The Quest to Renovate the World’s Oldest Ghetto

April 26, 2022 | Orge Castellano
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In 1516, the Venetian Senate declared that the city’s Jews could only live in a small area, and had it surrounded by a wall and gate to enforce the regulation. The neighborhood, known as the ghetto, soon gave its name to similar restricted Jewish areas in cites throughout Italy and Germany. Even after its walls were torn down in the late 18th century, it remained the center of Jewish life. Today, about 50 of Venice’s 450 Jews live there. Orge Castellano describes efforts to preserve it:

The buildings [in the ghetto], which were wedged too closely together from the start, needed a long-overdue renovation to stay standing, especially as the city’s water levels continue to rise due to climate change. In 2014, looking forward to the 500th anniversary of the ghetto’s creation in 2016, a group of philanthropists called the Venetian Heritage Council, led by the famed Jewish fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg, announced a $12 million project to restore the ghetto. But the project fell through when the group couldn’t raise enough funds to begin the restoration.

Architecturally, the most important features of the ghetto are likely its synagogues:

Hidden within ordinary-looking buildings in the square sit La Scola Spagnola (Spanish Synagogue), and La Scola Levantina (Levantine Synagogue), the last synagogues built in the quarter, in 1541 and 1580, respectively. Coming from various regions of Europe, each Jewish group sought to retain its own traditions and community spirit inside the ghetto. By 1571, there were five synagogues, each dedicated to a distinct ethnic group.

The Spanish Synagogue is the only [one] that has been continuously used since its founding. Said to be designed by the famous Venetian Baroque architect Baldassare Longhena, the temple resembles the style of many contemporary Venetian monuments and palazzos. Carved wooden doors inscribed with Psalm verses welcome congregants. The bimah, or prayer podium, features marble columns, and the floor is made up of white and gray marble tiles, arranged in a concentric square pattern.

The Schola Levantina, rebuilt in 1680, is an elegant building also attributed to Longhena. Dark wooden panels clad the square-plan prayer room, and the 18th-century bimah stands in a raised polygonal apse, covered by a domed skylight. Of the remaining three temples in the ghetto, La Scola Grande Tedesca (German Synagogue), erected by Ashkenazi Jews in 1528, is the oldest.

The Spanish Synagogue was founded by Sephardim who came more or less directly from Spain; whereas the “Levantine” Jews had left Spain for the Ottoman empire, and from there migrated to Italy.

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