Stephen W Starling
Writer and Photographer

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Uncovering 500 years of Jewish Heritage - Ill Ghetto Nuovo, Venice, Italy

Monday, April 01, 2019
Away from hordes of tourists milling on St. Mark’s Square; along a maze of narrow alleys; across stone bridges arched over canals; is the ancient enclave of Il Ghetto Nuovo that has been home to Venetian Jews for over 500 years. A community which is deeply embedded in the quintessentially Italian Cannaregio district, yet has retained a distinctly separate Jewish identity since its formation in 1516. Back then, city Senate decreed all access to Il Ghetto Nuovo must be barred at sunset and armed guards shall patrol to keep Jewish residents inside captive, under curfew, until dawn. Now, it is an open society proudly displaying its rich Jewish heritage. 

Il Ghetto Nuovo is actually a small island encircled by canals and fortress like walls of tall tenement buildings whose facades reach from below water level to high into the sky. Access is via a narrow wooden bridge and through a low stone portal where iron rings once suspended a drawbridge that the Senate decreed must be raised during hours of darkness.

Beyond the portal, a gloomy passage opens out onto a sunlit, stone flagged piazza where a communal well, adorned with heraldic shields and topped by an ornate cast-iron cover is shaded by outstretched branches of an oak tree. On this still, bright September day the tree’s russet leaves are providing welcome shade to a group of students listening to a teacher recalling the passage of history that is etched into the cracks and crevices of Il Ghetto Nuovo.

During the 1400s Jews were a dispersed and distrusted minority scattered across Europe. A few had settled in Venice which was the seat of an increasingly powerful and wealthy trading empire. The consummate deal-makers of the Venetian Republic Senate, who were  seeking financiers for their ventures, offered Jews sanctuary and protection— but only under strict rules. Jewish residents had to abide by a curfew, wear distinctive yellow hats, and aside from their traditional money-lending, they were restricted to dealing in metals and second-hand goods.

The community grew; initially attracting Jews from eastern Europe, then persecution drove more from Germany, Spain and Portugal to seek refuge in Venice and establish homes near the site of a new foundry— a neighbourhood known as “il getto nuovo” and hence the Italian words “getto” or “getti” for foundry became anglicised to ghetto and took on a new meaning.

By the 1600s over 5,000 Jews lived in Il Ghetto Nuovo segregated by race and religion, huddled in dilapidated tenement buildings, strenuously working their way out of poverty. Pawn-broking and money-lending activities grew to establishing banks. One of the world’s first banks, “Banco Rosso” or Red Bench, still exists in Ghetto Nuovo and is credited with coining the term ‘being in the red.’ The Venetian Jews’ notoriety for striking a hard bargain inspired William Shakespeare’s most famous villain: Shylock, in the Merchant of Venice. A Jewish money-lender who demanded a loan repayment in the form of ”a pound of flesh.”

With land area being limited, as population increased upper floors were added to existing tenements and new blocks were built taller creating imposing seven and ten storey high-rise apartments. Still unable to openly build synagogues, the top floor of one building was converted to a place of worship and centre for religious studies, while a converted warehouse became a safe repository for a growing collection of Hebrew treasures

Today Museum Ebraico is hosting a tour of Il Ghetto Nuovo which begins with an old curator unlocking heavy wooden doors to a steep stairway. Clasping an iron rail I follow him up three flights of stone steps to be, as the panting curator says, “closer to heaven.”

He unlocks another door and we enter an oval room where a gold chandelier lights an ornately decorated ceiling, a high gallery with a balustrade, marble covered walls, carved wooden benches, and a gilt altar draped with a faded red cloth. The tiled floor slopes, as do many buildings in Venice as they settle into soft foundations. The scent of incense lingers in this hallowed room, you feel the presence of generations of worshipers, and perceptions of a long lineage of unbroken tradition are strong. As is an admiration of the devotion required to sit on those hard wooden benches for three hours enduring a service chanted entirely in Hebrew!

On leaving the synagogue I enter the Museum Ebraico after passing through high security scanners under the watchful gaze of armed guards: a reminder that Israel is still in conflict with countries in its region. Inside along a labyrinth of low ceiling rooms, priceless Hebrew treasures are exhibited in glass cases. On display are gold candlesticks, woven textiles, and sacred scrolls: the ‘Torah’ or ‘Teaching’, from the five Books of Moses transcribed onto parchment wound around silver batons. The Museum also houses the Renato Maestro Library of over 10,000 books on Judaism, a gallery of Jewish art, and hosts conferences in Hebrew studies.

Back out in the sunlight, I wander across the piazza, over a canal, and down a narrow alleyway into Il Ghetto Vecchio, an ‘old foundry’ neighbourhood taken over by Jews as the community’s influence and status increased.

When Vasco De Gama forged a passage to the East around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Venice’s powerful position at the crossroads of global trade routes lessened. To compensate, leading Venetian Jews were engaged as emissaries and encouraged to utilize their relations and compatriots overseas to sustain and expand trading relationships. These Jews earned the right to trade freely and a few became successful merchants. Their wealthy families moved out of Il Ghetto Nuovo to build grand mansions in adjacent districts.

These grand homes, similar to most buildings in Venice, were built on wooden piles driven into the sandbanks and shallows of the Venice Lagoon. Shifting sandbanks and fast flowing shallows that protected the wealthy capital of the Venetian Republic from invasion by sea and land. These piles were stabilized by rafts of rocks before three and four storey stone and brick mansions were erected. The embellished upper facades of reception rooms and sleeping quarters reflect international influences with Germanic Gothic arches and Byzantium mosaics. While at the unadorned lower levels more practical features like loading docks and store-rooms open out onto canals.

When Napoleon’s army eventually overwhelmed the Venetian Republic in 1797 the drawbridge and gates that once incarcerated Jewish residents were symbolically burned and French libertarian reforms loosened restriction on the community.  Jewish society thrived; building more synagogues catering for differing ethnic congregations, and establishing successful businesses like the world famous glassware companies on Murano Island.

In 1938 repression revisited the Jews of Venice when a fascist Italian government came to power and withdrew their civil rights. The Nazi occupation of 1943 brought worse horrors with Jews deported to labour in concentration camps. Of the 204 dragged away only 8 returned. “Monument to the Deportees” five sculptured plaques by Arbit Blatas on the piazza wall depict tragic scenes from this terrible era.

After the war the community regrouped and recovered: it is estimated Venice currently retains between 400 and 600 Jewish residents. Although Jews are now dispersed across the city, their presence remains strong in Il Ghetto Nuovo.


I walk on under washing dangling on wires running between pullies on grand mansions once occupied by rich merchants and old wrought-iron gas lamps re-wired for electricity. I peer into shop windows displaying kosher meats, smell the aroma of freshly baked traditional biscuits wafting from a Paneterra kitchen, and hear a group of neighbours on a doorstep chatting in the guttural tones of Hebrew. Clearly, Il Ghetto Nuovo is once more a vibrant Jewish neighbourhood.

It is also home to a thriving community of writers and artists. Tom Green, an expatriate artist and jazz musician from New Orleans, has a studio full of colourful canvasses of Venetian landmarks and carnival characters. Along the street publisher Alon Baker’s gallery is hung with vivid paintings depicting the district’s intriguing alleys, ornate doorways, and amusing cats. In a pleasing and sincere statement, he also displays painter Michael Meron’s intricately illustrated Torah Scroll. A Jewish heritage once segregated and secretly locked away is now confidently on show for all to see and admire.



Access to Il Ghetto Nuovo is no longer barred at sunset as it was in 1516; residents come and go freely welcoming overseas Jews to pray at their synagogues; inviting international scholars to study their museum’s treasures, and proudly sharing their rich heritage with any inquisitive visitor who chooses to venture away from the hordes of tourists milling on St. Mark’s Square.

            © Stephen W. Starling

You too can uncover the hidden heritage of Vancian Jews by visiting the Museum Ebraico (aka. The Jewish Museum of Venice) situated in the Campo of the Ghetto Novo, for more details visit their website: http://www.museoebraico.it/en/museum/

Il Ghetto Novo is a 3 km walk from St Mark’s Square (or double that if you get lost!) Alternatively, take a public waterbus to Ponte delle Guglie – Ghetto then stroll 300 m along Calle Ghetto Vechio – Enjoy!


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