The Foundation of Ser Mele da Roma

Written by  Paolo Ravenna
A personality (and a marble tablet) at the roots of the Ferrarese Jewish community.
Towards the end of the Sixteenth century in via Sabbioni, in the heart of Ferrara, there lived an interesting personality - (Mes)ser Mele da Roma. He was the man behind a far-sighted initiative, promoted with a view to providing Ferrara's Jews with a permanent place in which to conduct their religious and community activities. Ser Mele, also known as Samuele Melli, had earlier moved to Mantua and thence to Ferrara where he was a financier close to the Este court.

An outstanding figure, Ser Mele was so influential that Duke Ercole was persuaded to accord him Ferrarese citizenship with full civil rights. Devout and cultivated, Mele lived with his wife in two simple rented rooms in via Sabbioni. Towards the end of his life, he determined that his name would live on in posterity thanks to an important initiative.

He was aware that his fellow Jews in Ferrara were still not represented by an official community and, above all, that they had no fixed place of worship and had to make do with small private oratories.

Ser Mele wanted to put an end to this precarious situation and to give the Jews a permanent synagogue in which they might worship with dignity and so he poured all his wealth, over 1000 ducati (that is more or less, one billion of devaluated liras) into the enterprise. He chose the large building in which he lived as the site for the future place of worship.
On the 3 October 1481 Ser Mele authorized four people to purchase the building «in his name (Ser Mele's) as long as he should live and subsequently in the name of the trustees and their successors in perpetuity». The one absolute condition he laid down was that the place of worship be reserved «for the collective use of the Jews forever». And in the same deed he already specified all the dispositions subsequently consecrated in the will he was to dictate on the 9 October 1485.

The bequest consisted of the donation of the large building in via Sabbioni and a set of ritual objects for the synagogue. In addition Ser Mele stipulated that the income from the building be used for the upkeep of the oratory, with a stipend for a sexton and for a teacher to instruct the poor Jews. All the other income from his capital was to go to the poor. He then empowered the four nominated heirs and the four testamentary trustees to guarantee the running and continuity of the foundation.

For himself he asked that his will be inscribed on a marble tablet in the synagogue. The tablet was put in place in 1487 and, after five centuries, it is still in place. Around it, over the years, the complex of synagogues grew up in via Mazzini, from that day on the heart of the Jewish community in Ferrara.