew Bible which just happens to contain Genesis 1:1-14.

I couldn’t help but notice that, in addition to the museum’s own watermark, the lithograph also includes a parody (in both Hebrew and Italian) of the famous biblical quote from Isaiah (2:3): “For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the word of God from … Soncino!!”

While my visit to Sunsi (as it’s known locally) was all too short, it was truly memorable. Who knew that just down the road from nearby Crema, in a remote corner of what was once the Jewish quarter of a small Lombardy village, the very first edition of the Hebrew Bible was printed more than 531 years ago.

Rabbi Robert S. Leib is the senior rabbi at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington.

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