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January 25th, 2015
THE GHETTO 500TH ANNIVERSARY 499 years ago the Ghetto of Venice was established, first ghetto in history, and was to become one of the most important crossroads of Jewish culture for the following centuries. The word itself ‘ghetto’ originates from Venice, meaning ‘metal foundry’, hinting at the previous activities of the area.
In the course of the 16th century, five synagogues (plus many other minor prayer and study rooms) were erected: three synagogues (called ‘scole’ or ‘scuole’ in Venice), two of Ashkenazi rite (Scuola Grande Tedesca and Scuola Canton) and one of Italian liturgy occupy a corner of the New Ghetto Square (Campo del Gheto Nuovo) .
The three synagogues, interconnected through a series of rooms and passages), built on top of preexisting constructions, were then to be restored and embellished through the years. The two Ashkenazi Synagogues, in particular, received an almost complete restyling during the early decades of the 18th century, that endowed them with an elegant Rococo touch, beased on richly gilded and carved wooden adornments.
THE GHETTO 500TH ANNIVERSARY In 1541 we assist to the first extension of the Ghetto, to make room to new arrivals: Levantine merchants arriving from the Ottoman Empire and Ponentine Jews from Spain and Portugal (many of them were converted Jews, that reverted officially to Judaism under the protection of the Venetian government). Two new synagogues were built here, Scuola Levantina and Scuola Grande Spagnola, these are the two still active today.
Larger and more monumental with respect to the three former prayer rooms, the present constructions are both attributed to Baldassarre Longhena, top architect of 17th century Venice (his greatest creation is the huge Salute Church at the entrance of the Grand Canal).
At its most, the Ghetto of Venice was overpopulated with almost 5,000 residents, obliged by the government to live in a very limited space: tall apartment buildings with low ceiling and steep staircases, the so called ‘grattacieli’ (‘skyscrapers’) give the Ghetto of Venice its peculiar physiognomy .
Since 1797, when Napoleon Bonaparte, at the moment of conquering Venice, decreed the end of the three centuries long ‘apartheid’, the Jewish population slowly abandoned the quarter, looking for healthier and more comfortable dwellings.
THE GHETTO 500TH ANNIVERSARY: nowadays very few of the approximately 500 Venetian Jews live in the Ghetto, that remains however the religious, spiritual and cultural heart for Jewish Venice, dense as it is in memories and historical events.
In 2016 it will be 500 years. To celebrate this historical event the three synagogues of the New Ghetto Square and the Jewish Museum will get a 12 million $ refurbishing. The Museum will also be enlarged and enriched with a group of important 18th century silver manufacts, that in 2013 were found hidden inside Scuola Grande Spagnola: they had been lost since the terrible years of the Nazi occupation and incidentally found during the restoration of the synagogue.
The important works of renovation of these historical and artistic sites were announced in October 2014 by the Venetian Heritage Council. The Council’s chairman, Mr. Joseph Sitt, and the vice chairman, Diane Von Furstenburg, the famous fashion stylist of Belgian Jewish origins, will coordinate the international fundraising operations: https://vh-council.org/
Scuola Canton, probably founded by people originally from Southern France, has already gone through a first phase of restorations, started in July 2014, and was already reopened to visitors. The beautifully carved gilded wooden panels and the spectacular Pompeian styled Bimah were brought back to the former splendor by professional and careful female hands:
Recent studies about Jewish Venice
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