08 July 2022

Facelift for the 16th century
synagogues in Venice and
the oldest Ghetto in Europe

The Scuola Spagnola or Spanish Synagogue is he largest historic synagogue in Venice, built in 1550 for the community of Spanish and Portuguese Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Charlotte and I were in Venice earlier this week for a short visit, and we returned to the ghetto on Wednesday afternoon to visit the synagogues and have lunch there.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice was the first in Europe, and a new effort is underway to preserve its 16th-century synagogues for the Jews who have remained and tourists who pass through.

For almost two years, restorers have been peeling away paint and discovering the original foundations of three of the ghetto’s synagogues, which are considered the only Renaissance synagogues still in use.

The art historian David Landau is spearheading the fundraising effort to restore the synagogues and nearby buildings both for Venice’s small Jewish community, which numbers around 450 people and for tourists who can visit them on a guided tour through the Jewish Museum of Venice.

‘I was really deeply offended by the state of the synagogues,’ he is quoted as saying in recent news report.

Landau is a Renaissance specialist who bought a home in Venice 12 years ago. ‘I felt that the synagogues were in very bad condition. They had been altered beyond recognition over the centuries, and needed to be kind of cared for and loved.’

He has secured about €5 million to date and expects workers can complete the restoration process by the end of next year (2023) if the rest of the funding comes through, although the original outstanding €4 million has now ballooned to €6 million because of soaring building costs.

The Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio leads into the Campo de Ghetto Novo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Ghetto in Venice dates from 1516m when the Serene Republic forced the growing numbers of Jews in the city into the district where the old foundries (geti) had been located. The area, which was locked down at night, became Europe’s first ghetto and remains the hub of the Jewish community in the Cannaregio area.

The first synagogue in Venice dates from 1528 and was built by German Ashkenazi Jews. Others followed and served different groups, including one for Spanish Sephardic Jews and one for Italian Jews. None is visible from the street, as strict rules prevented open Jewish religious practices.

All the synagogues are hidden discreetly on the top floors of seemingly normal buildings that on the lower levels held cramped living spaces for Jewish families. The synagogues have remained open continuously and have continued to function, except for the years of World War II and the German occupation of Venice.

The head of the Jewish community in Venice, Dario Calimani, says the restoration project is necessary both to maintain the religious and cultural life of the Jews of Venice today and to preserve the community’s history. ‘They are a testimony to the life that it was, to the history of our community, small community,’ he says.

Shabbat Shalom

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