Appeal launched to save the world's first ghetto

As its 500th anniversary nears, Venice seeks to restore Europe's original Jewish quarter...but can they raise the £7m needed?

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The Independent Online

With the 500th anniversary fast approaching, Jewish leaders in Venice are seeking more than £7m to restore Europe’s original Ghetto.

The funds will be used principally to rebuild its exquisite synagogues and thus ensure a light continues to be shone on one of the most brutal aspects of Western history.

Joseph Sitt, of the Venetian Heritage Council, which is leading the fundraising, said: “The Ghetto of Venice sits at a nexus of world history for Venice, Europe, and Jewish culture as a whole. It needs to be saved, its story told.”

In the early 16th century, Jews in the lagoon city were confined to the New Ghetto, a small island, off the main city.

According to the Jewish Virtual Library: “In 1516, the doges, Venice’s ruling council, debated whether Jews should be allowed to remain in the city… but their residence would be confined to Ghetto Nuovo, a small, dirty island; it became the world’s first ghetto.”

Venice’s Jews remained thus, confined to “the island on an island”, which to this day is connected by only two bridges, until the Republic of Venice fell to Napoleon on 1797. The tiny area, with five of its 16th-century synagogues still standing, remains a popular tourist attraction.

Along with Paolo Gnignati, the president of the Jewish Community of Venice, Joseph Sitt, the designer Diane von Furstenberg and Toto Bergamo Rossi, director of the Venetian Heritage Council, have launched the appeal to raise the $12m (£ 7.7m) needed, with the principal aim of restoring these places of worship.

But the fundraisers also hope to restore other interconnected buildings, and upgrade the Ghetto’s tiny museum, which historically has occupied just two rooms in the German synagogue – even though 80,000 visitors pass through every year. One aim is to create a new gallery inside the complex to display religious silver artefacts.

Restoration will be overseen by Renata Codello, a senior figure at the Italian Culture ministry. Most of the restoration work will concentrated on the German, Canton and Italian synagogues.

Ms Von Furstenburg said: “The task at hand is a critical one because over the years they have fallen into a steady state of disrepair.

“It also presents an enormous opportunity to increase the institution’s stature and tell the story of the Venetian Jews and the Ghetto of Venice in one of the most historic cities in the world.” Under plans by Unesco, Venice’s Ghetto area is due to become a World Heritage site. Today a Jewish community of around 500 remains in the city.