Tuesday, 17 August 2004

Keeping the past of a maritime republic alive

Letter from Venice
Patrick Comerford


The “Queen of the Adriatic” is a city of over 100 islands and 400 or more bridges. But few visitors give themselves a chance to get lost in its narrow alleyways or to discover the unique and colourful minorities that have been part of Venetian life for centuries.

Jews have lived and traded in Venice since 1381. In 1516 they were forced to live in the New Foundry or Ghetto Nuovo, a tiny island still linked by three small bridges to the rest of Venice. But by then their numbers were being swollen by new arrivals from Spain and Portugal, from central Europe, and from Greece and Turkey. Europe’s first Ghetto was soon too small for the Jewish community, which spilled out into the neighbouring Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovissimo, and Napoleon tore down the walls and gates of the Ghetto in 1797.

About 200 Venetian Jews were deported to the death camps in 1943-1944, and only eight returned. But today there are about 400 Jews in Venice, including 80 or so in the Ghetto, their numbers boosted in recent years with the arrival from Rome and New York of enthusiastic, pious Hasidic Jews. Four synagogues remain open in the Ghetto area: the Scola Tedesca and the Scola al Canton, built by German and French Jews between 1528 and 1531, are virtual museums. But the Scola Spagnola, built by Spanish Jews at the same time, still alternates Saturday services with the Scola Levantina, built by Greek Jews in 1538, complete with a hip-level screen inspired by the iconostasis or icon-screen of Greek churches.

A significant Greek community has lived close to Ponte dei Greci (the Bridge of the Greeks) since the 11th century, when the first Greek artisans arrived to decorate Saint Mark's Basilica and many of the early churches of Venice. They expanded significantly with the influx of refugees following the Turkish capture of Constantinople in 1453. The church of San Giorgio dei Greci, with its leaning belltower, was built at a cost of 15,000 gold ducats between 1539 and 1573, and the vivid iconostasis or icon screen was painted by Michael Damaskinos, the greatest Cretan iconographer of the day and a contemporary of El Greco.

As the Serene Republic lost its Greek colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, Greeks continued to flood into Venice, and their presence helped to spread classical culture throughout Europe. A whole Greek neighbourhood took shape around the church on the banks of the Rio dei Greci, and at its peak the Greek community numbered 15,000 people. But Napoleon's abolition of the Republic of Venice in 1797 marked the beginning of the decline of this prosperous community as their assets and church treasures were confiscated. However, a convent of Greek nuns and their girls' school survived until 1834, and until 1905 the Greek College provided Greek communities in the Ottoman territories with educated priests and teachers.

Despite their decline in recent generations, the small Greek community continues in Venice. The Collegio Flangini now houses the Hellenic Institute for Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies, a museum in the former Scuola di San Nicolo dei Greci displays a unique collection of icons, and San Giorgio dei Greci has become a cathedral, with an archbishop living in the old palace.

Close to Saint Mark's, the Calle degli Armeni is in the heart of the old Armenian quarter. By the end of the 13th century, the Armenian community had a secure presence in Venice, finding their niche as tradesmen and moneylenders. The church of Santa Croce degli Armeni was founded in 1496 and the procurators of Saint Mark paid annual visits in recognition of the "well-deserving and most-favoured Armenian nation." The city's best-hidden church is now locked except for Sunday services, and the most conspicuous Armenian presence is out on the lagoon on the island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, where a monastery was founded on the former leper colony in 1717 by a group of Armenian monks expelled from the Morea in Greece by the Ottoman Turks.

The monks of San Lazzaro survived Napoleon's confiscations because of an indispensable Armenian in the imperial secretariat. Byron spent six months here, learning classical Armenian and compiling a dictionary. But, despite the proximity of the Lido, the monks are virtually undisturbed by visitors. On the afternoon I arrived, only half a dozen others got off the vaporetto. As he took me around the library with its 200,000 precious manuscripts and books, the museum with its Egyptian sarcophagus and mummy, and the gallery of Armenian paintings, Father Vartanes explained that there are only eight Armenian monks left on San Lazzaro and no more than 10 Armenian families in Venice.

When evening falls and the tourists leave Venice, the dwindling numbers of Jews in the Ghetto, the Armenian monks on San Lazzaro and the remaining Greeks of San Giorgio are left alone once again.

The proportion of native Venetians who live here continues to decline rapidly as wealthy Italians from Milan and Turin snap up properties on the market. Even the Venetians are becoming a minority in their own city.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 17 August 2004 (p. 7)