15 November 2021

Was Giudecca the first home
of the Jews of Venice? If not,
what does its name mean?

Evening closes in on the waterfront of Giudecca below the steps of Il Redentore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Giudecca has been described by some people as the ‘real Venice.’ This island in the Lagoon is immediately south of the central islands of Venice, and the Palladian church of Redentore is its best-known landmark, clearly visible from San Marco. The church and island of San Giorgio Maggiore lie off its eastern tip.

Although Giudecca is part of the sestiere of Dorsoduro, it is separated from the rest of Venice by the Giudecca Canal.

Just as dusk was about to enfold Venice and the Lagoon one evening, I walked from Accademia on the Grand Canal to Zattere and crossed the Giudecca Canal on a three-minute vaporetto journey to Palanca, in search of the meaning of the name Giudecca, and to find out whether this truly was the first home of Jews in Venice.

In ancient times, the island was as Spinalunga (‘Long Thorn’), similar to the name of the island of Spinalonga, Europe’s last leper colony off the coast of Crete.

In the Venetian dialect, the name of Giudecca is Zueca. But, is the name Giudecca a corruption of the Latin Judaica (‘Judaean’), meaning ‘the Jewry’?

In southern Italy and Sicily, many towns had Jewish quarters that were known as Giudecca or Judeca, where Jewish families lived, and where synagogues were located. Unlike the compulsory ghettos of Northern Italy, Jewish families voluntarily chose to live in certain areas, but they were free to travel and join their neighbours in commercial, cultural and artistic life.

A few giudecce in Sicily were unhealthy and declined, but the population of the majority included many craftsmen, doctors and tradesmen.

In the narrow alleys and laneways of Giudecca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Dante used the word Giudecca in his Inferno for the innermost zone of the ninth and final circle of hell, where Judas (Giuda) is confined. Dante shares the prevailing prejudice against Jews and Judaism of the Middle Ages. But did he know of Giudecca in Venice, and did he think it had a Jewish population?

However, it seems the term ‘Giudecca’ was never used in northern Italy to denote the Jewish quarters of towns.

Jews were living in Venice long before they were confined to the original Ghetto in Cannaregio, on the north side of the city, in the 1500s. But there is no documentary evidence that these earlier Jews in Venice lived in Giudecca.

The Senate of Venice reached an agreement with Jewish lenders in Mestre in 1385 about lending to the poorer people of the city. A year later, in 1386, the Senate granted the Jews of Venice an isolated area of the Lido as a Jewish cemetery. I had visited the Jewish cemeteries on Lido last week, and so Jewish families were living in Venice from the mid-14th century.

A century and a half later, on 29 March 1516, the Venetian Senate decreed all the Jews of Venice should live into a ‘New Ghetto.’ It was Europe’s first attempt to confine Jews to a single enclosed place in any city.

Indeed, apart from its name, it seems there is no historical, documentary evidence that Jews ever lived in Giudecca.

Giudecca started life as a fishing village and is Venice without the plastic trinkets, touts and the bustle of tourists (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

It seems Giudecca started life as a fishing village around the year 500 CE.Today, linguists tend to agree that the name of Giudecca in Venice comes from Zudega, a word in the Venetian dialect that means ‘judged,’ and that it was home to many banished families, not just Jewish ones.

It is said that some families, accused of conspiracy against the Venetian Republic, were sent into internal exile on the island of Spinalunga, and that the name Giudecca comes from the term del giudacato (‘judged’), which became Zudega in the Venetian dialect and was transformed into Judecha, Zuecca, Giudaica and, finally, Giudecca.

Giudecca was historically an area of large palaces with gardens. Michelangelo fled to Giudecca from Florence in 1529. By the time he arrived there, the aristocratic Dandolo, Mocenigo and Vendramin families had transformed the island from a prison into a neighbourhood of garden villas.

After the plague wiped out 30 per cent of the population in the late 16th century, the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore (Church of the Most Holy Redeemer), designed by Andrea Palladio, was built by the survivors in gratitude on the waterfront in 1577. It dominates the skyline of this part of venice, and its walls and side chapels are rich with works by Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Tintoretto and Francesco Bassano.

Il Redentore, designed by Andrea Palladio and built in 1577, seen on the crossing from Zattere (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

When the nobles headed inland in the 18th century to build villas along the Riviera Brenta, Giudecca’s gardens gave way to factories, tenements and military barracks.

, The island became an industrial area in the early 20th century with shipyards, factories and a film studio. Much of the industry went into decline after World War II, but Giudecca is now once more regarded as a quiet residential area that includes working-class housing, fashionable apartments and exclusive houses.

In recent years, many of the older buildings in Giudecca have been renovated, and a prominent 16th-century mansion has been converted into long-term rentals under the name ‘Villa F,’ with long-term rentals.

The Molino Stucky, a former flour mill, has been converted into a luxury hotel and apartment complex, and the five-star Cipriani hotel has large private gardens and salt-water pool.

We walked along the long shoreline from Palanca to Il Redentore as dusk enveloped the island. Giudecca is Venice without the plastic trinkets, touts and the bustle of tourists.

We visited Paladio’s masterpiece and watched the waters of the canal lapping against the shoreline before returning on another vaporetto to Zattere, and stopping at the bridge at Accademia for evening drinks.

Strolling along the long shoreline from Palanca to Il Redentore as dusk envelops the island of Giudecca (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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