In Venetian history

Touring the Jewish museum and all the five synagogues in Venice will finally be possible in 2025.

Campo Ghetto Nuovo in Venice

The good news is that after many years the restoration is almost finished. At the moment I am happy to tour with you the Levantine and Spanish synagogues (and the secret garden lying behind). Next year a Jewish Venice tour will be much more comprehensive than it has ever been. More of the ancient synagogues and a newly rearranged museum will be finally open to public.

Secret garden of the Spanish Synagogue in Venice, founded in the 16th century, Calle del Forno

Why should touring the Jewish museum and the synagogues in Venice be a must in your future visits?

The ones I have met throughout all these years will remember how my Jewish Venice tour has included several aspects of our Venetian history and has brought us around the city of Venice, from Rialto across the district of Cannaregio, where the three Ghettos used to be. This is because the history of Jews in Venice is not just geographically connected to the ghettos.

A Jewish Venice tour outside the Ghetto

Well before the institution of the first Venetian ghetto in 1516, Jews had been given permission to permanently settle in Venice at the end of the 14th century, to be then banished and allowed to return on a hiccup model whenever the Venetian economy needed their financial expertise or their loans helping impoverished Christian citizens.

Not to mention the fact that in 1797 General Bonaparte ordered to burn the gates which used to lock the ghettos during the night. Bonaparte let Venetian Jews leave the area and set them free to live where they wanted. Not that this meant all Jews left the ghetto from one day to the other, but it slowly brought to a geographical dispersion of the community and consequently to a stronger secular approach to Judaism. 

In other words, you can learn about the history of Jews in Venice without stepping into the Ghetto Novo, the Ghetto Vecchio and the Ghetto Novissimo.

The Campo Ghetto Novo, the Ghetto Vecchio and the Ghetto Novissimo

Still, the Jewish ghetto in Venice in its complexity is unique as, architecture wise, little has changed since the end of the 18th century. Obviously, the area is not exactly the same as in the past: “new” elements are the elderly home of the late 1800s (now a kosher hotel), restaurants, art galleries, a couple of bakeries, the kiosk of the army supervising since 9/11, the bronze bas-reliefs by Arbit Blatas and a few plaques to remember the Shoah, the active presence of Chabad. However, houses, the Banco Rosso pawn shop, the square and the synagogues are still there.

Five windows of the German Synagogue in Venice, founded in 1528

Front side of the Italian Synagogue in Campo Ghetto Nuovo in Venice, founded in 1575

Aron Ha-Kodesh in the Italian Synagogue in Venice founded in 1575; detail of Parochet in red “soprarizzo” velvet (16th century)

In other words, in the Jewish Ghettos in Venice we can see something we cannot see anywhere else. The high level of preservation of the architecture and urban plan is unique. But this is not all.

Front side of the Spanish Synagogue in Venice, founded in the 16th century, Campiello delle Scuole

Central aisle with marble floor in the Spanish Synagogue in Venice towards the Aron Ha-Kodesh

The ceiling in the Spanish Synagogue in Venice, 18th century

What makes Venetian synagogues unique

Unlike the synagogues you can visit in other Italian cities, Venetian synagogues were not rebuilt after the unification of the country and the consequent emancipation of Jews in 1861. 

When Jews were finally recognized as Italian citizens, they decided to build new synagogues reflecting their active presence in the country. Synagogues are large and imposing in Milan, Turin, Rome, Trieste. In Venice you will instead visit ancient, intimate spaces: each of the synagogues with its own different history reflects the different communities who moved to Venice in the 16th century in their multi-ethnic and multi-ritual nature, both Sephardic and Ashkenazi.

Front side of Levantine Synagogue in Venice, founded in the 16th century, Campiello delle Scuole

Levantine Synagogue in Venice, the Aron Ha-Kodesh, 18th century

Twisted wooden column in the Bimah in the Levantine Synagogue in Venice, 18th century

The Jewish Museum, its history and the new arrangement

In regards to the Jewish museum, the director Marcella Ansaldi, who has worked on the re-arrangement of the museum in the last ten years, has beautifully highlighted the uniqueness of the collection. 

The Jewish Museum in Venice is the first Jewish museum which opened in Italy. When inaugurated in 1955, the museum’s main mission was to give life to the history of Jews in Venice and to gradually support a renewed approach to the history of the Jewish ghetto and Judaism. 

Featuring in quite a tiny venue a precious collection of decorative objects for the bet ha-kenèset, religious items for both public and family use as well as nuptial contracts, the museum was curated by Giovannina Sullam Reinisch. Reinisch, for the first time, carefully prepared a catalogue of all items, labelled and dated them, calculating an approximate value. 

Silver lamp in the Spanish Synagogue in Venice by the Aron Ha-Kodesh

Silver lamp in the Levantine Synagogue in Venice, detail with snakes and David star

Partially rearranged in the years before covid, the museum will re-open in 2025 offering a circuit including the German, Italian and Canton synagogues together with the Renato Maestro library. The collection however will not be larger and Marcella Ansaldi is proud about it. 

True, in the last years there have been important donations. Some items have been bequeathed by Venetian families. Also, some diasporic Jews, now living in the USA, have decided to show their bond to Venice. Some donated their ancestors’ nuptial jewels, the Shabbat lamp, the writing desk of their rabbi father, the correspondence, old photos, ancient books with precious covers.

Touring the Jewish Museum: what you will see

Altogether the museum collection features nearly 380 objects in silver, over 500 textiles and several books, too. Among the extraordinary pieces, a couple of Rimmonim in silver of the 16th century and the spectacular Paròkhet by Stella, Isacco Perugia’s wife, of the 17th century, all beautifully embroidered.

Detail of embroidered cloth hanging in front of the Bimah in the Italian Synagogue in Venice founded in 1575

Marcella Ansaldi says she was “estasiata”, “entranced”, when observing the beauty of the museum textiles, minute, delicate, really well preserved embroidery. Ansaldi loves details: far from baroque, opulent taste, here you can find a chromatic palette ranging from light blue to sable, very discreet and elegant.

But touring the Jewish museum in Venice will be worth while for more reasons. 

What makes the Jewish museum in Venice unique

First of all, because the items displayed were made for the Jewish community, but were made by Christian artists. No Jews in Venice were allowed to be artists or architects or woodcarvers.

Also, if compared to other Jewish museums in Europe, the Venetian collection is unique because the Venetian Jewish community managed to save most of their heritage in silver from any expropriation during the time of the Doge’s Republic. While in other countries, family owned silver objects were reclaimed by the State authority whenever there were economic difficulties (and founded to get the silver), in Venice Jews recorded their objects as public items that were used in the synagogues, thus not entitled to be requisitioned.

Silver lamp and detail of David Star in the Spanish Synagogue in Venice, founded in the 16th century

Moreover, what you can find in the Venetian collection is authentic. As a matter of fact, in the 1980s and 1990s Judaica became very fashionable and lots of fake items started circulating in the antique market. Touring the Jewish museum in Venice will instead allow you to see what exclusively came from the Venetian synagogues of the 16th century. None of the items was acquired in auctions and they are all traceable. All experts in the world come to Venice to compare any object in their possession with these original, authentic pieces.

A hidden treasure

When touring the Jewish museum in Venice and its synagogues, there’s another main aspect that should not be forgotten. All these objects were saved from the Nazi-fascist systematic raiding. Some were discovered in 2013 by chance.

Rimmonim in silver for a Venetian Synagogue, part of the hidden treasure discovered in 2013

Detail of silver crown “atarà” in silver for a Venetian Synagogue, part of the hidden treasure discovered in 2013

Hidden by two elderly members of the Jewish community in the Spanish Synagogue, these objects were returned to the community, while tragically their saviors did not survive in the concentration camps.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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Showing 2 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    What an informative and moving account of the synagogues of Venice. I had the great privilege of being on a museum tour of the synogogues on the morning of March 29, 2016, the 500th anniversary of the creation of the world’s first designated Jewish Ghetto – in Venice. Later, dignitaries arrived, via heavy security and metal detectors at each of the entrances to the three ghettos, to commemorate its creation and its unique history and the resilience of its community. I visit the ghetto every year and am always amazed as I look up at the beautiful top floor windows of the different temples that they survived the final onslaught by the fascists and Nazis. I look forward to taking your extended tour on my next visit…God willing, as we say in Ireland. ☘️

    • Dear Jill, as always thank you for being a fond reader! I am sure we will enjoy the tour of the newly renovated Jewish Museum in Venice in 2025 when they plan to finally re-open it. The exquisite quality of the textiles and the silverware is really a good reason to travel to Venice!