Guardian of the Jewish dead in Venice

Mr Aldo Izzo, who has been guardian and keeper of the two historical Jewish cemeteries on the Lido in Venice for 35 years, is the subject in The House Of Life, a video installation by Israeli artist Hadassa Goldvicht.
Mr Aldo Izzo, who has been guardian and keeper of the two historical Jewish cemeteries on the Lido in Venice for 35 years, is the subject in The House Of Life, a video installation by Israeli artist Hadassa Goldvicht.PHOTO: NYTIMES

VENICE • There are fewer than 500 Jews left in Venice, barely a handful compared with the 5,000 who filled the ghetto there at its height in the 17th century.

Drawn by this diminishing population, Israeli artist Hadassa Goldvicht made repeated visits.

She discovered Mr Aldo Izzo, a former ship captain who, for 35 years, has been guardian and keeper of the two historical Jewish cemeteries on the Lido in Venice.

Mr Izzo, 86, inspired Goldvicht, 35, to make her next project about him, recording hundreds of hours of footage with him and Jewish residents around Venice and studying the meticulous illustrations and entries that fill his daily journals.

He keeps track of who has died and who remains.

"I kind of fell in love with him and I was very occupied with death," Goldvicht said. "He is not afraid."

The result is The House Of Life, a multi-screen video installation that opened recently at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia Museum in conjunction with the first week of the Venice Biennale.

The show, presented by the Israel Museum and Meislin Projects, explores larger themes of a changing city and historical memory through Mr Izzo's work caring for the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Venice, one from 1774, which is still in use, and one from 1386.

"It's really a piece about the dying community of Venice, an allegory about big issues of life and death," said senior curator Amitai Mendelsohn of the Israeli Art department at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, who organised the show.

"Aldo is an intermediary between life and death, a remnant of this Jewish population."

Since the tombstones - and sometimes even the contents of the graves - had been desecrated, damaged or removed, Mr Izzo has made restoring both graveyards his life's work. He has hung the broken headstones separated from their grave sites around the cemetery's enclosed border, creating an installation of its own.

In one video, he talks about how some of the headstones have a hole at the bottom, where the soul is said to appear when the dead arise.

"For me, the project is not what's on the wall, but all these conversations," Goldvicht said. "His wife died last year, he's living alone on the Lido and losing his eyesight and he's still going to the cemetery."

"It's kind of like a poem," she added. "It's a reduced version of all of it."

Goldvicht straddles several subcultures. She comes from a family of Hasidic and rabbinical background. She lives in Jerusalem with her husband, a kabbalah scholar, and their daughters, aged two and four. Yet, she is also a product of the art world. Her parents, both film-makers, lived in New York for three years when she was young.

She earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in 2004 from the Rhode Island School of Design and a master's from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2007. She did an artist residency at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine in 2008.

"My upbringing is complex," she said. "I have a very private relationship with God. I'm not a person who belongs to a community, but I'm fascinated by community."

The Israel Museum in 2012 presented her video installation, Lullaby, which features people at the museum - from the director to the security guards - singing their childhood lullabies.

"Lullaby is one of the works that is really worth lingering over," Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in its review of the show. "The work took over 50 hours and deals with memory and vulnerability."

The House Of Life started in 2013 as an exploration of Jewish residents in Venice. Goldvicht was an artist in residence then at Beit Venezia, formerly the Venice Centre for International Jewish Studies.

Last year, Venice commemorated 500 years of Jewish life in the city.

In addition to videos, the show also features framed excerpts from Mr Izzo's journals and photographs of his cluttered shelves.

"I hope this work is kind of a prayer," she said. "Discussion about fear, and mix between art and life. It's mixed. It's messy."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2017, with the headline 'Guardian of the Jewish dead in Venice'. Print Edition | Subscribe