This is one of the oddest spaces I’ve ever been in. The geometry is unique: it is a trapezoid tapering toward two windows, softened above by the elliptical women’s gallery which Silvia, our guide, tells us was added in a later restoration.
I’m on a tour of some of the five synagogues remaining in the city’s former Jewish ghetto, given by the Jewish Museum of Venice, which occupies the lower floors of the same building in the Ghetto Novo in the city’s north-west corner. This year marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of the ghetto, the first community anywhere to be so described. In 1516, the Venetian Republic granted Jews the right to settle, under strict conditions, on the site of a former geto, or iron foundry, a word whose soft “g” the German-speaking Ashkenazim could not pronounce, obliging orthographers to adopt the spelling we have today.
In 1528, German Jews became the first group to build themselves a synagogue. The Schola Grande’s modest size and decoration reflect the economic constraints they faced, permitted to work only in trades such as money-lending and the selling of secondhand clothes. Marble was expensive and regarded by the Church as too precious for Jews. So the synagogue was decorated with marmorino, a plaster painted to resemble the more valuable stone.
But the balustraded oval above our heads is the feature I find most arresting. Inspired by the theatres of 18th-century Venice, according to our guide, it tells a story of links that formed over time between the Jewish community and wider Venetian society.