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London, United Kingdom
March 9, 2004
Just like most of the city, the area is steeped in history. During the early 16th century, there was a policy of forcible relocation of the Jews to a small island away from the centre in Cannaregio, which was previously the centre of metalworking activity, and therefore known as the foundry, or ghetto in the local dialect. It was the first time such a thing had occurred anywhere, and as the idea spread to other parts of Europe, so did the now evocative name. Subsequently, anything up to 5,000 people lived in the area, but today very few remain in the once involuntary enclave. However, it retains more than just historical interest or symbolic status, as it is still the heart of the small community.
The impact of the claustrophobic conditions was that a noticeably different aesthetic. Building upwards was the only option, but restrictive legislation meant that the residences could not tower over more mainstream Venetian architecture elsewhere, so the result was distinctive structures with lots of low storeys.
Such qualities are easily discernable today in the main square, which is among the finest and most unusual around, and is also home to things that are not found elsewhere in Venice. An example is a Jewish rest home, one wall of which bears a memorial to the Italian victims of the concentration camps, which is appropriate because the elderly residents were marched away to almost certain death by the Fascists during the 1940s. It was certainly hard to imagine such vile events whilst drinking a coffee on the terrace of the plaza's nice café and watching old people pass the time by sitting on benches and talking, as children kicked a football around nearby, which together made for a homely atmosphere.
Unsurprisingly, some of the most important edifices in the neighbourhood are places of worship. Each of the five is stylistically different from the next, but none is particularly obvious, bearing only small tell tale signs, including a small dome on the roof that marks the position of the internal pulpit.
The lower stories of building that houses the German Synagogue are nowadays also home to the small but worthy collection of religious artefacts exhibited in the Ebracio Museum, from where guided walks start. The informative hour-long tours are not only the best way to see inside a couple of the temples, and also vital to gaining any real understanding of the surroundings.
From journal Venice - The serene city of canals
February 28, 2004
From journal Valentine's break in Venice
October 30, 2003
Whilst waiting for the tour in the stifling heat, we noticed armed guards in the vicinity . . . it seems that the tentacles of the warring world have reached little old Venice too.
The 8 euro tour begins in what resembles an ordinary looking house in Venice - tall and slim. We made our way up to the top floor and were led into a synagogue. It was told that in 1516 the Council of Ten, whose reasons were not properly explained to us (even after some probing questions), decreed that all Jews be confined to an island, which had previously been occupied by foundries. The Venetian word for foundry is 'geto' (jeh-toe) and hence the name ghetto (pronounced with a hard g because of the German/Austrian Jews) which has later been used to describe Jewish 'enclaves' (for lack of a less provocative word) around the world.
The rules of the time governed that synagogues could not be easily visible which prompted the style of having 5 parallel windows to inform 'insiders' that there was a synagogue in the building. We were shown three different synagogues of different styles, based on whether it was frequented by French, German, or Venetian Jews. The floors of one of the synagogues were made of real Venetian marble. We were reassured that the almost bouncy and unstable feeling to the floor was a positive sign of the stability of what looked like a crumbling building. Two of the synagogues are now mainly only used for special occasions like weddings, etc.
Don't expect a course into the Jewish way of life. Rather a look at how persecution led to, e.g. some of the first high rises in Venice as the only way to expand living quarters was to build upwards.
From journal The Venetian Shuffle