MANTUA, Italy — Imagine taking a journey through time and immersing yourself in Venice’s 16th-century Jewish ghetto. You’ll see the world through the eyes of Jews living inside buildings overlooking Venetian alleys and squares.
The flats are overcrowded; the ceilings less than 1.75 meters (5 feet 9 inches) high. It is cold in winter and warm in summer, with no windows and no light. Due to poor hygiene conditions, the rooms smell terrible. Basically, Jews are forced to live a pretty miserable life.
Visiting these places will soon be possible thanks to a redevelopment project by the Jewish community of Venice’s Jewish Museum, located in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the square at the heart of the ghetto. Visitors will enter an apartment located under the historic German Synagogue, which will be rebuilt based on the model of the Jewish houses of the 16th century.
“Tourists will realize how difficult the life of the Jews was at the time,” says David Landau, an Israeli art historian and the project’s manager. “The ghetto was a prison, but also a protection — as long as the residents remained inside no one could harm them.”
The Jewish Museum is an architectural complex including some of the most important synagogues and ancient Jewish dwellings built from the start of the Renaissance. It includes Venice’s oldest synagogue — the German Synagogue, built in 1528 — along with the Canton Synagogue, built in 1532. The Spanish and Levantine synagogues, also built in the mid-16th century, are outside the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, or “New Ghetto,” a misnomer, as it is actually older than the Ghetto Vecchio, or “Old Ghetto.”
“The ancient residents came out of their lodgings, and through internal passages they climbed into the synagogues — much higher, more ventilated, and illuminated compared to their homes,” Landau says.
“The possibility of finding comfort in prayer strengthened their faith and increased the sense of belonging to their community,” says Landau.
The museum’s renovation project already began five years ago.
“The exhibition is unique in the world,” says museum director Marcella Ansaldi. The museum was founded in 1954, she said, as a way of bearing witness to Holocaust survivor testimony and preserving Italian Jewish culture. “We acknowledged the need to reorganize and modernize the museum, which is visited by 90,000 people a year.”
Currently, some of the structure’s windows are sealed for security, which prevents natural sunlight from entering the building. Lighting is artificial. The aim is to reopen the windows facing the ghetto to connect visitors with this important area of the city, just as the building was 500 years ago.
“There will be several places where the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo will be visible, where the Ashkenazi community has settled,” says Ansaldi. “The route will allow visitors to reach the three synagogues that are part of the museum via corridors and internal stairs, without going down the street.”
The route will allow visitors to reach the three synagogues that are part of the museum via corridors and internal stairs
The German Synagogue and the Canton Synagogue are already structurally connected to the Jewish Museum. The Italian Synagogue is not currently accessible because it is located inside a house, but with the redevelopment project it will again become a part of the museum’s permanent exhibition. The museum has also acquired an apartment on the ground floor of the building where the German Synagogue is located, which will now house the bookstore and cafeteria.
The archive and the library — which will be highly waterproof up to 2.2 meters (7 feet 2 inches) high — will become freely accessible to scholars. Events and meetings will be organized in some additional spaces. The ground floor will be structured to guarantee the humidity and temperature control necessary for the conservation of historical volumes.
When the renovation is complete, more than 4,000 books and manuscripts owned by the Jewish community will be available. The goal is to reestablish the ancient relationship between the buildings in the museum complex, which once performed essential functions, with the ghetto square and city at large.
The museum contains the three synagogues and their 16th-century furnishings and 18th-century renovations, silver liturgical objects dating back to the 17th century, and a wealth of ancient books, with a rich section containing printed texts and manuscripts made between 1400 and 1800.
There are also textile objects and artifacts from 1300 to 1700. The “strazzaria” (Venetian for schmattes, or rags) was a widespread industry among the Jews of the Republic of Venice. One of the most important economic sectors in the ghetto was the purchase of used fabrics, and the production and sale of clothing.
“We want to reverse the timeline,” says Ansaldi. “We’ll tell the history of the ghetto starting from the contemporary era going back to the 16th century.
“The construction project, which will begin in October and run for three years, is the most important to be undertaken in Venice after the coronavirus emergency,” she says. “It’s a sign of rebirth after last year’s flooding and the recent pandemic. The museum will remain open during the work.”
The Jewish Museum is the historic and cultural heart of the area.
“It’s a prestigious institution,” says Davide De Vettor Aboaf, one of the few Jews still living in the ghetto and an employee of the Jewish community. “Thanks to its presence we are also known abroad. It’s certainly a good initiative.”
Rising real estate prices have caused most of the 500 Jews living in Venice today to relocate elsewhere, but the ghetto area still houses most Jewish institutions, including schools, and remains a center of Jewish life.
The redevelopment project, designed by the APML Venice studio, was approved by the municipality and the city’s archeological committee. The entire restoration will be self-financed by the Jewish community, and will cost 9 million euros (roughly $10.2 million). Six million euros (roughly $6.8 million) have been raised so far from a fundraising campaign promoted by Landau.
I went around the world to ask for money
“I went around the world to ask for money,” Landau says. “At the moment we are at 60 percent of the amount we need. I have good hopes of finding more money.”
Landau says that global Jewish philanthropists and organizations donated a large portion of the funds.
“Ronald Lauder, businessman and president of the World Jewish Congress, personally donated $2 million, and the Leon Levy Foundation has made more than $1 million available to us,” Landau says.
Among the American and European benefactors are the well-known Rothschild banking family, the charitable Venice in Peril Fund, and the nonprofit organization Save Venice.