Jewish Museum – Museo Ebraico
Reflected in the canal waters of the Lagoon are the tall buildings of the Venice Ghetto. Three small cupolas can be made out among the roofs of the Jewish quarter: these identify the 16th-century synagogues still used today by the Jewish community of Venice.
The fist contract governing relations between the Jewish merchants and the Republic of Venice dates back to the 1390s. The Jews then lived on the mainland, but conducted their business in the Rialto area of the city. In 1516, at the instigation of the Venetial patriciate, the Doge Leonardo Loredan confined the Jews of the city within the limits of the Ghetto Novo, a fortress-like island surrounded by canals. In this precinct, with its outward-facing windows bricked up, the Jews took up residence in buildings many floors high. Various yeshivot (seminaries) faced onto the Ghetto square where children ran free and stores and pawnshops proliferated. Over the 281 years of segregation the Jewish population rose from an initial 500 to over 5,000 by around 1600, before a terrible plague scythed through the whole city in 1631.
The Canton Synagogue, established in 1532 and richly embellished in the baroque era, is relatively small in size but particularly notable for its series of gilded wooden panels illustrating episodes from the Exodus.
In spite of legal restrictions and regular threats of expulsion, the community in the Venetian Ghetto made the city a nerve-centre of European Judaism, famous for book production, rabbinic responsa, and important figures in the cultural, artistic, religious and economic worlds. Venice, in short, became a Jewish cultural capital.
Today the Jewish community of Venice has about 450 registered members. Venetian Jews are still very active culturally, inspired by a determination to keep up their traditions, maintaining their inherited patrimony and sharing it with Jews from every corner of the globe and, more widely, with all those who value the Jewish contribution to European civilisation and beyond.
The dialogue between place and tradition is a lively one, and the duty of preserving and carrying this rich patrimony ahead into the future is a daily concern of those active in the Venetian Jewish community. Today, notwithstanding great conservation efforts, the synagogues and the whole museum complex are in a distressed and deteriorating condition. The synagogues are in urgent need of restoration and the museum requires thorough work to make it a modern exhibition space and international cultural centre.