The last man standing.
[Text and photos by Mayank Austen Soofi]
This frail white-haired man is among the last of his kind in Venice.
Emilio Piacentini is a wood-carver in the city’s ancient Jewish ghetto, which is observing its 500th anniversary this year. The Delhi Walla meets him one afternoon inside his deliciously shabby shop—it is cluttered with all sorts of wood things, from mirror frames to cupboards to wooden chandeliers.
In his late 70s, Mr Piacentini is among the half-a-dozen aging woodcarvers left in the city, and the only one in the ghetto. He started the business 40 years ago. Before that this used to be a horsemeat shop.
The shop is as scenic as the area’s synagogues and looks so special and rare that you want it to be preserved as a museum. The paint is peeling off the walls, showing red bricks beneath. The long work-desk is lined with dozens of tools. Another table has a boxed set containing Winston Churchill’s war memoirs that looks like as if it hadn’t been touched for years. The woodcarver is in the middle of a crime thriller.
Mr Piacentini, who studied his craft in an art school for five years, says, “I’m very proud to do things that nobody can do anymore today.” He then opens a drawer and takes out an old poster of a gondola, saying, “I had carved the designs of this boat many years ago. It was gifted by the mayor of Venice to a city in Canada.”
Mr Piacentini’s establishment is one of the only two old shops left in the ghetto. The other is a nearby store crammed with second-hand furniture; its hospitable owner is a devoted stamp-collector.
Over the years, most longtime establishments in the ghetto shut down one by one. While the historic district does not teem with as many tourists as other parts of this spectacularly picturesque city, the commercial establishments here–like elsewhere in Venice–still appear to exist for outsiders alone. There are quite a few kosher restaurants and Jewish curio shops though Venetian Jews don’t live in the ghetto anymore. These new landmarks, customized to attract Jewish travellers, have replaced the old landmarks that were more homely, more attached to the neighborhood. But then this is the story of all the changing cities.
Not far away, a lovely secondhand bookstore has given way to a chic showroom stocked with minimalistic designed Star of David pendants and long, sleek Hanukkah menorahs. It’s difficult to be judgmental about these changes because these new shops do give a strong sense of the ghetto’s historic roots.
“In the old times, there were lots of Hebrews here,” says Mr Piacentini, a catholic. “Many of them were my friends. Now, either they are dead or they left the area years ago.”
Mr Piacentini’s shop has somehow survived to this day. Its future is difficult to imagine. The elderly man’s wife died seven years ago and his only daughter is a senior executive in a courier company.
Sitting beside his desk, the ghetto’s only woodcarver says, “I like my work. It brings me joy.”
He then picks up his crime thriller.
Every survivor is a hero