Book Review: Venice, The Jews and Europe: 1516-2016

Review By: 
Ted Spiegel
Venice, The Jews and Europe: 1516-2016, by Donatella Calabi
Venice, The Jews and Europe: 1516-2016, by Donatella Calabi

Weighing in at more than five pounds and offering up more than 500 pages of text and illustrations, Venice, The Jews and Europe: 1516-2016 (Rizzoli) is a comprehensive and valuable resource for understanding the institution of the first Jewish ghetto, on the 500th anniversary of its establishment in Venice, Italy. This book deserves shelf space in every synagogue library.

In a carefully crafted foreword, Paolo Gnignati, president of the Jewish community of Venice, writes:

“There is nothing to celebrate when we think back on the Jews’ condition of separation, when they were forced to live as a minority in the Ghetto (the district’s name comes from the Italian for the copper smelter – “ghetto” in Italian - which formerly occupied the area)….a place where Jews were legally enjoined to live segregated from the rest of the city – and its more recent universal significance as a place of physical and cultural segregation, an image and byword for exclusion and minority status.”

Ironically, the ghetto’s establishment in 1516 was proclaimed from the Doge’s Palace, the site of this year’s comprehensive exhibit exploring the Venetian Jewish community’s complex history (running June 19 through November 13, 2016). The exhibit’s curator, Professor Donatella Calabi of Venice’s Architectural University, whose genealogy on both paternal and maternal sides reaches back 500 years in Italy, writes with true mastery of her dual subject matters – Venetian Jewry and urban history.

Calabi says the aim of the exhibition and the book, which is its very detailed catalog, is to tell the story of how the ghetto “grew within itself, its architecture, social makeup, crafts and trades, material life, and the relations between the Jewish minority and the rest of the city, seen against the background of relations with other Jewish settlements in Europe and the Mediterranean basin.” She also spotlights “the challenge now facing Europe: the challenge of avoiding a new age of concrete barriers and barbed wire fences, and of obviating the danger of a world with an “‘archipelago’ of ghettos.”

Thirty-nine topical essays, written by an all-star academic cast, illuminate broad areas of the exhibit, and each of the objects illustrated – paintings, archival documents, and elaborate Torah adornments – are described in full historic detail.

We learn from Amos Luzzato’s essay “Jews and Other Minorities” that at one point in the late Renaissance, there were 5,000 Jews in Venice; only 500 remain today. Riccardo Calimani’s essay “Venice and Europe’s Ghetto” reveals that “this separation, which was blatantly discriminatory, ended up becoming a useful defense, because the Jews, politically weak outside its walls, became autonomous within them, almost masters of their own actions, in many cases far more so than the inhabitants and subjects of the world outside, who lived at the complete mercy of doge, prince, pope or king.” At first, their economic activity was limited to pawn-broking and dealing in secondhand clothing, but as the community grew in size, its economic activities broadened.

Venetian Jewry’s diverse religious practices were accommodated in five synagogues, reflecting the historical origins of their communities.  Two were “Italian” houses of worship, others offered the religious traditions brought from Germany, the Levant, and Spain. Three synagogues remain today, supporting current Jewish residents and heritage preservation.

In his essay “The Jewish Merchants of Venice, the Ottoman Empire and the Iberian Diaspora,” Brandeis University Professor Benjamin Ravid offers an in-depth understanding of how New Christians expelled from Spain for Judaizing were welcomed into Venice and allowed to revert to Judaism once they took up residence within the Ghetto. He writes,

“These Jewish merchants from Catholic and Muslim lands, with their relatives and contacts in their former places of residence, not only helped to strengthen the Jewish Community of Venice but also positioned its Ghetto in a global network as a significant multiethnic entity that contributed to the cosmopolitan mosaic that comprised Venice.”

This would all end in May 1797, Ravid explains, when Napoleon Bonaparte successfully laid siege to Venice, accepted its surrender, “completely emancipated the Jews, abolished the Ghetto, and eliminated the special laws and restrictions imposed on them.” The gates were torn down and burned.

The current exhibit’s displays and the book’s pages present religious objects and architectural renderings of the diversity within the Venetian Ghetto’s walls. The multi-media presentations of the evolving ghetto’s structure – attractive candidates for display in the Diaspora after the Venetian exhibit’s close – lend a modern dynamic to this important historic chapter.

Ted Spiegel is a photojournalist and author. His works include the Judaism section of the  National Geographic’s Great Religions of the World. For the past six years, he has written about and photographed Florence, Italy for Marist College, which will publish his ebook Renaissance Florence: An Invitation in 2017.