ario Calimani says it’s time for the Jews of Venice to give new life to their rich heritage. “We’re trying to organize [and] revitalize the ghetto,” says Calimani, president of the canal city’s Jewish Community. With its five synagogues, three study houses, two cemeteries, ritual bath, rest home and museum, the 16th-century ghetto would seem ripe for renewal.
The ghetto (“getto” in Venetian) was built on the site of a foundry in the marshy Cannareggio area of the city. Five centuries ago it drew thousands of Jewish settlers from German-speaking countries, the Levant and the Iberian Peninsula.
In an area hemmed in by crisscrossing canals, Jews erected seven-story buildings, an architectural rarity at the time, and disguised their synagogues to ward off religious intolerance. In its heyday, European scholars and humanists gathered in the all-Jewish ghetto to listen to the community’s authoritative scholars.
But Venice’s Jewish population began dispersing in the 1700s, gradually ending Jewish life there.
In the Ghetto Nuovo‘s central square, where second-hand stores and banks once flourished, only an inscription remains. Hidden under a low portico, it says “Banco Rosso,” or Red Bank, so-called for the color of the receipts the bank issued.
For Calimani, the richness of the history offers the best hope of luring more tourists. “The community would like to develop its potential to offer hospitality,” he says.
Reckoning with the unpredictability of repair is another matter.
Efforts to turn a 19th-century structure, once used as a rest home, into a kosher restaurant have been dogged by the immensity of the project and insufficient funds. “There are only 400 of us [Jews], and of these only about 100 are actively involved,” Calimani said. “So the costs and efforts fall on a dwindling community.”
Rabbi Ramy Banin, of Venice’s Beyt Chabad community, says over the last 11 years he’s witnessed significant growth in the community. In 1997, Beyt Chabad opened “Gam Gam,” Venice’s only kosher restaurant. It also serves Middle Eastern dishes, widening its popularity beyond the Jewish community. Banin also helped convince a neighborhood bakery to become kosher; the community has opened a school and a yeshiva, or rabbinical seminary.
“It used to be that people would come to the ghetto for five minutes and then go to San Marco,” says Banin.
Now, many are spending more time there. Jewish weddings, many with American couples, are more frequent because of kosher catering, Banin notes. But he confides, “there’s a lot that needs to be done.”
The Campo del Ghetto Nuovo is still the hub. Like all Venetian squares (Piazza San Marco is the only exception), it’s known as “campo,” a reflection of its origin as a grassy field. On three sides, the campo is bordered by a patchwork of tall, narrow buildings, their façades stacked upwards with windows, suggesting that headroom was not an architectural priority for the builders.
Along the campo, bronze relief panels by the Venetian sculptor Arbit Blatas mark the Holocaust: Only seven of 246 Jews rounded up during a 1944 raid returned after the end of the war.
The Jewish Museum, which opened in 1955, has been extensively (if quietly) restored over the last decade. Housed inside are vestments, sacred furnishings and ritual objects dating back to the seventh century. The museum has nearly tripled in size and plans are to expand further.
“But you know, in Italy, [reconstruction] times are Biblical, and in Venice even more so,” laughs the museum’s director, Michela Zanon.
The museum bookshop, with more than 3,000 volumes on Jewish culture, is among the best-stocked in Italy. A cafeteria brings an atypical North American-style atmosphere to the facility. For years, the museum has offered guided tours of the five synagogues, or scole, each built by a different community, according to ethnicity, in the 16th century. The scole consist of an upper and lower story, with the hall of prayer above.
Three of the synagogues are connected through the museum and face the campo. The oldest, founded in 1528 by the first German settlers, is the Scola Grande Tedesca. Heavily gilded and carved, alternating cherry wood paneling and strip marble, it looks more like a dainty Venetian 18th-century sitting room than a house of prayer.
Ashkenazi Jews built the Scola Canton in 1531-32. It is unusually decorated with panels that tell the story of Moses — rare because according to the Ninth Commandment Jews are not permitted to represent the human figure. This suggests the synagogue may have been intended for private use.
Beside it is the modest and austere Italian Scola, restored in 1739 and reopened a year later.
The two remaining scole are around the corner from the campo, in the Campiello delle Scole in the Ghetto Vecchio. Both are still active.
Venice’s ancient administrators were tolerant of the synagogues, so long as they were not ostentatious or attempted to rival Christian churches. But with these two structures, the Venetian authorities seem to have turned a blind eye. They were begun in the 16th century, though some scholars see the hand of the 17th-century Venetian architect Baldassare Longhena in later reconstructions.
The Scola Spagnola, built by Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, is the richest and the largest, and is the only Jewish temple in the world in continuous use since its foundation. Interiors exhibit a plush blend of gold, red and dark brown colors, decorated with sumptuous furnishings.
Across a small square, the Scola Levantina was founded in 1538 but remodeled in the 17th century, almost certainly by Andrea Bruson, the leading wood sculptor of the time. It is open in the summer.
Calimani is proud of the synagogues, but rues the cost of their maintenance. “Each year a piece of the ceiling will crumble or the wood work will need repairs,” he said. “We’re a non-stop construction site.”
- Jewish Museum, Campo del Ghetto Nuovo – Open daily, except Saturday and Jewish holidays. Guided tours begin every hour. Tel. 041.715.359
- Gam Gam Restaurant, Cannaregio 1122 (corner of the Fondamenta di Cannaregio). Tel. 041.715284
- Hotel Locanda del Ghetto, Cannaregio 2892/93 (on Campo del Ghetto Nuovo). Charming, comfortable lodgings; doubles from €90 to €220 depending on the season. Tel. 041.275.9292.