500 YEARS AGO THE GHETTO OF VENICE
500 years ago, at the end of March 1516 , after long discussions, the Venetian government decreed that all those Jews that wanted to reside in Venice had to move to a certain area in the Cannaregio district.
It consisted of a small, almost circular island (looking ‘like a castle’) called ‘geto novo’ (new metal foundry) , an old name referring to a former use of the island as a municipal cannon factory, as opposed to another adjoining ‘older’ foundry.
Until that moment the Jews had mostly lived and worked in the much more central and commercially strategic area of Rialto, in particular in the parishes of San Silvestro, Santa Maria Mater Domini and San Cassian.
The most influential members of the community, Anselmo del Banco and the other moneylenders, tried to oppose to this confinement, and offered some money, but they had no choice.
The New Geto (or Gheto) island, so far inhabited by Christians, became the first compulsory Jewish quarter in history, a sort of compromise between the government of Venice, the Pope, Franciscan and Dominican preachers and somehow the Jews themselves who, notwithstanding some episodes of serious crisis with the local institutions, continued to live in Venice uninterruptedly since that day.
The houses of the New Ghetto island where just two story high (as clearly witnessed by Jacopo de’ Barbari map in 1500) soon needed to be modified, as the population grew, with the adding of extra levels.
As soon as they realized that the situation was stable enough they began to construct the first two synagogues, both Ashkenazi, right on top of the houses.
Scuola Grande Tedesca (or Great German Synagogue) dates back to 1528, Scuola Canton (most probably founded by a group of Jews originally arrived from Southern France) was established in 1532. Both synagogues are still in existence today, on top of many steps, although good part of the inner decoration was redone in the 1730es, conferring to both temples a touch of Venetian Rococo influence.
In 1541 another section was added to the New Ghetto, namely the older cannon foundry area, namely the Old Ghetto, that became home to the Sephardic Jews, that were arriving to Venice basically from two different directions: many of them arrived to Venice from the Ottoman Empire and came mostly as merchants, as Venetians themselves were beginning to withdraw from overseas commerce.
The other group came from Spain and Portugal, were Jews had been persecuted and obliged either to convert or to leave, and through their main leader, the Portuguese businessman Daniel Rodriga, became fundamental for the survival of Venice as an international seafaring center.
The two Sephardic Synagogues, still active today for a Jewish community of some 500 members, are facing each other in the Campiello delle Scuole, and were both reconstructed during the course of the 17th century in the modes of Baldassare Longhena, the top architect of Venice at that moment.
At the end of the 16th century a new synagogue was founded in the New Ghetto Square, not far from the other two, by a group of people arriving from central Italy (the Italian liturgy being different from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi), and is still standing today (mostly restored at the beginning of the 19th century) .
Apart form the five synagogues the other attraction for visitors is the Jewish Museum (located on the corner of the square between the two Ashkenazi Synagogues), rich in delightful silver objects, velvets and tapestries, and recently enlarged with a section dedicated to books, as Venice, through the Flemish publisher Daniel Bomberg, became in the 1520es the greatest center for Jewish printing in Europe.
Besides the New and the Old Ghetto, there exists a third section, called Ghetto Novissimo, added in 1633, and consisting basically of three residential blocks, with a row of beautiful windows along the Misericordia canal and some mezuzah marks left on the doorways .
To celebrate the 500 years from the establishment of the Ghetto, there will be an important exhibition at the Doges’ Palace, opening in June and continuing through November (see details here : http://www.veniceghetto500.org/la-mostra/?lang=en) .
A special concert at Gran Teatro la Fenice will be held on March 29th : http://www.veniceghetto500.org/cerimonia-inaugurale/?lang=en
Another important center of Jewish interest in Venice is the Old Cemetery on the Island of Lido, much older that the Ghetto itself, as it was first established in 1384.
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Our Jewish Heritage tour in Venice : VENICE AND THE JEWS