The Custodians of Venice

The very word ghetto originates from where I am right now, the Campo di Ghetto Novo in Venice, where the Jews were forced to live in 1516. This designated area of Jewish residence was not the first permanent isolated Jewish settlement. In 1462 the town council of Frankfurt decided that the Jewish population should be resettled in the Judengasse (Jews’ Alley), a segregated area of the German town.

In the 13th century, the Jews lived on the Venetian island of Giudecca. The island is mentioned in documents as early as 1090. The Jews in Venice were burdened with unbearable taxes, and were forced to wear a distinctive badge, which was replaced in 1496 by a yellow hat, and then changed to a red hat in 1500. In the edict of 1555, establishing the Roman ghetto, Paul IV said he was taking this step because Christian society tolerated the Jews

“for the very reason [ad hoc ut]… that they make all haste to arrive at the true light of the Catholic faith.”

Meaning, there would be tolerance of the Jews, in exchange for their acceptance of isolation and an inferior status, in the hope they would convert. Within one hundred years of 1555, the ghetto was instituted throughout Italy’s center and north.

On this historic square we find the synagogue of the Italians (Scuola Italiana), concealed behind impoverished- looking walls, located on the upper level, with on the facade an unused porch.

The Campo di Ghetto Novo in Venice. On the left the Italian synagogue (Scuola Italiana). Photo Ticia Verveer.

The design of the building is not an expression of Jewish identity, but the product of Diaspora and exile, a way of life. This building, dating to 1571, is a mirror of the Venetian Jewish society, portraying an interaction with the ghetto, a witness from an oppressive world where the gates were locked at night. Time has moved on, people disappeared and appeared, but these buildings reflect a constant shadow from the past. It is almost if the sun is obscured.

Within this depressing micro cosmos Jewish traditions and culture continued despite the not favorable conditions. It was here that the art of handwritten books blossomed. It was here in Venice that one of the most beautiful Hebrew manuscripts of the 1470s was made, and it was here that this tradition was safeguarded. The inhabitants of this ghetto were part of an artistic inheritance, free from restrictions, and protected the foundation upon which the whole of Judaism is built, the sacred scriptures. The Hebrew manuscript I am referring to is the so-called ‘Rothschild Miscellany.’

Preparations for Pesah. The Rothschild Miscellany. Veneto. C. 1470. Parchment, ink, gouache, burnished and mat gold. At the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo Public Domain, Wikimedia.


This small-format codex of about nine hundred leaves contains over seventy texts, and is decorated with floral motifs, birds, putti, and almost two hundred figurative illustrations. The artist who created it was (probably) Leonardo Bellini, one of the most talented illuminators in Venice. Bellini offers us a window into fifteenth century Jewish religious life. He shows us the preparations undertaken for festivals, prayer at home or in the synagogue, the celebration of marriage, and funeral rites. We encounter Abraham receiving the three angels, Jacob struggling with the angel, David playing the harp, and scenes from the Book of Esther. It also includes literary works, such as Mashal ha-Qadmoni (Fables of the Ancients) with animal illustrations, philosophical texts, and liturgical poems.

This manuscript is a testimony of the inner experience of the Venetian Jewish community. They were the custodians of our Jewish culture and customs. Strolling on the square, and mesmerizing the grandiosity of the manuscript, I remember the words of Ignaz Maybaum (1945)

“The Jewish book is the great instrument which helps to shape our life according to his commandment. The Jewish book belongs to the Jewish home. Without it the Jewish people cannot continue to exist.”

Moments later I saw a brilliant golden light coming into the ghetto.

About the Author
I have had the privilege to work as a professional archaeologist on a vast number of archaeological sites in the Middle East, Sahel and North Africa. I write about Jewish history, culture and heritage, from ancient texts to modern politics.
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