Inside the Effort to Restore Synagogues in Venice’s 500-Year-Old Jewish Ghetto

A new project focuses on three 16th-century synagogues in the Italian city, where the Jewish population has dropped to 450

Canton Synagogue in Venice
The Canton Synagogue, founded in 1531 Photo by Godong / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

When art historian David Landau first visited Venice’s Renaissance synagogues after purchasing a home in the Italian city 12 years ago, he was stunned to see flaking layers of paint, benches infiltrated by woodworms, and damaged plaster and stucco decorations. The Italian Synagogue was in such disrepair, in fact, that it wasn’t included on the Jewish Museum of Venice’s tour of the local Jewish Ghetto, according to the nonprofit Save Venice Inc.

“I was really deeply offended by the state of the synagogues,” Landau tells Chris Warde-Jones of the Associated Press (AP). “I felt that the synagogues were in very bad condition. They had been altered beyond recognition over the centuries, and needed to be kind of cared for and loved.”

Over the past three years, Landau has been in charge of fundraising for a new effort to preserve the temples. The restoration project is focused on three of the ghetto’s synagogues: the German Synagogue, the Canton Synagogue and the Italian Synagogue, all built in the 16th century.

So far, Landau has raised around half of the roughly $11 million needed for the restoration, according to the AP. If all goes well, Landau expects conservation efforts to conclude by the end of 2023.

The ghetto’s history goes back to 1516, when the Republic of Venice forced its Jews to live in an enclosed part of the city. The area had once been a copper foundry, and the word “ghetto” was likely derived from the Venetian dialect’s word for foundry, ghèto. Venetian Jews had to wear identifying insignia and could not leave the ghetto at night. Still, despite the restricted nature of ghetto life, the city’s Jewish community developed a rich culture.

Italian Synagogue in the Venetian ghetto pictured with five large windows at top
From the outside, the synagogues are distinguished only by their five large windows.  Avital Pinnick via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“By ghettoizing them, Venice simultaneously included and excluded the Jews,” Shaul Bassi, a Venetian scholar, told Smithsonian magazine’s Simon Worrall in 2015. “But the Jews felt stable enough that, 12 years into the existence of the place, they started establishing their synagogues and congregations.”

At its peak around 1630, the ghetto’s population reached roughly 5,000, according to Orge Castellano of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). Residents came from all over Europe. Before 1650, about a third of all Hebrew books printed in Europe originated in Venice.

The synagogues have remained open since their construction, barring World War II, when Venice was occupied by the Germans. But today, the city’s Jewish population has dropped to around 450.

“These synagogues are little gems,” Shelby White, founding trustee of the Jerome Levy Foundation, one of the renovation’s funders, tells the New York Times’ Robin Pogrebin. “It’s important to not lose this sense of where the Jews were and what they contributed. It speaks to how they survived despite the obstacles.”

And the obstacles were considerable: Because the Venetians did not allow the Jews to practice their religion publicly, the synagogues had to be hidden from view. From the outside, they are practically indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings, set apart only by each temple’s five large windows. (Ghetto residents actually became more religious because the airy, light-filled synagogues were the most comfortable place to be, Landau tells the Times.)

Because of increasing rates of anti-Semitism, the renovations will also include new security measures, such as bulletproof windows on the first floor, per the Times.

“[The synagogues] are a testimony to the life that it was, to the history of our community, a small community,” says Dario Calimani, president of the Jewish Community in Venice, to the AP.