In the 16th century, the Jewish population of Venice was forced to live in the world’s first ghetto. In the face of severe discrimination, they built their synagogues in secret. Today, these places of worship are some of the best-kept secrets of Venice, and some of the most beautiful in Venice’s Jewish Ghetto.
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Venice’s Jewish Ghetto and its Secret Synagogues
Hidden behind nondescript facades and unmarked doors lie the richly decorated and beautifully designed synagogues of Venice’s Jewish Ghetto. Found in the northern sestiere of Cannaregio, these places of worship represent a varied mix of ethnic and cultural identity among Venetian Jews.
The new rules forced their religious expression to a restricted section of Venice. Therefore it also forced the founders of these synagogues to be creative. As such, these beautiful buildings have become hidden gems, accessible only by those in the know. And after this article, you can count yourself among them.
When we hear the word ghetto, the majority of us picture a very squalid place. Usually, something run-down and is not a place you go to. Well, this was true of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome for over 300 years. Yes, you read correctly, 3 centuries!
What does the word “ghetto” mean to you? The word can derive from two possible meanings:
1. “Borghetto” – meaning “small borough”
2. “Getto” – meaning “foundry” or “factory”
The second, although spelled differently, is most likely the origin. The Venetians created the first Jewish Ghetto on the site of a foundry in Venice in 1516. For more than 300 years, the conditions of the Rome Jewish Ghetto and the Venice Ghetto were horrendous.
The living conditions were appalling and perhaps inhumane. Now, it’s a very different story and real estate values in these areas have blown through the roof.
Schola Grande Tedesca
They built the La Schola Grande Tedesca, or the Great German Synagogue in 1528, and was the first synagogue in the ghetto. The location of this grand space resides tucked in the attic-area of what is now the Jewish Museum of Venice.
As you enter under the five stone arches that define the space, you are sure to notice the beautiful marble walls surrounding the prayer room. However, this material is actually a plaster with the name, “marmorino.”
In a period of severe discrimination, marble was too precious for use in a synagogue. Yet in another example of architectural ingenuity, these panels look nearly indistinguishable from real marble.
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La Schola Canton is the second-oldest synagogue in Venice (est. 1531). The title refers to the Southern canton (or corner) of the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, where the synagogue is.
The French Ashkenazi Jews founded this synagogue. They are notable for their eight gilded panels that line the walls of the space. Each illustrates an episode in the Jewish Exodus story: a rarity for religion generally averse to pictorial representation.
There is also a noted baroque influence on the architecture. This is clearly visible in the design of the ark: intricately carved out of gold with the broken pediment characteristic of the period.
The Italian Synagogue (est. 1575) traditionally serviced the poorer Italian Jews, which explains its simple style compared to the other places of worship. Instead of the more prevalent Ashkenazic or Sephardic doctrines, the Italian Jews followed the Italkim liturgy: a specifically Italian-Jewish rite.
La Schola Italiana has a much smaller prayer space than the other synagogues and lacks the gilded Baroque style of its contemporaries. Instead, a modest entryway marked by four white pillars leads you to an austere prayer room, naturally lit by the five tall windows facing out to the campo outside.
They decorated much of the room, including the ark, in dark wood and stone. What jumps out at you are the brass inscriptions in white wood on the walls. It is a simple and striking contrast to the golden calligraphy of the other synagogues on this list.
This is one of the few Venetian synagogues to actually be built on the ground floor and also one of the most well-preserved. In 1541, this synagogue was founded by wealthy marranos, or Jews who nominally converted to Christianity to avoid persecution during the 15th century Spanish Inquisition, and moved to Italy to practice their religion openly.
Restored by Italian architect Baldassare Longhena in the 17th century, this synagogue shows clear Baroque influences. Deep red curtains surround the space, which is dominated by a large chandelier at its center. Designed by master woodcarver Andrea Brustolon in the 18th century, a pair of dark wood stairs lead up to the pulpit.
Along with the Levantine Synagogue, La Schola Spagnola is one of the few Venetian synagogues still operating today. This is the largest of the Venetian synagogues, but it is also one of the most well-hidden: up to three flights of stairs in an unassuming building on the campiello delle scuolo in central Cannaregio.
With enough room to fit three large chandeliers and four rows of benches, the worship space is notable for its beautifully tiled floors and painted blue and ivory dome overlooking the pulpit. High above the space, the Women’s Gallery gives an extraordinary view of a tucked-away temple.
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How can I see them?
If you would like to tour all five of these synagogues, your only option is through the Jewish Museum in Venice. When visiting, you will likely be asked to leave your bags and any electronic devices out of the space of worship. Also, keep in mind that Jewish holidays may interfere with scheduling a tour, particularly at the Spanish and Levantine synagogues where services are still held.
If exploring the hidden gems of Venice piques your interest, check out our Hidden Venice Tour with Secret Gardens and Grand Canal Boat Cruise. This exclusive tour brings you through hidden canals and secret gardens to the heart of Cannaregio and the Jewish Ghetto.
I Want More Italy!
- If you’re planning a trip to Venice and want to sample traditional Venetian foods, check out our hidden Venice food tour.
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