World's Oldest Ghetto

18 December 1894 - Venice, Italy

Today I visited the oldest ghetto in the world. Perhaps the only decent act by Napoleon was when he tore down the walls that imprisoned the Jewish residents here for the “crime” of being Jewish. I know it’s hard for you folks back in the 27th century to even begin to believe that such social injustices ever took place.

Synagogue in Venice
Venice’s ghetto is crowded, even by crowded Venice standards. The buildings here go higher than buildings in other parts of Venice. As I studied a synagogue, I heard a voice ask, “Are you English?”

I turned to see an elderly man with a long beard and a bowler. “Is it that obvious?”

“Welcome to Venice. Are you Jewish?”

“No, just a historian, trying to understand why atrocities like ghettos came into being. In England we don’t segregate our Jews. We just elect them Prime Minister.” Victorian England, I’m proud to say, is tolerant of religious minorities.

The gentleman chuckled. “Oh yes. England has no ghettos. You just kick us out.”

“We did? Oh, yes, Edward the first, right? I guess we did. I do apologize.”

The man shrugged. “I’m sure you had nothing to do with it. Would you like me tell you a little about our history?”

“Yes, please do, sir!”

We walked over to a bench in front of the Synagogue and sat down. He introduced himself as the Rabbi Magino and began to tell the history of this community.

Woodcut of original ghetto
 “Back in 1516 the Roman Catholic Church ordered that all Jews be expelled from most of Europe. Venice however didn’t want to get rid of us. Why kick out your goldsmiths and bankers? Bad for business. So they came up with a compromise. They tore down an old foundry, “ghetto” in Italian, and put up a wall. We built a community inside.”

“That’s terrible!”

“What terrible? The Germans and Turks were kept in their own communities, too. And it meant we could stay in Venice and not get kicked out. It made the Pope happy and he left us alone. We could go anywhere we wished in Venice during the day. At night we went home and they locked the ghetto gates.”

“But you were prisoners!”

“The Jews were allowed to choose their gatekeeper. And if young men sneaked out at night to go to a party, he looked the other way. None of this was strictly enforced. It was all just for show.”

“But it’s so crowded here.” I looked about at the tightly packed neighborhood. Even the square was crowded with pedestrians.

“That’s because many Jews came here after other countries like Spain and France, expelled them. And others just moved here for business opportunities. When it got too small, the city built the Ghetto Vecchio adjacent to the older Ghetto Nuovo.”

“Just a tick. I remember enough school Latin to know ‘Nuovo’ means ‘new.’ How can it be older?”

“The ghettos were named for the foundries that were torn down to make room for them. And of course we kept building up.” He pointed to the sky.

“I’ve noticed the walls are gone now. Have many Jews remained?”

“Of course. This is our home. We are proud of our community. A few who wanted a fancy palazzo moved, but most stayed.”

We chatted awhile longer until the good Rabbi had to get back to work. I checked my history files. Apparently the only persecution the Venetian Jews suffered was when the German Nazis came in and took them away to concentration camps.

I now felt chagrinned at my earlier impressions. The first ghetto was not created to persecute Jews but to protect them from persecution. How ironic!

Venetians must be big-hearted people--or perhaps religious intolerance is just bad for business. Probably a little of both.


A Night at the Opera

17 December 1894 - Venice, Italy

Teatro La Fenice
It’s a night at the opera for me at one of the most famous opera houses of all time--Teatro La Fenice or the Phoenix Theatre.

La Fenice’s predessor, the San Benedetto Theatre, was Venice’s leading opera house for forty years. Then in 1774 it burnt to the ground. When it was rebuilt, a legal dispute broke out between the managers and the owners. The landlords won, so the opera company decided to build their own theatre.

In 1790 they began construction and opened two years later. The christened it “The Phoenix” to celebrate survival of both the fire and the loss of their former quarters. By the beginning of the next decade the Phoenix was famous throughout Europe.

In 1836, La Fenice burnt to the ground, but arose from the ashes like her namesake even grander than before. This is the theatre I will be visiting tonight. The inside glitters with Venetian glass chandeliers and gold gilding everywhere. I came early so I could gawk at the interior.

Sadly this will also burn down in 1996. Luckily in 2001 Venice will rebuild it, doing their best to replicate it exactly as it was. They are doing renovations in 2659 and want me to bring back as much detail as I can, so they will be sure to get it right to the "nth" degree.

This is hardly the only opera house in Venice. Indeed, this city opened the first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano, in 1637. The first opera may have been performed in Florence in 1597, but Venice gave opera to the world. Before then it was only entertainment for aristocrats. Unfortunately, some of those early performances saw the rise of the prima donnas and their “duels.” The bombastic ladies would stop the show, trying to see who could hit the highest note while the rowdy audience cheered them on. A sort of vocal fist-a-cuffs.

Tonight La Fenice will be presenting the work of one of the greatest Victorian opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi. The opera will be Attila, based on Attila, König der Hunnen ("Attila, King of the Huns") by Friedrich Ludwig Zacharias Werner. It’s premier performance back in 1846 was at this very theater. I suppose, while one can hardly call Attila the founder of Venice, he was certainly the inspiration. The opera ends with a local beauty avenging her father by stabbing Attila. I doubt any natives will cry over this sad ending.

Giuseppe Verdi
I heard that Giuseppe Verdi is visiting Venice and plans to attend tonight. The great master is now eighty-one and was composing operas up until last year! The old boy will live to 1901, very good run for this day and age. Verdi is one of the most influential composers of his day. Later critics will think he’s too melodramatic, but Victorians love melodrama. One can cry all they want at the opera without embarrassment, giving the dears a much needed outlet.

Perhaps I better take an extra handkerchief, even if it is Attila the Hun.

A scene from Verdi's Attila - Our heroine mourns her dead father and explains to Attila that Italian women get their courage from their "love for their motherland." (Bring tissues.)


All This Greatness Under One Roof

Today I broke into a house. Well, actually I walked up and politely knocked on the door, but I feel like I have intruded into someone’s private home. Of course with all the guests it’s not all that private but--erm, maybe I should start over.

Pallazi Barbaro
The University of Venice wanted me to record the famous Palazzo Barbaro. There are actually two palaces with that name next to each other, both formerly owned by the Barbaro family who made their fortune in salt. The oldest of the two palaces was built in 1425 and is a wonderful example of Venetian Gothic. The other was built in 17th century and was bought to house the Barbaro’s ballroom.

The Barbaro filled both buildings with beautiful art and elegant furnishings. But then the Barbaro family died out in the mid-19th century. The buildings were bought by speculators who sold off the paintings and furniture.

In 1881 an wealthy Bostonian, named Daniel Sargent Curtis, saved the older of the buildings. He lets his friends stay here. My word, does he have friends! They include artists, writers, musicians and wealthy art patrons. This is a well known center for American and English creative types.

Which was my “ticket”...I hoped. I knocked on the door and asked if Mr. Curtis was in. I told the butler I was a history scholar from the University of Cambridge and was interested in the building since I was writing a book on the old palaces of Venice. The butler left. Soon another gentleman came back offering me his hand. “I am Mr. Curtis. Dr. Howe, right? Please, do come in.

He showed me about the place and introduced me to a few guests. One was his second cousin, John Singer Sergeant. I tried not to look like a total twit as he shook my hand. Sergeant is one of the greatest portrait artists of his day. He will paint presidents and famous people.

Madame X by John Sargent
“I loved your Madame X,” I blurted out.

He seemed please. “Why thank you. That’s my favorite. The critics in Paris hated it. I had to flee to London after the art show.”

“I never understood why it was so controversial. I like that you try other poses rather than the traditional ‘just sit in the chair.’”

“I’m not the only one of that school. We recently had Anders Zorn staying here.”

“The great Swedish painter? I thought only Americans stayed here?”

“My cousin even lets Frenchmen in here. Claude Monet was here recently, too.”

Daniel Curtis tugged on my arm. “Let me show you the painting Zorn did while he was here. It won’t be here long. The model is taking it with her.”

Sergeant laughed. “I would have done it, but I already painted Isabella. Besides, I‘m taking a vacation from portraits. I’m painting landscapes of Venice.”

Isabella Stewart Gordon by Andres Zorn
 They showed me this delightful painting of a woman in a white dress, when the model stepped up. Her name was Isabella Stewart Gardner. This was no ordinary model! Gardner is a wealthy patron of the arts who buys up paintings of old masters, as well as up and coming artists. She said she had so many paintings her husband teased her she should start her own museum. I just nodded, afraid to say anything least the Enforcers accuse me of affecting history. In 1903 she will open her own museum, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, so all of Boston could can enjoy her collection.

Curtis took me through the estate. He showed me the desk where Henry James wrote The Aspern Papers while he visited in 1888. The novella is set in Venice, of course. He showed me where Robert Browning had slept. The poet fell in love with the area and rented a nearby pallazo of his own. That is also where he died five years ago.

Mr. Curtis also bragged about his other guests: artists, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and William Merritt Chase, and art historian, Bernard Berenson (with all the art in town, I can see why he was in Venice.) My head was spinning with all the names.

Then Curtis showed me what he was most proud of. Turns out his son, Ralph Wormely Curtis, is quite an artist himself. I was impressed with his work. What would one expect growing up surrounded by artists.

Return from Lido by Ralph Wormely Curtis
I thanked Mr. Curtis for his fine hospitality to a complete stranger. I told him I thought it was wonderful how he hosted so many creative people on their visits. Artists and writers are notoriously short of cash and probably could not have stayed as long in Venice as they did, without his help. How many works of art and literature were made possible by the inspiration of Venice that he provided?

It is fitting that someday this building will be a museum, not to the Barbaro family but to Daniel Curtis and all his amazing guests.

Some of the great art inspired by a visit to the Pallazo Barbaro-Curtis (as it is now called.)
Grand Canal by John Singer Sargent
Venice by James Whistler
Pallazo Dario by Claude Monet
Venice by William Merritt Chase
In my Gondola by Andres Zorn

The Aspern Papers by Henry James

A Toccata of Galuppi's - Robert Browning's poem about Venice

The Venetian Painters of the Renaissance: with an index to their works by Bernard Berenson


The Lost Grandeur of Torcello

10 December 1894 - Torcello, Italy

Torcello Island
Today I visited the sleepy hamlet of Torcello, an island on the north end of the Venetian Lagoon, only a few miles from Venice. It is hard to believe this sparsely populated island once was larger than Venice itself.

Back in the fifth century when folks began to flee the mainland to get away from invading Huns, Torcello was the first island they settled. For the next two hundred years the Ostrogoths Atilla had stirred up, kept pillaging the mainland, driving more and more natives to this refuge. By 568 the Bishop of Altino moved his see here and would stay here for a thousand years.

Torcello became a trading center, much more powerful than Venice, in the 10th century. At Torcello’s height, it’s population was 20,000. However her days were numbered. By the 12th century the lagoon around her had filled with silt, becoming swamp. She became useless as a harbor and the marsh became a breeding ground for malaria. People fled to Venice, Murano, Burano and other islands in the lagoon. They would return to salvage building material from the growing ghost town. Only four medieval buildings were left untouched.

Swamps around Torcello
One of those buildings was Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta built in 639. It has had a lot of additions form the 11th and 12th century. It has several beautiful mosaics inside. The Last Judgement dates from the 13th century and was inspired by one at Ravenna.

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Last Judgement mosaic at Santa Maria
There is also the more modern 12th century Church of Santa Fosca, and two palaces, thee Palazzo dell'Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio. All the rest of the once great city is all gone. In it’s place are farms and meadows.

Church of Santa Fosca
There are a few more modern inns on the island, built for the Venice tourist trade that began in the 18th century. Some folks come here to get away from the bustle of crowded Venice. I understand Ernest Hemingway will spend some time here in 1948 writing. Of course he won’t be born for another five years.

The natives like to point out a couple of things the scavengers left. There is a stone chair they call Attila’s Throne. I happen to know Attila never even visited Torcello. It most likely was carved for the Bishop.

Attila's Chair
There is also Ponte del Diavolo or the Devil’s Bridge, a popular name for medieval stone bridges.

Ponte del Diavolo
The 11th century Bell Tower attached to Santa Maria Assunta is worth the climb, despite the steep steps. They didn’t charge me too much for the privilege and I suppose they need the money for upkeep.

View of Torcello from the Bell Tower
The island is also covered with remnants of the ancient city the natives didn’t cart off with them. It’s a bit like an Easter egg hunt, wandering about through the fields and lanes looking for the ruins left behind. Even though it is early December, the day was sunny if cool, perfect for hiking. I had a grand day of it. I hated to leave on the last ferry. I daresay, I can see why Hemingway fell in love with lovely Torcello.