20 August 2016

Venice's ghetto and synagogues - 1516-2016 exhibition

Even before the great influx of Spanish refug­ees in 1492, It­aly's Jewish population was expanding. The first European ghetto was actually built in Frankfurt, not in Venice. But the Venetian Ghetto was special in its political and architectural design, and it became the model for later Jewish quarters. Note the year when the Venetian Senate ordered the Jews of the city to move to the site of an old ghèto-copper foundry to prevent them from roaming about at night, 1516! It was only 24 years after the Spanish expulsion!

Ghetto Nuovo/New used officially organised, religiously-based segregation to keep Jews away from civil life, and away from the centres of religious and political power. Given the minimal space in the ghetto, the citizens were forced to build upward, result­ing in temporary additions, narrow walkways and tall buildings. This canal-enclosed island was gated at night, locked up from midnight to dawn by paid Christian guards. The gates were opened each morning with the toll of a bell in St Marks church.

It was therefore ironic that locking Jews in the ghetto every night also provided a refuge in which Jewish culture and identity thrived. The Jews found a space in which the community could unite its own people.

Venice's ghetto, built upwards not outwards

Jewish Venetians were not persecuted, as they were in many oth­er parts of Europe, both because Venice was a more tol­er­ant city AND because of the new citizens’ trading skills. Jews were allowed to run their own trading companies and practise in the professions. Jewish artisans and traders could run Venice’s commercial houses by day, even though by night and on Christian holidays, they were restricted inside the Ghetto. Certainly they had to wear id­ent­ifying marks on their clothing and had to pay very heavy religious taxes, but life in medieval and renaissance Ven­ice was tolerable.

The Jews MUST have felt stable enough, given that 12 years into the existence of the ghetto, they started establishing their synagogues and cong­regations. The Old Ghetto was now becoming home to German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Levantine Sephardi Jews. When Jews arrived from Levantine ports in 1541, the Ghetto Vecchio/Old was est­ablished.

Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain erected the Spanish Scola in Campo di Ghetto Vecchio.  This large building was rebuilt on the first half of C17th, the biggest of the Venetian synagogues. Haul yourself upstairs in a wide double staircase that leads to a very impressive women's gallery. It had a C17th wooden pulpit of note.

Founded by Ashkenazim from Germany and built in 1528, Scola Grande Tedesca was the oldest of the 3 synagogues in Campo Ghetto Nuovo. It was reconstructed in 1732 when a gallery was added to provide separ­ate seating for women during services. Note the eastern wall with the ark and a raised dais. In the late C16th, decorative wood panelling was added to the lower half of the walls and benches were placed in front. Soon baroque gilded portals, with gild­ed Corinthian columns were added, further enriching the lush interior. The Ten Commandments were written in gold over a red background around the walls.

Next door to Grande Tedesca was a plain wood cupola in the corner of the Campo that marked the Schola Canton. It was a private synagogue that was noted for having wooden panels depicting scenes from the Bible.

On the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo is the rooftop Levantine Synagogue (1541), built for Ital­ian-speaking Jews from the eastern end of the Mediterranean (Israel, Egypt, Turky etc). Its highlight was its spectacular bimah, an ornate carved double stair case in dark walnut leading up to a grand platform and 2 twisted columns supp­orting a canopy. The ben­ches were also wal­nut. The Italian Synagogue was built in 1575 to serve the needs of the local Italian Jews, the poorest group living in the Venetian Ghetto. Thus it was small, simple and not often visited by travellers.

Spanish Scola, Venice.
Note the elegant semicircular wooden balustrade, and the ark which is supported by handsome 
marble columns 

Coming from different parts of Europe, each group clearly wanted to preserve its rituals and sense of community. By 1571, in that tiny space, 5 synagogues were fully cat­ering to diverse sub-communities of Jews. Were they sometimes at odds with each other? Undoubtedly yes!

Most private houses in Venice have three storeys. All the buildings of Venice were constructed on wooden piles which were closely spaced and driven into alternating layers of sand and clay. These underwater piles did not decay much because they were not in contact with oxygen. Nonetheless all of Venice was fragile due to the ongoing battle with flooding. I would add that the ghetto was probably more unstab­le, given the tall architecture that came from over-crowding.


Venice’s very pragmatic approach allowed the city to prosper by accepting, within limits, merchants from all over the world. Amazingly they even extended tolerance to Turkish merchants from across the Ottoman Empire, Venice’s greatest enemy.  In turn, this ethnically diverse urban area created even more mutual understanding and tolerance.

The Jewish community in Venice fostered a complex cultural and intellectual life, producing works by scholars like Leon Modena, Sara Copio Sullam and Simone Luzzatto. And until 1650, Venice printed a third of all Hebrew publications across Europe. Christians would visit the ghetto to buy spices, jewellery, and fabrics and to visit banks and doctors. In summary the Jews influenced much of Venice’s foreign trade, at a time when commerce and scholarship flourished.

But the good times ended. Event­ual­ly the Jews were taxed so severely that most fled to Hol­land OR lived on charity. By the time Napoleon and his French army dec­lared the gh­etto illegal in 1797, there were only imp­overished Jews to liberate. The Venet­ian Republic coll­ap­s­ed, along with the gates of the ghetto and the Jews were emancipated.

Venice's 1516–2016 Exhibition  Even today Venice only has a small population (270,000). So 2016 should be celebrated as the 500th anniversary of The City of Light welcoming foreign Jews in and utilising their trade contacts and skills. Today the Venice Ghetto is one of the most popular area for tourists to visit. The two medieval squares, which once con­tained the Jewish commu­n­ity: ghetto Nuovo and ghetto Vecchio, still stand. And there had long been a cem­etery on one of the small islands where all Jewish cit­i­zens of Venice were buried.

Today only 450 Jews live in Venice. So the Venetian Heritage Council acted! Founded by designer Diane Von Furstenberg, the Council pledged $12 million to restore the Jewish ghetto, to salvage its crumbling herit­age and revive it as an important Jewish cultural centre. The project included the renovation of what was a small, disorganised Jewish historical museum and the restoration of the ghetto’s five gorgeous synagogue interiors.

Scola Grande Tedesca, Venice
women's gallery

Alas the synagogue exteriors looked like shoddy Venetian palazzos. So the 2016 Exhibition had to tell the stor­ies of survival and achievement, despite ghet­toisation. Restorers asked themselves: should the buildings be changed at all? If they were to be renovated and returned to their former glory, which incarnation of the ghetto should be the target version: 1516? 1800? 1939? They concluded that restorations had to be subtle and respectful; one of the key aims of the project was to revitalise, rather than simply preserve.

The year started with the opening ceremony in March 2016, at the famous Teatro La Fenice Opera House. Until Nov 2016, there will be concerts and lectures, and from June a major historical exhibition at the Doges’ Palace: Venice, the Jews and Europe: 1516-2016. In July there was the premiere of The Merchant of Venice in English, with the play being performed not in a theatre but in the Ghetto’s main square. The exhibition features laser scans of the synagogues, exquisite ritual objects, music, paintings, C16th Hebrew publishing, and an entire section dedicated to Sara Copio Sullam, the Sephardi poetess of the Ghetto. .

Thank you to Simon Worrall for The Centuries-Old History of Venice's Jewish Ghetto and to Livia Albeck-Ripka for A Jewish Ghetto Worth Saving in Tablet 30th Dec 2014.


Deb said...

It is interesting that the exhibition at the Doge's Palace deals with Venice and its Jewish community, plus Europe.

Andrew said...

The seemed to quickly pick up the Venetian lack of restraint with internal decoration.

bazza said...

I visited the Venice Ghetto about ten years ago. My wife, Leah, and I were rather surprised to find it a rather pleasant place! Obviously the history isn't nice a tall but there was a friendly atmosphere with stall holders offering Mezuzahs (extracts from Deuteronomy mounted on doorposts of Jewish Households), candle-sticks etc.
The synagogues were in very good condition.
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s fabulous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


I assumed the European component would be trade or religious ties. But now I prefer the Jan Morris quote from The World of Venice: the city was a treasure-box full of ivory, spices, scents, apes, ebony, indigo, slaves, great galleons, Jews, mosaics, shining domes, rubies, and all the gorgeous commodities of Arabia, China and the Indies. Venice must have been the centre of Europe and beyond!!


Hels said...


right! I had a look at a few churches in Venice from the same era. Although the size and light-filled nave differentiate the churches from the synagogues, the marble, abundant use of crimson, carved galleries etc look very similar. See San Lorenzo and San Giovanni in Brágora, for example.

Hels said...


my son got married in 2002, in Israel. After all the functions were over, spouse and I had only one week of holiday left ..so we flew to Venice. With such a short time, it had to be a very well organised tour of galleries, churches, boat rides, islands, bridges etc. But the highlight was undoubtedly the Ghetto. And the food!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, I am impresses that so much of the Ghetto has remained intact, especially the five synagogue interiors. How many of them are still synagogues? Some of Cleveland's early synagogues are still intact, now taken over by churches, but they are in such bad areas that I am disinclined to go there to investigate--I am hoping that the interiors have been preserved through the principle of "benign neglect."

Dina said...

Today's discussion about the destruction or preservation of Herzliyah Gymnasium in Tel Aviv reminds me of Venice. Why on earth did they destroy a famous building??

Hels said...


good question. I have personally inspected three of the synagogues but only on a tour organised by the Museo Communità Ebraica nearby. I have never been through on a sabbath or holy day when normal religious services would be held.

Since more than 5,000 people lived in the Ghetto, in a very confined area, you might have expected a terrible mess. But perhaps you are right about Preservation By Benign Neglect - the interiors look splendid.

Would I mind if renaissance or early modern churches took over neglected synagogues, once the Jewish population moved away? Not at all. I would hate to see important religious sites pulled down.

Hels said...


perfect timing :) The ghetto would never have been intentionally destroyed!! But unless the Venetian Heritage Council and Diane Von Furstenberg pledged squillions of dollars to restore the Jewish ghetto, it would have mouldered away over the decades.

The Herzliyah Gymnasium in Tel Aviv, on the other hand, so important historically and so impressive architecturally, was built in 1909 and destroyed in 1962. It was such a disgraceful act, the Society for the Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel was immediately established.