By Ruth Ellen Gruber
The entry stairway to the early 19th century synagogue in the historic northern Italian town of Sabbioneta has been declared unsafe and the building, now used as a museum, closed to visitors.
Sabbioneta, on the Po River near Mantova, was laid out as a walled "ideal city" in the second half of the 16th century by Prince Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna. It is on UNESCO's list of world heritage sites, paired with Mantova as two aspects of Renaissance town planning.
Mantua shows the renewal and extension of an existing city, while 30 km away, Sabbioneta represents the implementation of the period’s theories about planning the ideal city. Typically, Mantua’s layout is irregular with regular parts showing different stages of its growth since the Roman period and includes many medieval edifices among them an 11th century rotunda and a Baroque theatre. Sabbioneta, created in the second half of the 16th century under the rule of one person, Vespasiano Gonzaga Colonna, can be described as a single-period city and has a right angle grid layout. Both cities offer exceptional testimonies to the urban, architectural and artistic realizations of the Renaissance, linked through the visions and actions of the ruling Gonzaga family.Jews lived in Sabbioneta from the town's early days -- even before it was laid out in its present form. There was a ghetto here, and the town developed into an important center of Hebrew printing. The Sabbioneta synagogue dates from 1824 -- its present form is an enlargement and rebuilding of an earlier structure by a noted Lombard architect named Carlo Visioli.
Sabbioneta represents the construction of an entirely new town according to the modern, functional vision of the Renaissance. The defensive walls, grid pattern of streets, role of public spaces and monuments all make Sabbioneta one of the best examples of ideal cities built in Europe, with an influence over urbanism and architecture in and outside the continent. The properties represent two significant stages of territorial planning and urban interventions undertaken by the Gonzagas in their domains.
The synagogue lay in sorry disrepair for decades until it was restored by local authorities, turned into a museum and inserted into local tourism itineraries. It has a gilded ark behind a low, elaborate grille and flanked by Corinthian columns. The ceiling is decorated by ornate stucco work.