Laura Hannuna is both a local Roman and a professional tour guide in the Eternal City. She guides to share her family’s heritage of more than 2,000 years of Jewish life in Rome. Hannuna’s personal experiences make her stories come alive while her guide license certifies the accuracy of her information. By sharing the Hebrew biblical stories depicted in most of the art in the Vatican Museums, she makes the stories more meaningful to both Jews and non-Jews alike.
Laura, you are a tour guide from the oldest European Jewish community in the western world. How would you describe your Jewish Vatican Tour?
The city of Rome is an open museum magically designed to celebrate, share, and explore wisdom, art, and scholarship. It is like the traditional Challah bread, an intertwining of the ancient biblical past, present, and future.
I am a member of the Jewish community of Rome and for more than a decade I have been introducing tourists, and enthusiasts in general, to the history, customs, and traditions of my Jewish culture. I like to point out that is important to understand that people learn in many different ways. There is no right or wrong answer in interpreting artworks. What is relevant is this: that we are all engaged in a learning experience to understand that there are various literary and visual interpretations (inspirations) created by an artist. It is through various interpretations of scripture and art, and through the fascinating, insightful, intellectual and emotional worlds of the artist's visual contemporary world of their time, that we are shown how scriptures are interpreted differently according to either a Jewish or Christian perspective.
What makes the Jewish community of Rome different from the other Jewish communities throughout Italy?
Well, the Jewish presence in Rome dates back to at least the second century BCE when the Maccabees defeated the Greek, Hellenizing powers in Judea and made a peace treaty with pre-empirical Rome. Dare I say, then, that the Jews have lived in this city since always. But what makes this community really unique is that the Roman Jews have never been expelled from Rome. Actually, our community boasts 22 centuries of uninterrupted presence here, that’s why the Roman Jews are considered as the real Romans. Moreover, the history of the Jews of Rome is witnessed, among other things, by the bi-lingual and tri-lingual inscriptions from Jewish stone epitaphs and pieces of marble sarcophagi, derived from some of the six Jewish catacombs in Rome. They provide physical archaeological evidence that their settlement in Rome has been from a really very long time ago. Although, Christian catacombs are more famous, it was the Jews of Rome who buried their dead first in these underground cemeteries. I like to take visitors to the Jewish catacombs to let them get a greater perception of Jewish life in ancient Rome.
What part does Jewish culture play in the history of Rome?
The Jews of Rome have shared their history with emperors, kings and popes, yet often their history is less known to the average Jewish and non-Jewish tourists. I share specific insights grounded in traditional Jewish sources denoting significant religious aspects into Rome’s Jewish history. I usually start from my Jewish tour that includes the former ghetto area and the Jewish Museum of Rome together with our outstanding Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue, a magnificent and majestic sight to behold. I consider this tour as a must for anybody coming to Rome being our Community the most ancient in Rome. My clients travel through 22 centuries of anecdotes, curiosities and learn about some of the most fascinating idiosyncrasies of Jewish Roman history. Then I really love the tour of Ancient Rome where we can better realize how connected is the history of our community with that of the city itself through the infamous Arch of Titus, the Colosseum, the emblem of our city in ancient times, and much more, but besides the Vatican and the Jewish Catacombs, our presence and history in the city can be shared also in the most important squares in Rome. You can’t even imagine how many Jewish elements we can find here and there and this is really impressive.
There very few tour guides in Rome who are both Jewish and qualified to lead tours of the Vatican. How did you become one of them?
To practice the profession as a tour guide in the Vatican museums is not difficult as long as each guide submits a valid identity document, resume, academic qualifications, demonstrates certificates issued by the Italian authorities proving no criminal record and pays an annual fee. There are 3,000 licensed tour guides in Rome and about twenty are Jewish.
How have Covid and travel restrictions personally affected you?
Clearly, this is a very difficult period for anyone who leads any kind of activity related to the tourist industry. I’m working mostly with European tourists, Italians or Americans that are in Italy for business, but there is not so much work. However, I’m confident and believe that as soon as this crazy period is over, the desire to travel again will return to everyone. I’m ready to welcome all of you.
Any examples of how taking your tour elevates a site or image that might be missed by someone walking around with their nose in a guidebook?
The Vatican museums is a visual story of the New Testament and many Jewish and Christian tourists are keenly interested in understanding the differences between Judaism and Christianity. As a Jewish guide, I like to start my tours in the Jewish Museum of Rome where we have facsimile copies of epitaphs which are really ancient documents that must be read and understood at the time in which they were inscribed. From there we visit the Ancient City, where I reveal important information about the lives of the Jews and Romans in antiquity than continue on to the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum to further discuss how Judaism continued to prosper during the time of the Roman emperors until the first centuries of Christianity. Then, after visiting the Jewish Catacombs, for my grand finale, the Vatican Museums is an excellent way to explain such interconnected and inter-textual biblical interpretation from Judaism to Christianity.
For example (out of many), is in the Picture Gallery which houses a painting depicting the Akedah (The Binding/Sacrifice of Isaac), one of the most powerful stories in the Torah. Some Christians and Jews believe this incident really happened while others interpret it is a parable or mortal tale. Whichever interpretation you prefer, the story that is part of both Jewish and Christian tradition has existed in written form since Genesis was written, which according to Jewish tradition, was by the hand of Moses, about 3,500 years ago. Another instance is the Sistine Chapel where the great Michelangelo frescoed not only scenes from the Torah, instead of stories from the New Testament, but also chose seven specific prophets that look down on us from the inner Sanctum of King Solomon’s Temple, known as the Sistine Chapel.
In addition, for many Jews visiting Saint Peter’s Basilica, little do they know that the famous Baroque architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) re-created the columns in bronze modeled after those in Solomon’s Temple and the Keruvim from the Holy Ark, but what is not well known is the contributions of other Italian masters of mosaic art who bring to life the Hebrew prophets and prophetesses from the Torah who gaze down upon the masses who enter Saint Peter’s Basilica or that the Pietà by Michelangelo is representing a Jewish mother holding her Jewish son. After all, Jesus was born Jewish, lived a Jewish life and died as a Jew.
I look forward to showing sharing with you a Jewish perspective of the Vatican and Rome.