29 March 2021

The Ghetto - Venice’s Jewish quarter

District began as area of enforced segregation

The Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, heart of the Ghetto district of the Cannaregio sestiere
The Campo di Gheto Nuovo, heart of the Ghetto
district of the Cannaregio sestiere
A decree creating Venice’s historic Ghetto was pronounced by the Doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan, on this day in 1516.

It meant that the Jewish population of the city, who were already obliged to live under restrictions in place since the 13th century, were forced to move to an island in the northwestern part of the Cannaregio sestiere and could not live in any other district.

There are a number of theories about how it came to be known as the Ghetto, the most plausible of which is that the area was known to Venetians by the dialect word geto - foundry - as it used to be home to a factory making heavy iron cannons for the Venetian fleet. The word may have acquired an ‘h’ in its spelling to reflect its mispronunciation by the early inhabitants, mainly German Jews, who incorrectly gave it a hard ‘g’ rather than the soft one of the dialect. At some time later, it acquired a second 't', although street signs in Venice have only one.

Whatever its etymology, ghetto subsequently became a word used to refer to any deprived urban area dominated by one ethnic or religious group, often with negative connotations of deliberate racial segregation.

Yet the history of the Venice Ghetto was not wholly about racial persecution, even though anti-Jewish sentiments played a part.

Giovanni Bellini's 1501 portrait of Venetian Doge, Leonardo Loredan
Giovanni Bellini's 1501 portrait
of Venetian Doge, Leonardo Loredan
Venice was actually more tolerant towards its Jewish inhabitants than many European cities in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, although that is not to say they enjoyed freedom as it would be defined today.  Many citizens saw them as a threat to the Republic’s commercial and financial sectors, so there were laws in place prohibiting Jews from working in certain professions and requiring them to wear yellow badges and hats to identify them.  

However, the commercial acumen that some regarded with suspicion was also a benefit to the city. Jewish merchants provided money and goods for the republic’s military defences and when the 1516 decree was passed it was only after a long and heated debate. 

The Republic’s governing council recognised that successful Jewish businesses had become vital to Venice’s economy, yet were under pressure from the Catholic Church, which had ruled that Christians and Jews should not live together at the Third Lateran Council of 1179. There was also the problem of Jewish refugees arriving in Venice in increasing numbers as they fled persecution elsewhere in Europe.

The 1516 decree therefore had a strong element of compromise, a way of appeasing the Catholic Church and addressing the fears of Venice’s non-Jewish population but also of providing the reward of security to the Jewish population in recognition of their contribution to the Republic’s coffers.

The Jews of the Ghetto therefore enjoyed a certain amount of freedom. They were allowed to work and follow recreational pursuits in any part of the city, so long as they returned to the island before nightfall.  Gates erected at entry points were locked at night, yet it was as much a fortress as a prison. The watchmen - paid for by the Jewish community - were there to stop people leaving but also to ensure no unwanted visitors got in.

Indeed, over subsequent years, the Venice Ghetto came to be seen as a haven, with Jews expelled from Portugal and Spain adding to its population, along with Jews displaced from the Veneto by the Habsburg army during the War of the League of Cambrai and from the eastern Mediterranean by the Ottomans. In time the population swelled to more than 5,000.

The Ghetto is notable for its tall buildings, built to accommodate a rapidly growing population
The Ghetto is notable for its tall buildings, built
to accommodate a rapidly growing population
It was as much a consequence of this that the area became one of deprivation, rather than by any deliberate persecution by the authorities.

As more and more people squeezed into the neighbourhood, overcrowding became rife.  With space limited, the concept of multi-storey dwellings was explored, with laws passed allowing houses in Cannaregio to be a third taller than those in the rest of the city. However, unscrupulous landlords not only charged exorbitant rents but instructed builders to squeeze as many floors as possible into the height allowed, often rendering them cramped and airless and a breeding ground for infectious diseases.

Yet for all its problems, the area became the centre of a vibrant and colourful culture, a reflection of the diverse roots of its inhabitants. For example, the immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean dressed as they had at home, the men sporting turbans, the women wearing expensive silks and jewellery, in stark contrast to the modest and austere dress of the German Jews.

The Ghetto became a centre of trade not only for Jewish residents and visitors but also for Christian Venetians, who poured into the district every morning, attracted by the shops selling everyday supplies, cloth and books that lined the main streets, alongside the ubiquitous moneylenders. 

In addition to places of worship - there were eventually five synagogues, one each for the German, Italian, Spanish, and Levantine communities, and a fifth that may have been French - there was also a theatre, an academy of music, literary salons, an inn and a hospital.

The Scuola Grande Spagnola still offers regular religious services to Venice's Jewish community
The Scuola Grande Spagnola still offers regular
religious services to Venice's Jewish community
Nonetheless, the freedom of the rest of the city was not restored to the Jewish population until 1797, when the French Army, commanded by 28-year-old General Napoleon Bonaparte, occupied Venice and forced the dissolution of the Republic. The Ghetto's gates were removed, with Jews given the same status as other citizens.

The wealthier inhabitants jumped at the opportunity to move out, some even buying palaces on the Grand Canal.  Yet many of the poorer Jews chose to continue living in the area and others were forced back only months later by the new Austrian administration.  It was not until Venice became part of the unified Italy in 1866 that full emancipation was regained.

The Ghetto remained a focal point for the city’s Jewish community until the Second World War, when the arrival of the Germans in 1944 signalled a dark period in the area’s history, with some 246 Jews from all parts of Venice herded back into the Ghetto for deportation.

Today, the Ghetto - just a few minutes' walk from the Santa Lucia rail station - is still a centre of Jewish life, with two of the five synagogues - the Scuola Grande Spagnola and the Scuola Levantina - still offering religious services. Ironically, only a few of Venice’s approximately 500 Jewish residents actually live in the area, largely because it is too expensive, many young Venetian professionals having chosen it as a trendy area to live.

The entrance to the Museo Ebraico di Venezia
The entrance to the Museo
Ebraico di Venezia
Travel tip: 

The Museo Ebraico di Venezia - the city’s Jewish museum - is situated in the Campo di Gheto Nuovo, between the two most ancient Venetian synagogues, the Scuola Grande Tedesca and the Scuola Canton. Founded in 1953, it includes important examples of goldsmith and textile manufacture in the Jewish tradition made between the 16th and the 19th centuries and a wide selection of ancient books and manuscripts, and exhibitions dedicated to the cycle of the most important Jewish festivities, with many ritual objects.

The Banco Rosso was a hybrid of bank and pawn shop
The Banco Rosso was a hybrid of
bank and pawn shop
Travel tip:

The preponderance of Jewish moneylenders in Venice at the time of the Ghetto’s establishment was largely because Christians were forbidden by their religious leaders to lend money with interest. The demand for loans, however, remained strong and the Jewish community established banks in Venice which were coded by colour - red, green and black - depending on their function. The Banco Rosso, which can also be found on the Campo di Gheto Nuovo, was a hybrid of bank and pawnshop. It has been restored and is open to visitors, who learn that its name is derived from the red receipt that customers received when pawning an item. Some have speculated that this practice is why even today people who owe money to their bank are said to be “in the red”.

Also on this day:

1281: The birth of condottiero Catruccio Castracani

1825: The birth of Francesco Faà di Bruno, advocate for the poor

1838: The birth of Edoardo De Martino, a painter notable for his depictions of naval battles

1888: The birth of aviation pioneer Enea Bossi

1939: The birth of actor Terence Hill

(Picture credits: Tall buildings, street name sign by Andreas H. from Pixabay; Campo di Ghetto Nuovo by Marc Ryckaert; Museo Ebraico by Arie Darzi; Scuola Spagnola by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons)

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