Nearly 180 years ago, when the great English poet Lord Byron lived here, he loved to go horseback riding on the Lido, the strip of island that protects the Venetian Lagoon from the Adriatic Sea.
With companions such as fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, he would ride through what Shelley described as a sandy, windswept wasteland.
It was an especially haunting wasteland, however.
“The spot where we usually rode,” wrote Byron’s friend, British Consul Richard Belgrave Hoppner, “was a Jewish cemetery whose walls had been pulled down and stones overturned by the French.”
The ancient Jewish Cemetery on the Venice Lido was founded in the 1380s, but by the time Byron was riding there, it had not been used for burials for half a century.
Although the cemetery is one of the treasures of European Jewish heritage, it has languished in a virtually abandoned state for more than 200 years while the rest of the Lido was developed into an area of homes, beach resorts, hotels and a big casino.
Time, neglect and human destruction have taken their toll, and today alarm bells are going off about the cemetery’s deteriorating condition.
Venice’s tiny Jewish community as well as international monuments preservation organizations such as Save Venice, Inc. and the World Monuments Fund are seeking sponsors for urgently needed repairs and conservation operations.
In addition to restoration of tombstones, other needed repair work includes the drainage of swampy areas; regular clearing of weeds, bushes and undergrowth; and reconstruction of the wall.
Recent surveys indicate that expenses for all needed work may total $300,000.
“Unless we intervene, little will remain after only a few more years,” according to the current issue of the Save Venice, Inc. newsletter.
“This cemetery has had a tormented life,” said Aldo Izzo, a Jewish retired sea captain who has devoted the past decade to looking after both the ancient cemetery and a newer Jewish cemetery nearby.
For four centuries, the ancient cemetery served as the only burial ground for Venetian Jews. Funerals took place in convoys of gondolas that set sail from the ghetto, at the northern edge of Venice. Time and time again its area was decreased, its walls were torn down or its tombstones were uprooted in order to build fortifications along the Lido shore.
The cemetery was finally abandoned about 1770, and the newer cemetery, which is still in use today, was opened several hundred yards away.
In the 1920s, a large part of the cemetery was destroyed to construct a road along the shore. Tombstones were pulled up and laid on the ground or against the walls in the main cemetery area – and here they to this day.