Project Description

Tresury of the Jewish Ghetto, 18th – 19th century
Jewish Museum, Venice

Restoration of liturgical objects from the Jewish Community of Venice, 18th – 19th century

Jewish Museum, Venice

Project Director
Ministry of Culture, Monuments and Fine Arts
Office of Venice

Re.Co., Rome

Venetian Heritage

Start date
October 2012

End date
January 2013

63.000,00 €

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice celebrated its 500th anniversary in 2016.
For centuries Venice has been at the crossroads of Jewish culture and the Ghetto a prosperous, international community. The Senate of the Venetian Republic obliged the Jews to live in an enclosed part of the city with a decree of 29 March 1516, thus creating the first and oldest ghetto in Italy.
The Ghetto, though created as a segregation area, became the meeting place for numerous groups of Jews of different nationalities and an important resource for the stimulus of Jewish cultural life in many other parts of the world. It is estimated that about 700 Jews, Germans, Italians and some families from the Levant, soon moved into the houses in the Ghetto Nuovo, whose gates were closed in the evening and opened again at dawn. The origin of the word “ghetto” is difficult to interpret: ghèto, getto, ghetto, geto (the act of throwing the material into foundries). The area known as the getto or ghetto was the site of the public foundries, so “Ghetto” could derive from the island where these stood. Venice may thus be credited with spreading this term around the world. For almost three centuries, from 1516 to 1797, different ethnic groups coexisted in Venice (Germans, Italians, Levantines and people from the western Mediterranean), the most tolerant city in Europe.
The German Jews managed to build their splendid main synagogues (Scola Grande Tedesca and Scola Cantòn) between 1528 and 1532, where they could follow their original rites, which were then joined by three other smaller Scole in the Campo. The Italian Jews, from Rome and central Italy, also managed to keep their rite alive and build their synagogue in 1575 (Scola Italiana) next to the German temples.
The living conditions of the Levantines and those of the people from the western Mediterranean were very different, the latter coming to the Ghetto Vecchio in the second half of the sixteenth century (1541 and 1589). Having become subjects of the Ottoman Empire, the Levantine Jews had a prestigious place in maritime trade, so Venice greeted them favourably because of their contribution to the city’s economy. The Serenissima allowed them to use the open space in the Ghetto Vecchio to establish a hospital, an inn and a refuge for passing merchants, and to display their wealth in the exuberant decoration of their large synagogue, the Scola Levantina.
In the nearby calli, the western Jews, refugees from the Iberian peninsula after their expulsion in 1492, heirs of the grand culture of medieval Spanish Judaism were able to build the biggest synagogue in the Venetian Ghetto, the Scola Spagnola.
In 1797 French troops led by Napoleon invaded the Venetian Republic and also freed the Jews, who became citizens with full rights. From then on, the history of the Jews in Venice developed along similar lines to those of the other Jews in Italy. The Venetian community took part in the struggles of the Risorgimento, sacrificed their lives in the First World War and lived through the terrible years of fascism and the Shoah. The Ghetto, now the only one that still has its original features with its calli and campielli, its five splendid synagogues and its museum, still recounts the memories of a community that lived for centuries on the islands of the lagoon, and contributes to the telling of the long history of the city of Venice.
September 1943: two elderly Venetians of Jewish religion, responsible for the religious services in the Spanish and the Levantine synagogues hid a selection of precious liturgical objects in a secret place before the Nazis arrived in the city. Neither men returned from the extermination camps.
The objects included silver crowns, wooden cases, various objects and traditional decorations in silver that adorned the scrolls of the Jewish law: the Torah. These treasures remained hidden and forgotten until a few years ago when, entirely by chance, they were rediscovered during the restoration of the Spanish synagogue. The liturgical objects were made by Venetian craftsmen in the 18th and 19th centuries and are part of a trove that shows how Venetian society was exemplary in Europe with its multi-ethnic and multi-cultural make up.
The restored liturgical objects are a small part of the Jewish Museum in Venice’s collection and were in very poor condition. Made by the most renowned Venetian craftsmen, as shown in many cases by the characteristic marks, they are an important example of Venetian goldsmith art.
The crowns (‘ataròth) and the ends for the Torah scroll rods (rimmonìm) that decorate the parchment scroll containing the text of the Pentateuch in square Hebrew characters are the main part of the artistic wealth in the various synagogues.
They have decorative volute motifs in Baroque style and were made after set models, at times in gold or in panels with an outer silver surface. The traditional images of the temple of Jerusalem, in stylised form, or the altar or Holy Ark adorn the works and are thus accompanied by floral images or the shapes of musical instruments. The rimmonìm offer the possibility of a large number of variations. The perfume holders (besamìm) recall the tower shapes of the rimmonìm in simplified form. Used for the benediction that is recited at the Saturday exit, they were often gifts from worshippers to their synagogue, as were the indicators (yadòth) used to follow the correct reading of the Sefer Torà.
The chandeliers in various form, though mainly based on a single model, which decorated and lit the worshipping area of the various synagogue buildings were also donations, often made in memory of relations. The silver jug and basin, used to wash the hands of the kohèn (ministrant) before the benediction, are more closely linked to the style of 18th century Venetian production.
The other objects restored are all related to individual festivities, for example the wall lamps with nine arms (Chanukkyà) were lit for the feast of Chanukkà. Seven pairs of rimmonìm were restored, along with thirty liturgical objects, mostly made from embossed and chased silver sheet, and three wooden cases (Tiq). Some rimmonìm and some crowns have applications of decorative elements made by casting and are gilded, probably with a mercury amalgam.
The most complicated work was on the rimmonìm, which are an assemblage of various embossed elements with often loose or deformed fasteners, as a result of loss of stability. All the surfaces were covered with a thick layer of sulphuration or metal oxide, In some cases they were so dirty that it was difficult to clearly distinguish the material they are made of. Many objects also had numerous deformities and conspicuous tin alloy solders, carried out during previous maintenance works. All the composite elements were dismantled to allow more thorough cleaning, straightening of the joins and repair of the damaged fastenings.
The surfaces were cleaned with a pad using abrasive substances in a very fine powder (calcium carbonate or sodium bicarbonate). In cases of more consistent sulphuration, localised compresses with trisodium EDTA in the form of gel were applied, followed by cleaning with pads and careful rinsing with deionised water to remove the residues. The objects in silver were protected with a triple coat of nitrocellulose resin to slow down the formation of a new layer of sulphuration. Several stages of restoration of one of the liturgical objects Crowns for Torah (‘ataròth),18th and 19th century, after restoration.