Venice after Venice

In the collective consciousness, Venice is the city of the Carnival, of the Doge’s Palace and of the Grand Canal. A tourist who arrives there knows about the existence of the most ancient European Ghetto and might also acknowledge its uniqueness, but probably experiences it as one among the numerous other historical sites of the city. Until recent times, I had always approached the Ghetto as an “aerial”object of study: an outcome of the Christian theology and of the papal policy in mid-XVI century and a trope of the Zionist discourse in late XIX and XX century.

Morris Rosenfeld (Moshe Jacob Alter), Lieder des Ghetto (Songs of the Ghetto), 1899; illustrated in 1903 by Ephraim Moses Lilien. The old enchained man is the symbol of the old Jew, the Jew of the Ghetto, who longed for his redemption in the Land of Israel and through Zionism.

Instead of documents and newspapers, in Venice I used the space as the main source of research. The walls, the buildings and the traces of the old and of the actual human presence were the lexicon of the “historical text” of the Ghetto. I realized how the sensorial experience necessary to read and to decipher a space can be broader than the one needed to analyze a document in the silence of a library: the visual process renews itself constantly,sight goes far beyond the extension of a page and other senses, such as hearing, are implied.

Many questions and many more “random reflections” are raised during the multi-sensorial approach to the historical reality of the Ghetto. Here are some:

The Ghetto between reality and imagination

School reminiscences and mental images take shape and body in the space when one accesses the Ghetto. It’s a space that talks not simply about History, the institutional, the collective, the one we learn in books, but also about histories, about the experiences of the individuals. I was surprised by the number of windows on each of Ghetto’s building: real ones and walled up ones, opened and closed, small ones and big ones; together they make the Ghetto, which was originally conceived to be separated and isolated, a porous space, where the outside meets the inside and vice versa. From inside it is possible to look outside but, as I realized during the walks, from outside it is quite hard to look into the rooms. Windows and doors at the ground floors, I noticed, not only are covered by curtains and protected by gratings — as it is common in every building — but were also built at a higher level than usual, to prevent the water from flooding into the houses when the canals overflow. This made and still makes it difficult for a wanderer in the Ghetto to “steal” a glance inside.

Building in Campo de Ghetto Novo. Photo Credit: Sara Airoldi; 6/27/2016
Buildings facing Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio. Photo Credit: Sara Airoldi; 6/27/2016

Knowledge and history, but above all imagination, allow one to fill in the visual void. Calle del Forno, where we spent a lot of time, is a very narrow street; voices from the open windows, therefore, echo very loudly, but it was almost impossible to match a face or a scene to the sounds. Many times I found myself imagining what was going on inside: when the knowledge and the testimony are lacking, the inexplicable or the unattainable through experience is frequently explicated or attained through imagination. The Ghetto, therefore, is a real and a historical place but also a space of imagination. Hung all around Venice, and also in front of the building in the Ghetto where we had our discussions, this poster reminded everyone of the connection between imagination, cultural creation and freedom, from which we might derive that the Ghetto, as an imagined space, can be a space for everyone.

Poster hanged at the entrance of Venice’s train station of Santa Lucia . Photo Credit: Sara Airoldi; 6/28/2016

21st century courtyard

Visitors are an essential part of the identity of all the touristic sites in the world, but we all ask ourselves which is the original ethos of a place when tourists cease to walk around and shops and museums close. Early in the morning of our second day in Venice, I decided to sit on a bench in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo to observe the awakening of the Ghetto. The place which was born to be apart is completely within. Everyone passes through the Ghetto: Venetians on their way to work; Jews with kippah, Muslim women, workers of the Jewish institutions of the Ghetto waiting to begin their working day, young people going to school; mums with childern; old people resting in the fresh air on a bench…Before the Ghetto becomes “the” Ghetto, the memorial and touristic place for excellence, it is an habitual crossing point, an every-day meeting space. I realized it clearly the third and the fourth day, when I saw that people, despite the hurry, said hello to each other when they met in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo: people who probably live outside the Ghetto, for whom, however, this space keeps — unconsciously — something of the old “hazer”, the courtyard, the familiar space. Every day, at same time, and almost in the same spot, the Ghetto is the background of a meeting with a person who, day after day, becomes less of a stranger.

Everyday experience and adjustment are able to turn also the most hostile and the most alien space — as was the Ghetto for the Jews when it was established in 1516 — into a familiar space. Daily discussions, reflections, long walks and observation made the Ghetto a familiar space for us, a crossing point for the development of our future studies.