Hidden treasures in the Venetian Ghetto #veniceclassics

4 min read

The Venetian Ghetto is the oldest Jewish quarter in the world, so the word “ghetto” comes from the italian “geto” or foundry because there used to be a foundry in this area. The unusual tall buildings found here were divided into floors of sub-standard height, demonstrating how the density of the population had increased over the years. Today, the ghetto with its five synagogues and the Jewish Museum is a lively and popular area in the Cannaregio district.


Even before the establishment of the Ghetto Nuovo, Jews lived all over Italy and Venice. Venice was in an economic crisis in the 14th century - wars and plague epidemics led to mismanagement and high spending in the city. Hence the idea to settle Jewish pawnbrokers so that money and movement would come into the market. When the economic situation in Venice stabilized, however, tensions between the different cultures began to shape everyday life.

The Ghetto in the XVIII century yellow=Ghetto Vecchio with 2 synagoges, red= Ghetto Nuovo with 6 synagoges, orange=Ghetto Nuovissimo

In 1515 it was therefore decided that Jews were allowed to settle in a certain neighborhood, the Ghetto Nuovo which was on the site of a disused foundry. At night the quarter was closed with gates and patrolled. Only extremely important people, such as doctors, were allowed to leave it at night. In 1541 the area was expanded with the Ghetto Vecchio. It was not long until this quarter became too narrow, too. In 1633 the Ghetto Nuovissimo was added. However, houses and palaces for the upper class were built there. In general, the Jewish population had almost all rights at that time like the other citizens of Venice.

Photo by Massimo Adami on Unsplash

The following years were characterized by economic and political tensions, finance suffered enormously and thus the Jewish population, many ended up in oppressive poverty as a result of the repression. The gates of the ghetto fell in 1797 when Napoleon conquered Venice and gave the Jewish population more rights. In 1848, all citizens in Venice were treated equally. In 1938 the promulgation of the fascist racial laws deprived the Jews of civil rights and the Nazi persecutions began. Two hundred and fourty six Jews were deported from Venice; only 8 returned from the death camps.

facades in the Ghetto
Photo by Andreas H. from Pixabay
street sign
Photo by Andreas H. from Pixabay

The Ghetto today

The history of the district has not been lost until today. Everywhere in the Ghetto district you can find memories of the past. The Museo Ebraico is dedicated to the diverse history and traditions of the community over the past centuries. Five magnificent synagogues from the Middle Ages are hidden in the Ghetto and are open to the public for guided tours. The old cemetery in St. Nicholas of Lido can also be visited. It was restored and protected from decay in recent years like many other buildings in the area.

Venice's ghetto district is still shaped by Jewish life and culture, even if the community with around 500 members is noticeably smaller than it used to be. There is a bakery (Panificio Giovanni Volpe, Calle Ghetto Vecchio, 1143, 30121 Venezia) that makes the popular matzos, a kosher butcher and a kosher hotel (Kosher House Giardino dei Melograni, Cannaregio 2874, Venice).

inside the jewish museum

The Jewish Museum

The Jewish Museum of Venice - Museo Ebraico - is situated in the Campo (square) of the Ghetto Nuovo, between the two most ancient Venetian synagogues. It is a little but very rich museum founded in 1953 by the Jewish Community of Venice. The objects shown to public, important examples of goldsmith and textile manufacture made between the 16th and the 19th centuries are a lively witnessing of the Jewish tradition.

The Synagogues

Synagogues are the soul of the Ghetto. Built on the top floor of the pre-existing buildings in the Ghetto Novo are recognized with difficulty outside while inside are little jewels.

The GermanSchola (Scola for school) was the first synagogue of the Ghetto built in 1528. The architect tried to create a harmonious church from the asymmetrical hall with the help of decorative elements. The synagogue was restored several times over the years.


The Great German Synagogue - Scola Grande Tedesca

The Scola Canton (Ashkenase Synagogue) is just a few meters away. Originally there were six synagogues in the Jewish quarter that followed this rite of belief. The Scola Canton built in 1531 is smaller than the Scola Grande Tedesca. Eight wooden panels that show biblical episodes from the book Exodus are unique. This synagogue has also been restored several times.

The ItalianSchola was built in the Ghetto Nuovo in 1575. Like the German Synagogue, it can be recognized from the outside by five windows. It is the simplest of the Venetian synagogues but results, anyway to be the most luminous one and the most austere for the lacking of the gleaming tones of the golden leaf decorating the two Ashkenazi synagogues.

The Scola Canton - The Ashkenase Synagogue

The Levantine Schola, founded in 1541, was rebuilt in the second half of 17th century. Even if without documents unequivocally proving that, it is thought that the artists who worked for the restoration were Baldassarre Longhena, whose stylistic models are clearly evident on the façade and Andrea Brustolon for the important pulpit.

The Spanish Schola, founded about 1580, but rebuilt on the first half of 17th century. The biggest of the Venetian synagogues is of great scenographic impact. People go upstairs in a wide double staircase that leads to a wide cultual room exalted by a very high elliptic women’s gallery.

The Spanish Synagogue
Ghetto square
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