Art of The Jewish Ghetto, Venice, Italy.

The history of the word ghetto, in the modern sense, begins in 16th century Venice. The Republic there made an official decree that those Jews (Ashkenazi from Eastern Europe) coming in large numbers to the city must live and work in a restricted area. This area was the part of the city where metal foundries (geti in Venetian dialect) had been situated since antiquity. Since the Jews did not speak Venetian, the pronunciation of geti became corrupted and evolved into today's definition of marginalization, ghetto.

The Jewish ghetto is a small island in the Cannaregio sestiere. During the 16th century two bridges, which connected this island to others, were raised at dusk and gates were locked so that no one could enter or leave.  It was also in this area where we see the beginnings of tenement style housing. In order to fit as many people as possible on this tiny island, buildings were built to be up to eight stories high which was very unusual for Europe at that time. Even today there are few buildings this tall in most parts of Europe.

Tenement housing in Venice. 

On our second day in Venice we got up early for a guided tour of the Museo Ebraico and the five 16th century synagogues in the Cannaregio sestiere. These synagogues are located on top of pre-existing buildings. You can spot them, though they are understandably secretive, by a five window repeat on the facade and a small dome. 

Five window facade (top floor) denotes a synagogue.

The dome of the Canton Schola, side view.

Each synagogue is associated with a different community, such as Spanish, Levantine, German or Italian and each practiced different Jewish rites. The Canton Schola, which practiced the Ashkenazi rites and holds only 25 people, was founded in 1531. It was heavily restored in the 18th century which explains the ornate baroque interior. 

What really struck me as we toured around the Canton Schola were the eight wooden panels showing Biblical episodes from the Book of Exodus: the city of Jericho, the crossing of the Red Sea, the altar for the sacrifices, the manna, the Ark on the banks of the Jordan River, and Qorach, the gift of Torah and Moses that makes water flow from the rock. As we know, Judaism as well as Islam, prohibits the use of figural imagery in religious art. There are exceptions of course, ancient Dura Europos being one of the most famous.

Moses leads the Jews across the Red Sea. On either side of Moses and the hands of God, are Egyptian soldiers. On the left you can see that they are in order, however, as the sea is recombined on the right, they are drowned.
Wall fresco, Dura Europos Synagogue, Damascus, Syria, 3rd c.

Here is the same narrative, from the 16th century Canton Schola, boiled down to the absolute essentials.

The Red Sea sans Moses.

In these panels, the figures, which in most cases are important aspects of the narrative, are completely excised. I wasn't surprised at all by this, but my response was interesting. After looking over the panels carefully for several minutes it seemed to me that the absence of these figures only made their presence much stronger since my imagination was required to animate and fill in the missing elements (going back to Jacques Derrida's sous rature). This was such a thrill and for the rest of the tour I kept thinking about my experience with these Jewish panels and wondering if this kind of response was the intention of the artist or religious edict. My instincts say yes, in the case of Judaism where the literary device midrash encourages imagination and the Islamic use of geometry as a means to divine transcendence. I'm looking forward to learning more about these ideas as they relate to the intention and reception of religious visual art. 

Of course we weren't allowed to take photos, but luckily I found these postcards in the museum gift shop. Look closely at the modern, graphic articulation, reminiscent of tiny stage sets. These are prized objects of mine and I'm happy to share them.

Wait! There's an arm!


  1. Amazing. I want more posts about the Europe adventures. So what exactly is the manna? (And don't say I don't know what's the manna with you.)

  2. Thank you so much for putting these pictures online. I heard about these panels in the course of my doctoral research and have been searching internet and library for images of them.
    Best wishes,
    Nathanael Price

    1. Nathanael,
      I am so pleased that you found these amazing little panels here. It was a lucky chance that they were available in the shop in Venice. I would be very interested to hear what kinds of ideas you are pursuing as I am about to enter a doctoral program in the art of medieval Spain.