The Renaissance Synagogues of Venice

The original Ghetto, on a small Venetian island, hides Renaissance era synagogues of startling beauty.

German Synagogue (founded 1528), the Italian Synagogue (founded 1575), the Canton Synagogue (1532), and the Jewish Museum, Venice, This is an ARCHES video with Dr. David Landau, Dr. Marcella Ansaldi, Director of the Jewish Museum of Venice, and Dr. Steven Zucker

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in Venice, on a 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.

Dr. David Landau: [0:22] The earliest building that you see here houses the German synagogue. It was built in 1528 and 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.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] Now, Jews had been here since the 13th century, but they hadn’t been allowed to settle in Venice proper.

Dr. Landau: [0:45] They were allowed to come and trade in Venice under very tight conditions. They were allowed to be pawnbrokers and bankers and traders in various fields, but they were not allowed to stay in Venice. When they were visiting Venice for business, they had to wear yellow caps or yellow scarves or both. They were under very tight control from the authorities all the time.

[1:04] 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. They chose an abandoned island only used to throw away bronze and metal that had been used for making cannons. This only had two bridges — one to come in and one to go out.

[1:25] They thought that was the ideal place for the Jews because they were very containable there. The island was called “Geto” from the word “gettare,” “throw away” in Italian. When the Germans arrived here in 1528, because they couldn’t pronounce the soft “G” of “Geto,” they called it “Ghetto.” This became the name of a place where people are contained.

Dr. Zucker: [1:45] The exterior of these buildings is quite plain compared to so much of the sumptuous architecture that we associate with 16th-century Venice.

Dr. Landau: [1:54] Well, Jews were not allowed to build nice buildings. You had to cram as many people in them as possible. The Jews had to live in very, very difficult conditions with very low ceilings, no air. Then the only hope they had to have a normal life was to go up the stairs. Up the stairs, as you can see, there are the arches that show where the German synagogue was.

[2:14] So they went up to get not only solace for their soul, but also solace for the body.

Dr. Zucker: [2:19] We’ve walked into the museum, up three steep flights of stairs. We opened a door and entered into this large open space.

Dr. Landau: [2:28] 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 lots of money to spend on these buildings, so they built them as cheaply as they could, and after 500 years, they’re suffering.

Dr. Zucker: [2:46] We’ve walked through a passageway from the German synagogue to a different building. We’ve entered into another exceptionally spacious room that is completely unexpected, considering how cramped the rest of the building is.

Dr. Landau: [3:00] 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.

[3:23] We haven’t done a test yet, but we hope that when we remove the step that leads into this synagogue, we will find underneath some traces of the original floor that we can restore, and much of it needs restoration.

[3:36] There are, for instance, those writings on the wall, they are made of plaster. The original ones, of which we have one that remains, were made in gilded leather and we’ll try do a better job when we restore the synagogue in this current project.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] You can see areas on the wall where moisture has come through, and there’s clear deterioration.

Dr. Landau: [3:57] 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.

[4:11] Marble or stone in Venice is not affected very deeply by seawater, but bricks are because they are porous and they suck up the salty water and then the water evaporates and the salt remains in the bricks and breaks them down.

[4:25] You can see that that effect of salt is coming through to the wood, and the wood start[s] suffering. We have to stop that because in the long term it will destroy the building.

Dr. Zucker: [4:36] We’ve walked into the third synagogue. This one is known as the Canton, as the corner synagogue. Like the others, it’s magnificent, but here there’s even more gilding.

Dr. Marcella Ansaldi: [4:46] You can see that it’s a mix of Venetian style and Jewish tradition.

Dr. Zucker: [4:53] It’s so unusual to see narrative images in a synagogue. It really does remind us of how powerful images were in Venetian society that they would make their way into this sacred space. They’re modestly scaled, but they’re still there.

Dr. Ansaldi: [5:08] We are really proud of that.

Dr. Zucker: [5:10] What we’re seeing is a continuous Jewish community.

Dr. Landau: [5:13] 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’s a sense of pride in the Jewish community in Venice.

[5:29] It is small, but it’s thriving. It’s very attached to its traditions. We need to give our 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.

Dr. Zucker: [5:49] Now, we have a responsibility to safeguard that history.

Dr. Landau: [5:53] 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 1,200 years, and we have taken care of our history, of our tradition.”

[6:05] [music]

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

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Cite this page as: Dr. David Landau, Dr. Marcella Ansaldi and Dr. Steven Zucker, "The Renaissance Synagogues of Venice," in Smarthistory, May 27, 2020, accessed July 20, 2024,