In 1868 David Levi, President of the Hebrew University, bequeathed his possessions for the building of a new synagogue in Florence, ‘worthy of the city’. He provided for the acquisition of a site between the new development of the Mattonaia and Piazza d’Azeglio.
Thus it was that the ‘Tempio Maggiore Israelitico’ was built between 1874 and 1882 by the architects Marco Treves, Mariano Falcini and Vincenzo Micheli.
The Temple is of travertine and pink pomato stone, in the Moorish style, centrally planned and with a dome flanked by towers. It is of the kind known as ‘of the Emancipation’, in that it is conceived as an independent building and is not disguised as something else, as happened in the ghettoes.
Standing in a garden filled with exotic plants, surrounded by cast-iron railings designed by the Sienese Pasquale Franci, the synagogue evokes in the visitor a sense of oriental splendour.
The central dome, raised on a tall circular drum, is sheathed in copper which has oxydised to the characteristic greenish colour, establishing an unmistakeable presence on the Florentine sky-line. The interior, flooded with golden light, was entirely decorated by Giovanni Panti with painted arabesques in red and blue, originally picked out in gold.
The women’s gallery has wrought-iron railings adorned with seven-branched candelabra, made to designs by Francesco Marini.
In the presbytery the Ark, covered with mosaic, is framed by a baldaquin which in turn is surmounted by the Tablets of the Law, which also appear on the façade outside.
The doors of the holy Ark, before which a light burns perpetually, still bear scars inflicted by the bayonets of fascist desecrators. During the Nazi occupation the synagogue was used as a garage, and it was also mined by the retreating Germans.
At the end of the right aisle is a doorway leading to an oratory dedicated to Rabbi Samuel Zevi Margulies, containing two Arks. In the centre of the pavement is a Star of David in black and yellow marble, from the Mattir Assurim confraternity in the old ghetto. The names of 248 Florentine Jews put to death by the Nazis are recorded in a large inscription in the garden of the temple, where a smaller plaque lists Jews who fell fighting for Italy during the First World War.
The history of the Florentine community is illustrated by a Museum on the first floor, divided into two sections: one illustrates the history of the Jews in Florence, the other displays religious and ceremonial objects.