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Treasures of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice on view at the Belvedere in Vienna
Torah Crown, 1796. Parcel-gilt silver© Collection of the Comunità Ebraica di Venezia.

VIENNA.- In 2016, the Jewish Ghetto of Venice will celebrate its 500th anniversary. Venice was considered a hub of Jewish culture over the centuries, with its ghetto being home to a flourishing international Jewish community. In order to properly mark this anniversary, the international organisation Venetian Heritage, in cooperation with Maison Vhernier, has organised the temporary exhibition Treasures of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice, which is being presented at the Winter Palace from 28 April to 6 July 2014. Although created as a site of segregation, the Venice ghetto developed into a place of encounter for numerous groups of Jews from different countries and into an important source of inspiration for Jewish culture in many other regions around the globe. From 1516 to 1797 – almost over three centuries – a community of various ethnical backgrounds (Germans, Italians, Jews from East and West) coexisted in Europe’s most tolerant town. In 1943, a number of precious objects were hidden by the Nazis. These valuables had then fallen into oblivion, until they were unearthed during the restoration of the Scola Spagnola several years ago. The show illustrates the richness and beauty of practiced Jewry until destroyed by National Socialism; it also keeps track of the conservation of the objects before they were stolen and their recent rediscovery.

The decorative art objects created by Venetian artisans between the 17th and early 20th centuries belong to a heritage that vividly demonstrates how Venetian culture, with its wide ethnical spectrum and multicultural feel, provided a role model for the rest of Europe. The former Winter Palace of Prince Eugene, who was known for his open-mindedness and far-reaching interests, offers itself as an ideal exhibition venue. The cult objects, which were in a deplorable state when they were found and have now been restored to their former splendour, represent a small part of the collections of the Jewish Museum in Venice and impressively attest to the great significance of the Venetian art of goldsmithing.

Most of the silver and bronze objects on display were used in rituals in Venetian synagogues during mass and on special occasions and holidays. Such liturgical pieces include, for example, the wooden tikim (Torah cases) in which the Torah scrolls are kept when not in use, and the magnificent Thora crowns and pairs of rimmonim adorning the scrolls or the tikim. Hanging above each tik is a lamp called a ner tamid (eternal light) that illuminates the tik or a larger ark in a synagogue. Two spice containers, used in the Havdallah service at the closing of Sabbath to bring worshippers back to reality from the ecstasy of Sabbath, are also on view, along with two yads (pointers helping readers follow a text) used during services. Utensils associated with traditional dietary include, among other things, the jug and bowl for washing one’s hands before meals, and the two Seder plates that were used on the evening of the Seder.

When Italy was occupied by the Nazis in September 1943, these objects were hidden and only surfaced several years ago. Thanks to an initiative by Venetian Heritage and Maison Vhernier, it was possible to restore them and present them to the public. From now on, they will form the heart of the Museo Ebraico di Venezia, which will be reopened on the occasion of the 500th anniversary celebrations of the Venetian ghetto.

Venice in the 18th Century
In 18th-century Venice, tourism became a booming branch of the economy. The charm of Venice depended not least on the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the town. Vedutists captured its enchanted atmosphere and sights, such as the church of Santa Maria della Salute, the Rialto Bridge, and the Doge’s Palace, their works serving as coveted souvenirs for visitors. The paintings were destined to be prominently installed in drawing rooms as status symbols proving that their owners were among those privileged citizens who could afford to undertake a Grand Tour through Italy.

The Jewish Ghetto of Venice
As Christians were not permitted to lend money to other Christians for interest, Jews played an important role in Venetian society as moneylenders, pawnbrokers, and merchants in second-hand articles. Whereas in earlier days Jews had only been allowed to stay in Venice for a maximum of 15 days a year, they were eventually allowed to settle in the town from 1509 on, if only under strict reservations. They were forbidden to openly practice their religion, purchase land, entertain sexual relationships with Christians, and wear ostentatious yellow or red hats.

In 1516, the Senate of Venice declared the premises of a former foundry (geto) as a dwelling zone for Jews, arguing that Jews could impossibly be allowed to live in the city and move around freely. The ghetto was completely secluded: two gates were built that remained blocked for Jews during the dusk-to-dawn curfew. The area was extremely densely populated, with several thousand residents living on 2.4 hectares and five large synagogues accommodating various ethnical groups. In spite of these severe restrictions, Venice was considered one of the best places for Jews to live.

In 1797, the Council of Venice handed the town over to Napoleon, and the gates to the Jewish ghetto were demolished to loud calls for freedom. The Jews of Venice were still years away from full equality, but they were no longer locked up in the ghetto.

Venetian Heritage
Venetian Heritage is an international non-profit organisation located in New York and Venice and is part of the UNESCO Private Committees Programme for the Safeguarding of Venice. Venetian Heritage supports cultural initiatives through restoration projects, exhibitions, publications, lectures, studies, and research programmes aimed at raising global awareness of the rich cultural heritage of the Veneto region in Italy and areas once belonging to the Republic of Venice, known as La Serenissima.

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