On the world’s first ghetto.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
He is a scholar of the world’s first ghetto—the ancient Jewish ghetto of Venice is observing its 500th anniversary this year.
One late morning The Delhi Walla meets Lucio De Capitani at Parco Savorgnan, a public garden not far from the ghetto. Despite this being a liquid city, there is no water to be seen. An old palace blocks the view of the park from the canal. The decorative pools are dry.
Seated on a bench, the 20-something PhD student says, “I’m studying the works of authors who travelled to distant places and tried to describe other people and cultures. Amitav Ghosh is one such writer. He went to Egypt, Burma, Cambodia… and the Sunderbans. I’m also reading Robert Louis Stevenson, who, at the end of his life went to live in the Pacific islands… just before he died, he wrote fairy tales, novels, and travel accounts based on his time there.”
Mr De Capitani is from Milan, a town about two hours away from Venice. The son of theater actors, he disappointed his parents by choosing literature over a life on stage. Even so, his family might draw consolation from the fact that their only son is leading his academic life under the patronage of a professor who is a great authority on the world’s greatest playwright. Shaul Bassi is the co-author of Shakespeare in Venice: Exploring the City with Shylock and Othello. Belonging to an old Jewish family of Venice, Mr Bassi is also an authority on his city’s Jewish district. Indeed, Mr De Capitani’s involvement in the ghetto could be partly attributed to the influence of his mentor.
“Pursuing writers who wrote about the ghetto is a part of my dissertation”—he says. One of the writers that he talks about is Thomas Coryat, an English traveller of the late Elizabethan age who died in Surat, India. “Coryat was among the first one to write about the ghetto. He came from London and was a contemporary of Shakespeare. At that time, the ghetto was still a new phenomenon. In Venice, Coryat described (Christian) palaces and people and also devoted a few pages to the ghetto. His observations were typical of his fellow co-religionists of that time–he expected Jews to be uglier but was instead impressed on finding many beautiful women among them!”
Mr De Capitani, who follows no religion though his grandmother is a practicing Christian, movingly talks of another British author. “Israel Zangwill was a British Jew who, I think, was a contemporary of (Joseph) Conrad. His most well-known works are set in the East End of London that was home to many Jews at the time. His fiction also described life in the Venice ghetto. One of his stories is about a young boy of the ghetto who believes that it is the whole world. At one point, however, he manages to step out of the ghetto and is able to see other parts of Venice, including Piazza San Marco. He is at once terrified and impressed. The story ends with him losing the innocence of his childhood in which he identified his world with the ghetto alone.”
After expanding his reading life to the ghetto, Mr De Capitani has started to think more on the place. “The ghetto carries a lot of symbolic weight. Today it’s difficult to see it as described by early writers. You have to work a lot upon your imagination to actually visualize what it used to be. These days it’s probably the nicest square in Venice. There is lot of light; there are no narrow lanes…. lots of benches… while it is the most important Jewish heritage in Venice, it’s no longer peopled by Jews alone… once upon a time this was a self-contained world but it’s no longer like that. If you don’t notice the holocaust memorial built in a corner, you might walk through the area without noticing it was the world’s first ghetto…”
At this point, Mr De Capitani pauses to compose his thoughts. He then says, “You see, the ghetto is like… it is there and it is not there.”
A student of the ghetto