Venice by Avi Ben Hur

In my pre-seminar view of Venice, at first take, I envisioned solitary gondolas lightly drifting through moonlit canals on smooth waters with romantic (perhaps platonic?) partners in tow. Reality was slightly different as we followed the teaming masses of fellow tourists through the pre and post-renaissance Basilica of St. Mark or into and out of the governor’s (“Doge”) palace, courthouse and dungeon. As a Jewish participant on our seminar, as I enthused and appreciated the potent mix of Byzantine (Eastern Orthodox) & Latin (Catholic) art, architecture and iconography of the aforementioned church I could not help but wonder how my (ethno-religious) compatriots must have felt walking through the San Marco Piazza. Did he or she look with awe (like me) or cringe with fear as he/she passed through the area. Touring the so-called “supreme court” located inside the Doge’s palace I could not stop thinking about the unfortunate Shylock from the Merchant of Venice and his unjust trial that would have taken place right there. The massive canvas (largest in the world) depicting the Virgin Mary’s intercession enabling the Venetian victory over the Ottoman Turkish armada in the Battle of Lepanto of 1571 gracefully credited Venice as the sole victor (in reality it was a coalition of Christian European naval powers that were victorious) over the threatening Islamic empire. Evidently, this epic battle combined with the theft of St. Marks remains from Alexandria and subsequent reinternment here are two of the primary claims to fame from Venice’s perspective. 

My senses were overloaded by so much wealth and power that was concentrated for centuries in the hands of a small city-state on the northern edge of the Adriatic sea.  Located at the confluence of two major rivers on a commercial crossroads axis both east-west and north-south, and amply supplied with fertile alluvial soil and plenty of fresh water, it is no surprise that Venice really came into its own in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance era. It also made sense that Jewish merchants and traders would make Venice their home base. They had much to contribute to the wealth and economic well-being of this commercial entrepot.

So sad that Venice is infamous due to its “invention” of the Ghetto. Having invited the Jews to settle here why separate and abuse them? This is a question that still demands some explanation. Clearly, two culprits can be credited for the marginalization of the Jews of Venice (and later on, other Italian Jewish communities); the Christian merchant class and the Church. For the former, the Jews constituted economic competition. And if they could not best their competitors fair and square in the marketplace, then why not use religious prejudice to clip their wings. The Church was interested in curtailing the power of the local aristocratic families who had encouraged the settlement of the Jews in the City. From a theological standpoint, it made perfect sense to separate the Jews and Christian through physical segregation. But that was not enough. Jews were also forced to were special marks on their garments or even special hats with distinct colors. Over time, Jews economic rights would be curtailed. Many professions such as artisanal work as goldsmiths, silversmiths, artists etc. would be closed to the Jews. It would take many centuries, actually only until the modern era when Italian Jews would be allowed to participate in all professions. 

The Ghetto, established in 1516 engendered an interesting architectural innovation; the so-called Venetian skyscraper. Since the Jews could not expand their living space laterally, they were forced to build “up”, creating multi-story apartment structures that were out of sync with the rest of the City. The two beautiful synagogues we visited were built on upper floors and one is hard put to notice anything special or significant about the buildings from the outside street level. These synagogues were “hiding in plain sight”. The Jews evidently had to lower their profiles so as not to “offend” the dominant Christian population of Venice. 

So romantic Venice? Perhaps on the off-season when one can breathe freely and tour slowly and at leisure it is possible to ponder the nature of the relations between two dynamic but separated populations that lifted such a small place to economic, artistic and architectural heights, elevating Venice to the present status of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

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