2016 was an important year for the Jewish community of Venice: it marked the 5th centenary of the ghetto of the city, established on the 29th of March, 1516.
Exhibitions, symposiums and scholarly books and articles accompanied the commemorations, as well as restoration projects of the Jewish Museum and the synagogues. Thus, we had the chance to deepen our knowledge about some aspects of the architecture of these places of worship.
In the Talmud, the Jewish sacred text, there are only two specifications regarding the construction of a synagogue: the building must be on a raised position and endowed with light. Thus, there is no standard typology for the architecture of a synagogue: the buildings follow the architectural styles and construction techniques of the country where the community is based.
In the case of Venice, as well as in many other countries in the past, Jews were not allowed to be artisans, architects or artists. Their places of worship were therefore created by non-Jewish people.
Another factor was the limited space of the Venetian Ghetto: the synagogues are not separate, dedicated buildings. Instead, they had to be built inside preexisting structures and reached through private homes. Even today, therefore, some of them are quite difficult to detect from the outside.
The bemah of the French synagogue seen from the outside.
As with all synagogues built after the second diaspora, in Venice the Torah ark (Aron HaKodesh) is placed towards Jerusalem, facing the direction of south-east.
There are five synagogues in the Ghetto of Venice, one for each of the different ethnic groups that made up the Jewish community of the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. The synagogues were the symbols of these different cultural identities, as they could be considered simultaneously a “House of the community” (Beit Knesset), a “House of prayer” (Beit Tefillah) and a “House of Study” (Beit Midrash).
For this reason, in Venice and in other Italian cities the synagogues were defined schole, a term used to indicate other communities such as groups of foreigners, guilds or religious brotherhoods. The word can still be found in the toponym Campiello delle scole indicating the small square between the two Sephardi synagogues in the Ghetto Vecchio.
The Schola Tedesca
The German synagogue is the oldest in Venice, created in 1528 for the first communities of Jews who moved to the Serenissima from Central Europe.
They followed the Ashkenazi tradition, according to which the pulpit (bema) must be placed in the centre of the hall, under a dome with a roof lantern to let light in.
So it was, originally, in the Schola Tedesca as well, even if the dome was hidden between the slopes of the roof. In the 17th century, though, problems due to the settling of the structure (the synagogue occupies the top floors of a very high building) led to the shift of the pulpit on the side of the hall opposite the Torah ark.
A maquette in the Jewish Museum of Venice showing the interior of the German synagogue.
The bema of the German synagogue in the Ghetto of Venice.
The Schola Francese
This synagogue was created in 1531-32 for a group of Jews originally from the south of France.
It’s normally called the Schola Canton because it occupies the last level of a building placed in the southern corner of the Ghetto Nuovo (canton = corner in Venetian dialect). Although the smallest among the Venetian synagogues, it displays at least two peculiar elements.
In the 17th century the space of the hall was remodeled by moving the pulpit to one extremity: for this purpose a special niche protruding on the rooftop of the nearby house was created, and covered with a small dome. The whole niche, the small dome and the pulpit are all made of wood, in order to be as light as possible.
The bema of the French synagogue in the Ghetto of Venice
The second outstanding characteristic is the presence, among its inner rich wooden decoration, of eight iconographic representations inspired by episodes of the Old Testament. This is quite an extraordinary fact since images are commonly banned from the interiors of synagogues.
“The Punishment of Korah” in the French synagogue in the Ghetto of Venice
The Schola Italiana
The last place of worship present in the Ghetto Nuovo was created around 1575 for the community of Italian Jews who migrated to Venice from Rome and other towns of the Papal States.
Like the others, this synagogue occupies the last floor of a private building, thus it can be visited only on special occasions. The dark furniture of the hall, and especially the imposing pulpit, lend the place a particularly severe atmosphere.
The Aron HaKodesh of the Italian synagogue in the Ghetto of Venice
View of the Italian synagogue from the Campo del Ghetto Novo
The Schola Ponentina and Levantina
These synagogues were arranged inside the Ghetto Vecchio in order to host two different Sephardi communities, who migrated in Venice after the Ashkenazi and Italian communities.
In the Sephardi tradition particular importance is given to the bifocal position of the Torah ark and the pulpit, which are therefore positioned at the extremities of the main hall.
The newcomers were mostly rich spice and textiles merchants, particularly appreciated by the Venetian Republic: their higher social status, more than the difference in religious rituals, is reflected in the construction of two places of worship with architectural characteristics that differ from the ones seen in the Ghetto Nuovo. The Sephardi synagogues are monumental buildings able to host at least a hundred people each inside their sumptuously decorated halls.
The few extant documents tell us that in the first half of the 17th century both synagogues were restored and almost rebuilt in a Baroque shape. Both halls exceeds four meters of height; precious marbles cover the walls and floors; the liturgical furniture is impressive.
The Aron HaKodesh of the Spanish synagogue in the Ghetto of Venice
The bema of the Levantine synagogue in the Ghetto of Venice
Some scholars even suggest the hand of Baldassarre Longhena, the most important Venetian architect of the century, and that of Andrea Brustolon, the most famous wood sculptor working in town in the same period.
We know with certainty that both the Sephardi synagogues housed an organ; moreover the sequence of spaces that we find in each building (entrance hall – staircase – main hall) replicates the typical spatial organization of the Venetian Scuole Grandi. All these elements bear witness to a clear exchange between the architecture of religious buildings in the Ghetto and the architecture of Venetian mansions and churches.
Since all three Ashkenazi synagogues saw their interior organization changed in the 17th century, with the pulpits moved to the wall opposite the Torah ark, scholars debate the possibility that the construction of the two Sephardi synagogues in the Ghetto Vecchio influenced the remodeling of the old ones. This fact implies the existence of lively communities, interested in the changes of fashion and architectural shapes, and locates these synagogues and their communities as active players in a multicultural city.