Venice and faiths: crossroads of people and cultures

by Roberta Nalesso | VeneziaSì editor
Venice and faiths: crossroads of people and culturesItinerary that we propose here is a route which will, through art and history of Venice, take you on a discovery search of various religious traditions which have for centuries participated in the political and social life of the city and which are a live testimony of its past, even today.
To bring vitality about and to protect its coastal interests and trade exchanges with the Orient, Serenissima  had always welcomed and had always vouched for the protection of justice and respect of an individual or of integration between people, without distinction of customs, colours and religions.

Armenians, Christians, Jews and Orthodox church followers met each other in this city which, due to its nature, its social structure and its economical incline, had always been opened to relationships with different cultures.
This tolerance, united with a certain autonomy as regards to the church of Rome, contributed to population of Venice and its lagoon with diverse religious denominations.
A crossroads of people and religious faiths which took part in enriching the Venetian artistic patrimony and making Venice, city originally Christian-catholic, a civilisation rich in testimonies of different cultures, evident even today in its monuments, its artworks and its traditions.
The need to affirm its own cultural and religious diversity persuaded numerous foreign communities that emigrated to the city to build their own real and specific place of worship giving life to a harmonious plaiting of architectural forms and artistic traditions.

We can re-live the stages of this history that had through centuries seen diverse religious communities rise and get developed in the lagoon, through traces of this past, which is still present and which indissolubly united Venice and the Orient, contributing to nourishing the myth of Venice as "door of the Orient".

This route, starting from the architectural complex which contains the Greek Orthodox Church of San Giorgio dei Greci, will take you inside the Jewish ghetto and at the end you'll arrive on the monastery-island of San Lazzaro degli Armeni, in the research of traces of a history written on its stones and in the gardens and which has been guarded by this city for centuries.

Historic outline

San Giorgio dei Greci
Political, commercial and cultural connection between Venice and the eastern Roman Empire had been known right from its origins and we can still find its echoes today in the splendours of its architectural symbols and in the names of saints and prophets to whom countless Venetian churches are dedicated: San Zaccaria, San Giorgio, San Teodoro and many others.
This can be explained also because the most ancient Christian denomination present in Venice is the one of the Greek Orthodox who, for reasons of their economic activities and trade exchange, got settled in Venice already in 11th century, organising their own religious and attendance structures.
As a testimony of affinity and friendship which linked it to Byzantium, Venice conserves numerous relics, coming from Constantinople, and Greek manuscripts that constituted the initial nucleolus of the St Mark's library, donated to the city by cardinal Bessarione, ambassador in Venice in 1400.
With the Turkish invasion and the fall of Constantinople, the Greek community present in Venice increased considerably, obtaining from Serenissima  the recognition like Confraternity of Greek Orthodox, autonomy from the local catholic authorities and concession of a real place of worship and a reference point in the church of San Biagio, replaced in 16th century by San Giorgio dei Greci, the most ancient church built by the orthodox Diaspora in the West.
Around the church there were later built other buildings used for hosting Confraternity, a hospital and a Greek school which became a centre of great cultural and publishing importance for spreading of Hellenic culture throughout Europe.
Although many Greeks emigrated after the fall of Serenissima, the church in Venice is still today a see of the Greek Orthodox Church in Italy which gets re-united here in occasion of its suggestive and sumptuous liturgical celebrations which are worth attending if you have an opportunity to be around during Easter period.

Jewish Ghetto
Jewish community was also present in Venice for commercial reasons even before 14th century and there had been constant relationships with the city and its inhabitants even though it had been confined in one area of the city, called “ghetto”.
Amongst its many supremacies, Venice boasts of a quarter which is the most ancient and best preserved one between Jewish quarters in the Old Continent.
The genuinely Venetian origin of the word 'ghetto'  bears its witnesses, deriving from 'getto (casting)' and referring to foundries that stood in the mediaeval settlement area of the first German Jews to whom the guttural transformation of the word is owed.
Synagogues or "Scuole" of Venetian ghetto were constructed between first quarter of 1500 and mid 1600 by various ethnic groups: Scuola Canton and Scuola Grande Tedesca, Scuola Italiana, Scuola Levantine and Spagnola Scuola (Spanish synagogue).
In 1719 in the ghetto of Venice there were as many as nine synagogues, on disposal to three 'nations' present at the same time – German, Levantine and Sephardic – settled in the city centuries ago as the Jews were expelled from their original lands. I
t's an extraordinary fact that in the city glossary instead of a word 'synagogue' a word 'scuola (school)' was preferred, coined originally for the worship buildings of Christian confraternities.
These synagogues which remain intact in time despite some posterior interventions, witness the value of the ghetto of Venice, whose tall houses divided in floors lower than the norm, show how much the density of population had increased through years.
And although after the fall of Republic Napoleon ordained the end of segregation and equal rights of the Jews with other citizens, the Jews who were residents in Venice were notably decreasing due to Nazi persecutions.
And even it if is reduced today to 500 members, the Jewish community in Venice continues to be active.
That what had been the first ghetto in Europe is today a live and frequented district of the city where the Jewish religious and administrative institutions and five synagogues persist still to this today.

San Lazzaro degli Armeni
Armenian community has also been a strong religious presence with deep roots in the lagoon which, benefiting from a certain prestige at the local authority, was welcomed with great consideration at the island of San Lazzaro already in 1715 when the abbot Mechitar, after having escaped from Modena invaded by the Turks, reached Venice with his monastic congregation. Firstly assigned to Lazzaretto, the island sank.
The church and the convent were re-built, Mechitar did his best to spread knowledge in the East, also with the help of young co-nationals who were welcomed and taught by him.
Scientific, literary and religious works used to get translated in Armenian from different languages: after his death, a polyglot printing works were founded (1786) which could easily develop and go ahead with Mechitar' project.
So, in this way an institution called Padri Armeni Mechitaristi (Armenian Mechitarist fathers) was born, which at the time got enriched by bequests of well-off Armenians.
The monastery got away from Napoleonic suppressions, since Napoleon considered the Congregation of Armenian Fathers to be a literary academy. Attached to Monastery there rises the Church of San Lazzaro, of gothic origin, that was reconstructed in 19th century after a fire.
Around the small church and the small cloister even today there is a beehive of praying and study, making S. Lazzaro a real and true small Armenia in the heart of the lagoon, inhabited by some thirty monks who are dedicated to the care and preserving of the Armenian culture.
On the small island there is Monastery of Armenian Fathers, whose library keeps a beautiful fresco by G.B.Tiepolo, as well as works by  Palma il Giovane and S.Ricci.
There are many preserved artworks in the Egyptian, Oriental and Roman archaeological departments; besides, there is a rich collection of Armenian manuscripts,

Venice and faiths: crossroads of people and cultures1°stage (2 h): Take ACTV waterbus no. 1 or 52 and get off at S. Zaccaria and from  Riva degli Schiavoni turn into Calle della Pietà, next to the church of the same name, following Salizada dei Greci you will arrive in front of the architectural complex which includes the Greek orthodox church of San Giorgio dei Greci, one of the worship places built by a foreign community in Venice and amongst  the richest places of art and history, and the surrounding buildings that include Hellenic Institute of Byzantine studies and Museum of the Icons, an old hospital building.
Silence and beauty which reign in this artistic and spiritual oasis will take you out of time, far away from the confusion and bustle of tourists and Venetians who move around St Mark's square, only few steps from here. Building of the church dates back to 1564 and boasts of famous architects' names like Sante Lombardo, Bernard Ongarin and Giannantonio Chiona.
Next to austere and elegant façade of the church there rises a leaning bell tower from 16th century and two baroque buildings by Baldassarre Longhena, while behind it, under the apses you will be able to visit a small, ancient cemetery.
Around the church, in the middle of the golden splendour that decorates the majestic iconostasis, almost entire work by the Cretan Michele Damaskinòs, there are the works collected by the most important Greek painters of that time. After visiting the church, we advise you to stop by the adjacent building of Confraternity where Museum of the Icons can be found on the first floor – it was unveiled in 1959 and restructured radically in 1999 and keeps the most important Byzantine and post-Byzantine icons of Confraternity collection but it also includes illuminated manuscripts, gold-embroidered sacred parameters belonging to archbishops of Philadelphia and small handmade object of notable interest and great historic and artistic value.
Coming out of the museum, an egg-shaped staircase will take you to the second floor where there is a beautiful Chapterhouse of the School of Confraternity, current headquarters of the Hellenic Institute where there are exhibitions of contemporary Greek art put up from time to time.

Venice and faiths: crossroads of people and cultures2°stage (3 h): Follow Fondamenta S. Lorenzo which runs alongside Rio dei Greci until Campo S. Lorenzo, then continue until Barbaria delle Tole which will take you directly to Campo S.S. Giovanni e Paolo, where you can stop to admire the splendid facade of the church.
After crossing the bridge (ponte delle Erbe) you will find on your left the Church of Miracles (Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli) and from here, after crossing Campo S. Maria Nova take Calle della Malvasia which will take you to Campo S. S. Apostoli.
Continue for a bit in Strada Nova until Ca’ d’Oro, cross the bridge and turn left walking alongside Fondamenta San Felice until the end, turn left and you'll find yourself along Fondamenta della Misericordia. Walk along it until you arrive to the new Jewish bridge (Ponte del Ghetto Novo), which is an access bridge to the Jewish ghetto, an ancient quarter that had since 1527 accommodated, to the wishes of Serenissima, all the Jews of Diaspora who found themselves in Venice and had been stationed before on the Giudecca island. In this secluded area of the lagoon city, which is all to be discovered, it will seem as if you have found yourself in a city within the city, recognisable for its five synagogues and its very tall houses. This area is found in the sestiere of Cannaregio, not far from the train station, on the margin of the most frequented tourist itineraries.

Venice and faiths: crossroads of people and culturesThe atmosphere of other times and unmistakable physiognomy of the area with lanes and small squares surrounded by very tall houses is one of the reasons this stage can not be renounced.
In the ghetto you'll be able to discover five synagogues which are simple outside as much as are sumptuous inside. A particular feature of the Venetian synagogues is the rectangular layout, with the sacred arch and the podium facing each other from the shorter sides while the benches are aligned to the longer ones.
On the walls, biblical quotations in Jewish; characteristic furnishings with brass and silver chandeliers and a great abundance of precious fabrics and red curtains.
In Campo del Ghetto Nuovo there are three synagogues remained, founded in 16th century and hidden behind facades of pre-existing buildings: Scuola Grande Tedesca, Scuola del Canton and Scuola Italiana.
In the small square of these synagogues, in the centre of the Old Ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio), there are other two: Scuola Levantina and Scuola Spagnola, having similar foundation but which were updated with a certain architectural splendour in 17th century. Jewish Museum which can be found in Campo del Ghetto Novo, in the Scuola Grande Tedesca, collects centuries of history of the Jewish community in Venice: valuable vestments, sacred decorations, nuptial agreements, silvers of various manufactures and origins such as interesting examples of Jewish ritual objects from 17th to 19th century, amongst which there are objects to do with worship and Jewish festivities, from Shabbat, the day dedicated to praying, to Pesaq, the Jewish Easter and the Torah scroll (Sefer Torah), with all its bibliography.
If you have another day on disposal, we advise you to complete this itinerary with an excursion to the evocative Jewish cemetery on Lido and with a tasting of inimitable specialities of the Jewish cuisine in the lagoon. Once you come out under the porch, where once upon a time there used to be a gate that indicated the end of Old Ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio), turn left and take Rio Terà San Leonardo, which will bring you back to Fondamenta della Misericordia, from where, re-walking along the same streets you will come back to the waterbus stop of San Zaccaria, which was your starting point of the third stage of the itinerary.

Venice and faiths: crossroads of people and cultures3°stage (4 hours): Take ACTV waterbus no. 10/20 from San Zaccaria at 15.10h and you'll arrive on the island in time for the only daily guided tour during which a monk will accompany you on a discovery search of this island-monastery, a silent hermitage immersed in the central lagoon. When you get off the waterbus and take a paved lane, you will arrive to Monastery, built in 18th century, around which there is a well looked after garden decorated by the Armenian fathers.
Passed an iron gate, there is a suggestive cloister and the hallway which leads to the Church of San Lazzaro, where the splendid mosaic medallions are kept and which portray the most important Armenian saints.
The tour continues with going up to the first floor of the monastery where there are Mechitarist Museum and Library. In the room of manuscripts there is a collection of some 4500 preserved manuscripts, often decorated with precious miniatures.
In the scientific room there is an interesting collection of natural history and thriving printing works. Furthermore, one room of the convent is dedicated to George Byron, poet who loved very much retiring to this place of meditation and study.

Addresses and useful information:

Church of San Giorgio dei Greci
Castello 3412 - 30122 Venice 
Opening hours: From Monday to Saturday from  9.00 to 12.30 and from 14.30 to 16.30 (closed on Tuesday) Sunday only from 9.00 to 13.00

Museum of Byzantine icons – Hellenic Institute

Address: Castello 3412 - Ponte dei Greci - 30122 Castello - Venice
Telephone: (+39) 0415226581 (+39) 0415238248
Opening hours: 9.00-17.00, every day
Ticket office closes half an hour before.
Closed 25th December and 1st January
Entrance fee: full € 4 reduced € 2
Reductions valid for : students

Museum of Jewish Community
Address: Cannaregio - 2902/b Ghetto Nuovo - 30121 Venice
Telephone: (+39) 041715359 (+39) 041723007
Opening hours: From October to May: 10.00-17.30. Possible early closing on Fridays.
From June to September: 10.00-19.00 Closed on Saturdays and on Jewish Holidays, 25th December, 1st January and 1st May
Entrance fee: full € 3 reduced € 2
Reductions apply to : Students or groups of max 20 persons.
Guided tours to synagogues each hour from 10.30 to 16.30 (Italian-English).
Entrance fee with guided tour € 8.50, reduced € 7 (students or groups of max 20 persons); students € 4
Guided tours in English a/o Italian language to Ancient Jewish Cemetery (Lido) by telephone booking.
Entrance fee to cemetery with guide € 8.50, reduced € 7 (students or groups of max 20 persons).
For bookings tel. 041 715359

Mechitarist Monastery
: Island of S.Lazzaro degli Armeni - 30100 Venice
(+39) 0415260104
Opening hours:
15.25-17.25 (only visit) every day, with guided tour
For groups visits possible at other times, by booking
Entrance fee:
full € 6 reduced € 4,50
Reductions apply to Groups (min 35 persons) € 4,50; children and students € 3

by Roberta Nalesso |VeneziaSì editor



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