In 1960, the Italian city of Ferrara undertook the renovation of the columns that flank the entrance to the ducal palace—which are among the city’s most important architectural landmarks. Workers soon discovered that one of the columns had been constructed using 36 fragments of local Jewish tombstones from the 16th and 17th centuries. Henry Abramson writes:
A noted patron of the arts, [the 15th-century duke Borso D’Este] and his immediate successors also made Ferrara a haven for Jews, especially those expelled from Spain and refugees from the Inquisition in Italian territories to the south. Under the House of Este, Jewish life flourished in Ferrara 1598, when the Papal States exerted control over the northern Italian city. The Jewish badge was instituted shortly thereafter, and Ferrarese Jews who once lived and worked throughout the city found themselves shut in the confines of yet another ghetto.
The column was first erected in the 1450s, and it had stood for over 200 years before it was heavily damaged by a fire on December 23, 1716. A chronicler of the period, Nicolò Baruffaldi, mentions that Marquis Francesco Sacrati secured the stones from the Jewish graveyards, “paying in full for their value to the masters of the ghetto.” It is highly unlikely that the Jewish community would have willingly surrendered the gravestones of their ancestors, especially since many of the graves belonged to people the contemporary Ferrarese Jews would have actually known—the grandparents and even parents of the generation alive at the time.
As Abramson explains, there is evidence of the confiscation of Jewish tombstones in contemporary Jewish records, although there is no extant mention of those used for the column. He adds:
Amazingly, [the fragments] were not returned to the Jewish community; they were rather put back into the column where they remain to this day. In fact, they were desecrated still further, with pieces removed and discarded to make room for a reinforced concrete core to protect the column from seismic activity (a devastating earthquake had hit Ferrara in 1570, which Pope Pius V blamed on the Este family for their historic protection of the Jews).