Magnes exhibit highlights rich Jewish life of Venice Ghetto

In the late-modern period of the Italian Renaissance, Jews living on the Italian Peninsula translated the phonetic sounds of the regional name Italia into Hebrew: I-Tal-Yah, or “Island of Divine Dew.” It was a linguistic pun.

Medical diploma, 1682 photos/courtesy magnes collection

That the Jews of 15th- and 16th-century Italy would make this lighthearted joke might reflect a certain comfort in their milieu, as opposed to, say, inquisitorial Spain, from which many had fled to their more tolerant neighbor to the east. Or it might speak of sophistication, an outcome of the dense mixing of diverse Jewish cultures in the Italian Peninsula for more than 2,000 years.

To Francesco Spagnolo, curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at U.C. Berkeley, the pun also suggests “a cultural and linguistic symbiosis” between the Jewish and the Italian cultures resulting from their intertwined history. That is the focus of a new exhibit, “An Island of Divine Dew: Italian Crossroads in Jewish Culture,” at the Magnes.

It features a beautifully curated representation of the museum’s collection of Italian Jewish artifacts, including ritual objects like Hanukkah lamps and Torah pointers; books; an illustrated Scroll of Esther; marriage contracts, and Torah covers exquisitely embroidered — and signed — by women.

Ketubah, 1786

The exhibit coincides with the 500th anniversary of the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice. On March 29, 1516, the authorities of the city-state of Venice decreed that all resident Jews would have to move to an industrial area, a metal foundry, which was gated at night to keep them in. The word ghetto probably derives from the Italian word geti, or foundry.

Within 40 years, when another Jewish district was established in Rome, the term ghetto had already come to mean “the place where Jews are confined within an urban space,” Spagnolo said. “But it wasn’t just a place of segregation. It was a meeting place.”

One of the exhibition items from the Magnes collection — the medical diploma of a Jewish man earned from the University of Padua in 1682 — will not be on display in Berkeley until November because it is on loan to the city of Venice for its own commemoration of the ghetto. That exhibit is in the Ducal Palace in St. Mark’s Square, where the legal setup for the Venice Ghetto took place.

“The idea that 500 years later, the very court of law that declared the ghetto to be in force becomes the place where an exhibition acknowledges what took place is a very interesting turn of events,” Spagnolo said, noting this is the first time Italy has done so.

Why was the ghettoization suddenly deemed necessary, when Jews had already inhabited the Italian Peninsula for millennia? The long-established Italian Jewish community, which had come from ancient Palestine, was receiving waves of Ashkenazi immigrants, fleeing plague and persecution or seeking economic opportunity in Italy. Even more significant was the influx of southern Italian, Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and conversos, expelled by the Inquisition. Middle Eastern Jews also came, especially Turkish and Greek; as well as North African.

Hanukkah lamp, 1700s

“These were Jews whose identity was undefined by anyone,” Spagnolo said. “Mixed, unclear identities were not — and still aren’t — an easy thing for societies to cope with.”

While the Venice Ghetto was established to exert control and surveillance over the Jewish population, it was also an official acknowledgment that it existed. In reality, the boundaries between the Christian and Jewish communities were always porous, he said, “With Christians sneaking into the ghetto at night to visit the synagogues, and Jews sneaking out to the opera.”

Cultural collaborations were inevitable. For example, Hebrew books were printed by Christian printers — Jews were not allowed to have printing presses — with Jewish typesetters preparing the manuscripts. Some of the books in the Magnes exhibit show bilingual pages integrating Italian and Hebrew phrases.

“An Island of Divine Dew” doesn’t restrict itself to the Venice Ghetto; the artifacts represent the whole rich tapestry of Jewish life throughout the Italian Peninsula over several centuries.

“The exhibit tries to pinpoint some elements of Jewish modernity that are the result of certain dynamics we can see in the ghettos and in the Italian Jewish experience,” Spagnolo explained. “It’s an extremely multilayered, multicultural environment, of the kind we do not really see again in Jewish history until the migration of Jews to the Americas and even more so, the immigration to Israel.”

Spagnolo, a multidisciplinary scholar and associate adjunct professor of music at U.C. Berkeley, originally is from Milan. He has been at the Magnes since 2007 and has served as curator since 2010.

The exhibit is already part of the Magnes collection; the larger part is from the 1967 purchase of the private collection of Siegfried S. Strauss, and the rest from a 2015 acquisition of more than 300 objects donated by Mark and Peachy Levy of Los Angeles.

“I-Tal-Yah: An Island of Divine Dew; Italian Crossroads in Jewish Culture,” Aug. 30-Dec. 16 and Jan. 24-June 30, 2017, at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, 2121 Allston Way, Berkeley. Open Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free.

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.