If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Renaissance Synagogues of Venice

Venice's Jewish Ghetto houses three historic synagogues and a museum. Established in 1516, it provided a safe haven for Jewish traders, including German refugees in 1528. Despite harsh living conditions, the community thrived, creating richly decorated places of worship. Today, the challenge is preserving these buildings against rising sea levels and time. A conversation with Dr. David Landau, Dr. Marcella Ansaldi, Director of the Jewish Museum of Venice, and Dr. Steven Zucker while walking through the German Synagogue (founded 1528), the Italian Synagogue (founded 1575), the Canton Synagogue (1532), and the Jewish Museum, Venice, This is an ARCHES video The 16th century synagogues of Venice need your support. You can visit the Museo Ebraico di Venezia here: http://www.museoebraico.it/en/ Donations to the the Jewish Community of Venice can be made here: http://jvenice.org/en/donations Or you can email the American Friends of the Jewish Community of Venice here: info@afjcv.org. Created by Smarthistory.

Want to join the conversation?

No posts yet.

Video transcript

(jazz music) - [Interviewer] We're in Venice on the small island known as the Ghetto, speaking about three synagogues and the Jewish Museum of Venice. I think for people especially from the United States when they think about a Jewish Ghetto, they think about the 19th or perhaps the 20th century. But these are much older. - [Male Expert] The earliest building that you see here houses the German Synagogue. It was built in 1528 and it was built to house a group of German refugees coming from northern Germany. They were given a piece of land in the Ghetto and they built a tall building there. - [Interviewer] Now, Jews had been here since the 13th century, but they haven't been allowed to settle in Venice proper. - [Male Expert] They were allowed to come and trade in Venice under very tight conditions. They were allowed to be home brokers and bankers and traders in various fields, but they were not allowed to stay in Venice and when they were visiting Venice for business they had to wear yellow caps or yellow scarves or both, and so they were under very tight control from the authorities all the time. In 1516 the authorities in Venice realized that the Jews were so important for the city commerce that they decided to set up a safe place to keep the Jews. So they chose the abandoned island, only used to throw away bronze and metal that had been used for making cannons. And this only had two bridges, one to come in and one to go out. And they thought it was an ideal place for the Jews. Because the way they were containable there. The island was called Geto from the verb gettare, to throw away in Italian, and when the Germans arrived here in 1528, because they couldn't pronounce the soft G of Geto, they called it Ghetto, and this became the name of a place where people are contained. - [Interviewer] The exterior of these buildings is quite plain compared to so much of the sumptuous architecture that we associate with the 16th century Venice. - [Male Expert] Well, Jews were not allowed to build nice buildings. You had to promise many people in them as possible. The Jews had to live in very, very difficult conditions, with very low ceilings, no air, and then the only hope that had to have a normal life was to go up the stairs. And up the stairs as you can see, there are the arches that show where the German synagogue was. So they went up to get not only solace for their soul, but also solace for their body. - [Interviewer] We've walked into the museum, up three steep flights of stairs, and we opened a door and entered in to this large open space. - [Male Expert] You can see it's a place of richness and devotion, but at the same time you feel very uncertain because your floor is completely crooked. Remember that when the Jews arrived in Venice they didn't have a lot of money to spend on these buildings so they built them as cheaply as they could. And after 500 years, they're suffering. - [Interviewer] We've walked through a passageway from the German synagogue to a different building and we've entered into another exceptionally spacious room that is completely unexpected, considering how cramped the rest of the building is. - [Male Expert] We are now in the Italian synagogue. It is a large space because the Italian community who arrived here in the 1570s was much larger community than the ones that had arrived earlier in 1528 and 1532 and originated the other two synagogues in this area. The synagogue was restored in the 1970s, but restored cheaply because there wasn't enough money to do it properly. We haven't done a test yet, but we hope that when we remove the step that leads into the synagogue we will find underneath some traces of the original floor that we can restore. And much of it needs restoration. There are, for instance, the writings on the wall. They are made of plaster. The original ones, of which we have one that remains, are made in gilded leather and we'll try to do a better job when we restore the synagogue in this current project. - [Interviewer] And you can see areas on the wall where moisture has come through and there's clear deterioration. - [Male Expert] Problem with all Venetian buildings is that, as the water rises, and we know it is inexorably rising all over the world, it reaches a place where bricks are in touch with the water, rather than marble or stone. Marble or stone in Venice is not effected very deeply by seawater, but bricks are because they're porous and they suck up the salty water. Then the water evaporates and the salt remains in the bricks and breaks them down. You can see that that effect of salt is coming through to the wood and the wood has started suffering and we have to stop that because in the long-term it would destroy the building. - [Interviewer] We've walked into the third synagogue. This one is known as the Canton, as the corner synagogue, and like the others, it's magnificent, but here there's even more gilding. - [Female Expert] And you can see that it's a mix of Venetian style and Jewish tradition. - [Interviewer] And it's so unusual to see narrative images in a synagogue, and it really does remind us of how powerful images were in Venetian society that they would make their way into this sacred space. And they're modestly scaled, but they're still there. - [Female Expert] We are really proud of that. - [Interviewer] What we're seeing is a continuous Jewish community. - [Male Expert] This is a unique situation. I think in the world where several synagogues in a small space have been used by the community for hundreds of years uninterruptedly, except as we all know during the Holocaust years, there is a sense of pride in the Jewish community in Venice. It is small, but it's thriving and it's very attached to its traditions, and we need to give children, and the children of our children a place where they can be proud of being Jews and being proud of showing off how much the community over the centuries has taken care of its own buildings and its own place of prayer. - [Interviewer] And now we have a responsibility to safeguard that history. - [Male Expert] It is our duty to make sure that those who will follow us for another 600 years will be able to say we have been here for 1200 years and we've taken care of our history of our tradition. (jazz music)