Around the Jewish World: Venice Cemetery, a Treasure of Jewish Heritage, Restored

One of the oldest and historically most important Jewish cemeteries in Europe is reopening as a cultural monument after having languished virtually abandoned for centuries.

Just after the High Holidays, Venice’s historic Old Jewish cemetery will be formally opened to the public, following an intensive, year-and-a-half-long restoration and conservation effort.

Mayor Massimo Cacciari and other officials will attend the dedication ceremony Oct. 13, which will be followed by a gala reception at the Doge’s Palace.

The cemetery, founded in 1386, is one of the treasures of European Jewish heritage. Nearly 200 years ago, the poets Byron and Shelley used to go horseback riding there and were struck by its haunting desolation.

“Now that the cemetery has been restored, we plan to enable tourists to visit it on a limited basis, perhaps on two or three designated days a week,” said a representative of Venice’s 500-member Jewish community.

The internationally funded restoration project was directed by the Venice Jewish Community and the Superintendent of Monuments for Venice. It was funded through a public-private partnership with major support coming from Venice’s regional government and the private preservation organizations Save Venice and the World Monuments Fund.

The massive effort entailed the repair, cleansing and restoration of hundreds of centuries-old tombstones, as well as the drainage of swampy areas, clearing of weeds, bushes and undergrowth, and repair of the walls. All tombstones were also painstakingly documented and photographed.

Scores of stones that had lain face down were erected into a standing position, and fragments of monuments have been hung securely on the perimeter walls.

In addition, more than 100 tombstones that had sunk or been buried underground were discovered.

Located at the northern end of the Lido — the long strip of island that protects Venice from the Adriatic Sea — near the church of San Nicolo, the cemetery was founded in 1386 after Venice’s Doge invited Jews from the mainland to settle in Venice as bankers following a war between Venice and Genoa.

Its oldest known tombstone, that of Samuel son of Samson, dates from 1389 – - decades before the earliest identified tombstone in the famous Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague.

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 Jewish Ghetto, at the northern edge of Venice.

Time and time again its area was decreased, its walls torn down or its tombstones uprooted to build fortifications along the Lido shore.

The cemetery was finally abandoned in about 1770, and a newer cemetery, which is still in use today, was opened nearby.

The earliest stones are simple slabs bearing epitaphs, but later ones are lavishly carved with coats of arms, elaborate baroque decorative elements and vivid symbols representing family names or Jewish iconography, including Kabalistic designs.

Many of the decorative elements — such as the heraldic coats of arms — show the strong influence of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who settled in Venice after the expulsions from Iberia.

There are a surprising number of representations of the human figure, including cupids with wings, representations of Samson and an apparent family crest showing a woman atop a tower.

Several carvings show two nude men carrying an enormous bunch of grapes — an illustration of the story from the Book of Numbers in which two spies sent by Moses to investigate the fertility of the Promised Land found a cluster of grapes so big that it took two men to carry it.

Another shows a bird carrying the deceased toward heaven.

One of the historically most interesting markers is a small, simple stone bearing the inscription “Jews 1631.” It marks the mass grave of an unknown number of Jews killed in the plague that swept Venice in 1630-31.

Nearby is the tombstone of Rabbi Leone da Modena (1571-1648), one of the most fascinating Jewish figures of the 16th and 17th centuries, whose autobiography gives a vivid picture of Jewish life at that time in Venice.

NEXT STORY