Artist Iza Radinsky at Zack Gallery. (photo by Olga Livshin)
Just over 500 years ago, in 1516, the Venetian Republic forcibly moved 700 Venetian Jews to an island, the abandoned site of a 14th-century foundry. In doing so, they created the first ghetto. The word ghetto means “foundry” in the old Venetian dialect.
The Venetian ghetto had two access bridges, both guarded at night, and boats also patrolled the canals. Despite the isolation and other restrictions, the republic was relatively tolerant. Inside the ghetto, Jews were free to practise their religion and traditions; they were not forced to convert, as was the case in Spain and many other places throughout Europe. The ghetto became known as a place of study and scholarship, and its population grew from 700 in 1516 to more than 6,000 a hundred years later. The area – which existed until 1797, when Napoleon conquered the republic and gave equality to all citizens – remains a centre of Jewish culture.
Many Jewish and Italian organizations in North America and Europe have commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Venetian ghetto in some way. Here in Vancouver, Zack Gallery, in conjunction with Il Museo at the Italian Cultural Centre, are presenting Stories from the Stones of Venice: The Art of Rachel Singel and Iza Radinsky. The exhibit was the brainchild of Singel, an artist, printmaker and assistant professor at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky.
“The year 2016 marked the 500th year since the establishment of the Jewish ghetto in Venice,” she said in an email interview with the Jewish Independent. “To honour the historical anniversary and the influence of this uniquely urban space, I worked onsite in Venice for two months to create a series of etchings illustrating the buildings, structures and streets of the ghetto.”
That was not Singel’s first visit to Venice. “I first went to Venice in 2012 for an artist residency,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to return to Venice every year since. My artworks have been increasingly influenced by Venice and its fragile state…. The last two years, I have also brought my students to the Scuola Internazionale di Grafica Venezia.”
Singel has exhibited her 10 ghetto prints at the international school and at the Jewish community centre in Louisville.
“Each of the 10 images seeks to call attention to the Venetian ghetto’s importance, not only as an architectural complex within the confines of Venice, but also its worth internationally. Its structures are resonantly symbolic, representing the community’s resolute will to survive and prosper in what was an exceedingly hostile social environment.”
When Singel heard about the exhibition that was being planned at Il Museo – The Venetian Ghetto: A Virtual Reconstruction 1516-2017, which opened on July 25 – she looked into the possibility of engaging with their event. “I reached out to the Zack Gallery director, Linda Lando, about exhibiting my prints at the JCC,” Singel said.
Lando liked the idea of a Venice exhibition, but 10 small prints were not enough to fill the Zack, so Lando invited Radinsky, a local artist, to exhibit her paintings of Venice in the same show.
“Linda Lando saw five of my paintings of Venice before,” Radinsky said. “She asked me if I had more and if I would like to participate in a two-artist show together with Rachel Singel. I was happy to.”
Radinsky’s 14 large paintings and Singel’s prints form the Zack exhibit.
“I love Venice,” Radinsky said. “I first visited it in 2006, with my 86-year-old father. I was awed by the city. It was as beautiful as in the old masters’ paintings I admired as a child in the museums of Moscow and St. Petersburg, even better. Afterwards, every time I go to Europe, I visit Venice. It draws me. It’s quiet there, no cars. People walk and gondolas float on the canals. Nothing artificial, just earthy colours, red roofs, water and sky – and reflections in the canals.”
In her paintings, gondolas and gondoliers look as intrinsic to the ancient city as the sunlight and shadows, the unique water streets and multiple bridges of Venice. The muted colours coalesce into one another, creating combinations that have no names. The sky and the water blend together, weaving one fantastic, living canvas.
“Venice is built on water,” Radinsky explained. “Because of the dampness, it’s hard to maintain the paint of the outside walls of the buildings. The paint often flakes off, and green mold grows close to the water. But gondolas – those look luxurious. Lots of gilt and bright colours, golden ornaments and lush fabrics and cushions for the passengers. Every gondola is an amazing piece of art. In the past, gondolas were part of the Venetian fleet. They could ram into an enemy ship, and their sharp iron bows could cut like knifes. Now, they are tourist attractions, and gondoliers are very friendly and knowledgeable. They wear special hats and traditional striped shirts. They have to study long and hard to learn manoeuvring in the narrow canals. They have to pass an exam and get a licence.”
The artist’s eyes glowed with enthusiasm as she talked about her beloved Venice. “I’ve been there four times already and I want to go again,” said Radinsky.
Stories from the Stones of Venice opened at Zack Gallery on July 27 and continues until Sept. 3.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].