BOOKS – The old Jewish cemetery on the Lido, a vibrant Venetian story

British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley spent the last four years of his life in Italy. In his poem Julian and Maddalo, written between 1818 and 1819, Venice plays a major role. Among many places, one spot caught his attention, becoming his favorite destination: the old Jewish cemetery on the Venice Lido. Or better said, the two cemeteries: the original nucleus (1389-1774) and the more “modern” one (from the eighteenth century to the present day).

“The cemetery is a literary setting, ideal for love and death scenes,” admitted the President of the Venetian Jewish Community Dario Calimani, who edited for publisher Sillabe the volume L’antico cimitero ebraico al Lido di Venezia (“The old Jewish cemetery on the Venice Lido”) in collaboration with Opera Laboratori. Texts and pictures from this book describe a special spot of the Laguna, which charmed major figures such as François-René de Chateaubriand, John Ruskin, Henry James and Benjamin Disraeli. It also fascinated Primo Levi, who described it as such after visiting it: “We do not, at least not predominantly, have the perception of mourning. Mourning, recent and heartrending, is of those who have lost a family member, a person they held dear, whose features, habits and voice they remember. Here the mourning is distant, swept away by the passing of centuries: the sensation of peace prevails.”

Calimani reviewed some of these intellectual visits. But before talking about the past, he reminded that the cemetery on the Lido is not just a historical testimony, but also the center of a dialogue with a Judaism that is still alive and vibrant. Sadly, the situation is completely different in “most of Europe, where Jewish cemeteries are the only testimony of the passage of the Jews, erased either by persecutions or by the extreme catastrophe that was the Holocaust.” One of the texts published in the volume is signed by Aldo Izzo, once captain of a merchant ship and now “keeper” of the cemetery. Izzo recalls the works for restoring the place, started at the end of the twentieth century. In fact, at the time the area “was desolate and unhealthy because of stagnant water, forests of marsh reeds, swarms of mosquitos and toads, hundreds of dead and rotting trees, brambles and twigs everywhere, tombstones that had been overturned, broken, that had sunk into the ground or that were covered in ivy.” A “pre-Romantic sepulchral scenery of abandonment,” he added. The first buried tombstones were then restored, and 800 tons of soil were used to reclaim the area, allowing the land to regain “dignity, decorum and the proper respect for those who have been buried there for centuries and who still represent an important piece of history.”

Other contributions are signed by Giovanni Levi and Umberto Fortis. Their help has made it possible to retrace the events and the importance of the site, providing the readers with new in-depth insights, both chronological and literary. “It seems evident that the way Jewish people were seen started to change with Romanticism. The Jewish people – rejected, marginalized and imprisoned in ghettos – attracted the sympathy of Romantic poets, with some exceptions of course,” explained Calimani. For the Romantics, Jews were “one of the nations entitled to emancipation and the recognition of their own humanity, just like any other citizen, any other human being. A universal symbol of aspiration to freedom and self-determination.”


Translated by Francesca Pischedda and revised by Alida Caccia, students at the Advanced School for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, trainees in the newsroom of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.