14th-century Italian Jewish cemetery restored

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

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

Just after the High Holy Days, Venice's historic Old Jewish cemetery will open to the public. The event ends an intensive, year-and-a-half restoration and conservation effort.

Venice Mayor Massimo Cacciari and other officials will attend the dedication ceremony Oct. 13.

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

Tourists will be able to visit soon on a limited basis.

The Venice Jewish Community and the Superintendent of Monuments for Venice directed the internationally funded restoration project.

Funding came 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 Venice 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. A newer cemetery, 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 kabbalistic 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.

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 from 1630 to 1631.