22 November 2021

Paintings that depict life in
the Ghetto in Venice with
poignancy and strength

Michal Meron’s cover illustration for Riccardo Calimani’s book ‘The Venetian Ghetto’

Patrick Comerford

The worrying rise in Covid-19 figures in recent weeks means I have still not returned to personal visits to the National School in Rathkeale, where I chair the Board of Management.

Instead, each week I have delivered a variety of school assembly addresses from various locations, including the church in Panormos in Crete, the beach in Platanias near Rethymnon, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Lichfield Cathedral, the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital Lichfield, Coventry Cathedral, and, last week, in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice.

This morning, my assembly thoughts were from the Ghetto in Venice, which was one the highlights of my visit to Venice the week before last.

During my visit to the Ghetto, I visited the ScalaMata Gallery, filled with colourful and captivating paintings, books, cards and bookmarks presenting 500 years of the history and scenes of daily life of the Venetian Ghetto.

Today’s ghettoes are areas of poverty, marginalisation and discrimination. Last week, the former Taoiseach, Bertie Aherne, angered Loyalists in Northern Ireland when he used the word ‘ghetto’ to describe parts of East Belfast.

But we should always remember that the world’s first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. On 29 March 1516, the Senate of the Serenissima Republic of Venice issued a declaration saying: ‘The Jews must all live together in the Corte de Case, in the Ghetto near San Girolamo; to prevent them from wandering around at night let there be built two gates, one on the side of the Old Ghetto where there is a little bridge, and likewise on the other side of the bridge, that is, one for each of said two places.’

The decree added, ‘The gates shall be opened in the morning at the sound of the Marangona [the largest bell of St Markʼs bell tower] and shall be closed at midnight by four Christian guards appointed and paid by the Jews at the rate deemed suitable by our cabinet.’

The words of this edict would toll like a death-knell in the history of the Jewish diaspora, and the Ghettoʼs walls – a physical barrier – became its most powerful and pervasive symbol. The world’s first ghetto was not liberated by Napoleon’s troops until 1797.

The Ghetto of Venice, mapped out by Michal Meron, and the ScalaMata Gallery

During my recent visit to the Ghetto in Cannaregio, I visited the ScalaMata Gallery whose displays and exhibitions include illustrated Torah scrolls and paintings by the artist Michal Meron. Her paintings accompany two books I bought during my visit: Riccardo Calimani’s 500 years of the Venetian Ghetto and Alon Baker’s The Jewish Festivals and Synagogues around the World.

In his introduction to Riccardo Calimani’s book, 500 years of the Venetian Ghetto, the Chief Rabbi of Venice, Scialom Bahbout, points out that ‘in the history of Jewish culture, Jewish Venice is remembered above all for the abundance of books that were printed there. These include the fundamental texts that form part of every Rabbiʼs education: the Yerushalmi and Babylonian Talmud, the Mikraoth Ghedolot (the ‘Rabbinic Bible’ …), prayer books and many more.’

Michal Meron’s illustrations in Riccardo Calimani’s book, 500 years of the Venetian Ghetto, express the great happiness of the Jews, despite being forced to live locked inside the Ghetto. Moreover, the Venetian Jews remained joyful even when faced with the many restrictions imposed on them.

Chief Rabbi Scialom Bahbout, in his introduction, says the Jewish community in Venice ‘continues to approach problems with the same optimism, because the history of a community like that of Venice deserves to be passed down for another 500 years, not through history books but by living people.’

These paintings are inspired by the history of the Ghetto and its inhabitants. They convey centuries of often painful Jewish experience in joyous images, and succeed in expressing the Ghettoʼs unique atmosphere and evocative environment.

‘500 years of the Venetian Ghetto’ by Riccardo Calimani and Michal Meron

Michal Meron was born in Haifa and was educated and trained as an artist in Vienna and at the Tel Hai Art College in Israel. She has exhibited in Europe and the US in Jewish Museums, institutions and public and private galleries. Her Haggadah has been published in Hebrew, English, French and Spanish and in The Illustrated Torah she represents all 54 Sidrot and Haftarot from the Torah.

Several Jewish Museums in Europe have commissioned her to create a series of paintings showing Jewish scenes in European synagogues, including Amsterdam, Florence, Frankfurt, Prague, Rome, Venice, Vienna, and Worms.

The history of the Ghetto in Venice is the history of a small microcosm, whose vitality and astonishing tenacity speaks to the world. Meron’s and Calimani’s book, 500 years of the Venetian Ghetto, offers a portrait of this community, which is remarkable in its poignancy and strength.

The Jewish world of the Ghetto illustrated in Michal Meron’s images is one of spontaneous exhilaration and irrepressible delight, characterised by a passion for life and the desire for peace. Through her paintings, feelings and aspirations are communicated with an exuberant intensity that a written text alone could not evoke.

A school assembly talk by Patrick Comerford in the Ghetto in Venice

Visit the ScalaMata Gallery is HERE.

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
177, I Gesuati, Zattere, Venice

I Gesuati, the prominent church on the Fondamenta delle Zattere … covered in cladding and scaffolding at present (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

We are in the last week of Ordinary Time, the week before Advent. Before a busy day and a busy week begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I have been reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme on this prayer diary this week is seven more churches in Venice. Earlier in this prayer diary, I illustrated my morning reflections with images from churches in Venice: Saint Mark’s Basilica (20 June), Salute (21 June), Torcello (22 June), San Giorgio Maggiore (23 June), San Geremia (24 June), Santa Sofia (25 June) and San Michele and churches on Murano and Burano (26 June). While I was in Venice this month, I reflected on the synagogues in the Ghetto in Venice (7-13 November)

As part of my reflections and this prayer diary this week, I am looking at seven more churches I visited in Venice earlier this month. This theme continues this morning (22 November 2021) with photographs from I Gesuati, the prominent church on the Fondamenta delle Zattere, facing across the Giudecca Canal to Palladio’s great church of Il Redentore.

Inside Santa Maria del Rosario (Saint Mary of the Rosary), commonly known as ‘I Gesuati’ … designed by Giorgio Massari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Fondamenta delle Zattere is a long dock in the Dorsoduro area of Venice, overlooking the Giudecca Canal and looking across to the island of Giudecca and Palladio’s masterpiece, Il Redentore, which I described yesterday.

The pavement along the waterfront was completed in 1516, and stretches for 1.7 km, from San Basilio in the west to Punta della Dogana in east.

Zattere literally means rafts. One theory connects the name of Zattere to a naval battle in the year 810 between Venice and the Frankish army of Pepin, son of Charlemagne. The Venetians used flat boats as rafts and attracted the enemy into shallow waters. The boats of the Franks got stuck, became easy targets, and were defeated. The victory marked the complete independence of the Serene Republic, and so the Fondamenta delle Zattere received its name.

A second, less romantic theory, links the name to the use of this long coastline as the original point of arrival of goods such as salt, coal and wood, on rafts.

The Fondamenta delle Zattere is now a beautiful promenade with bars, restaurants and ice cream parlours. It is usually peaceful and sunny, with a panoramic view of the Giudecca Canal.

Santa Maria del Rosario (Saint Mary of the Rosary), commonly known as I Gesuati, is an 18th-century Dominican church on Fondamenta delle Zattere. The classical style building has a well-lit interior and is exceptional in preserving its original layout and Rococo decoration intact.

When I visited earlier this month, the church exterior was covered in cladding and scaffolding. But, inside the church is rich with sculpture and paintings, mainly created in a 30-year period. Building work began in 1725, the church was consecrated in 1743, and the last sculptural decoration was in place by 1755.

The church takes its name not from the Jesuits but from the Jesuates, a religious order formally known as the Clerici apostolici Sancti Hieronymi. They were founded in Siena in the 14th century and were presenct in Venice by 1390. The members were known as I poveri Gesuati (‘the poor Jesuates’) because they frequently called on the name of Jesus.

Despite their supposed poverty, the Jesuates acquired some wealth from donations and legacies and from privileges granted by the state, including a monopoly on the distillation of wine.

They began building a small church on land fronting the Zattere in 1493. The church was originally dedicated to Saint Jerome (San Girolamo) and later to Santa Maria della Visitazione (Saint Mary of the Visitation) and became known as the Church of the Visitation.

The order went into decline, however, and was suppressed by Pope Clement IX in 1668. A year later, their property was acquired by the Dominicans, who moved into the church in 1670.

The Dominicans decided by 1720 to build a new and larger church and first commissioned the architect Andrea Musato. But he died in 1721, and the new church was designed by Giorgio Massari, described as ‘the greatest Venetian architect of the first half of the 18th century’.

Massari’s design was inspired by his famous predecessors, in particular Palladio. The façade of the church was derived from the central portion of the façade of San Giorgio Maggiore, while the basic idea for the interior came from the Redentore.

The first stone was laid on 17 May 1726 in the presence of the Patriarch, Marco Gradenigo, the church was consecrated on 29 September 1743 and the work was finished with the completion of the last statue in 1755.

To support the weight of the façade, 270 piles had to be driven into the soil. Giant Corinthian pilasters support a heavy triangular pediment. The main entrance door, surmounted by a curved pediment with an inscription above, is flanked by four niches with large statues representing the four cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. These statues were the work of four sculptors, Gaetano Susali, Francesco Bonazza, Giuseppe Bernardi Torretto, and Alvise Tagliapietra, in 1736-1737.

The new church was embellished with the work of the best-known painters and sculptors of the day. The decoration of the interior began in 1736, 10 years after building started. The decoration of the ceiling was entrusted to Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1737, and it was completed by 1739.

The three frescos in the ceiling depict the Glory of Saint Dominic, the Apparition of the Virgin Mary to Saint Dominic, and Tiepolo’s masterpiece representing the Institution of the Rosary. Other paintings on the ceilings were designed by Tiepolo but painted with help from assistants.

The paintings and sculptures in the nave include works by Tiepolo, Tintoretto, Giambattista Piazzetta, Sebastiano Ricci, Stefano di Sant’Agnese and Giovanni Maria Morlaiter, described as ‘the most brilliant interpreter of the rococo in Venetian sculpture.’

The ceiling was decorated by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1737-1739 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 21: 1-4 (NRSVA):

1 He [Jesus] looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’

Inside I Gesuati … the basic idea for the interior came from Palladio’s Redentore (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (22 November 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the Zambia Anglican Council, who continue to pioneer gender justice efforts in Zambia.

Three Dominican saints – Saint Catherine of Siena (left), Saint Rose of Lima (right) and Saint Agnes of Montepulciano (seated), with the Virgin Mary – an oil painting on canvas by Tiepolo (1739), installed in the church in 1748 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Three Dominicans saints – Pope Pius V, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Peter Martyr – by Sebastiano Ricci, the first work commissioned for the new building (1732-1733) and one of the last works of the artist, who died in 1734 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Looking out on Zattere and the Giudecca Canal from I Gesuati on a winter evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)