The Venetian Ghetto—500 Years Later
by Diane M. Bolz
On March 29, 1516, the Venetian Senate, under the leadership of Doge Leonardo Loredan, decreed that “Jews must all live together” in a guarded and enclosed area of the city. The designated area, in the northern district of Cannaregio, had been the site of a depository for waste from an old copper foundry. Surrounded by canals, this small island was demarcated by two gates that were to be opened in the morning at the sound of the bell in St. Mark’s belfry and closed at midnight by Christian keepers paid by the Jewish residents. Two boats were to patrol the canals around the island at night. This confined space would become the world’s first legally instituted Jewish ghetto. Although the etymology of the word “ghetto” is still debated, a case can be made for the Venetian dialect’s word for foundry, geto, or for the Italian word getto, meaning “casting.”
To mark the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Venice Ghetto, the city, along with a special commemorative committee and the Jewish community, has mounted an ambitious exhibition in the Doge’s Palace, the residence of Venice’s doges (elected chief magistrates) and the seat of power in the Venetian Republic that issued the 1516 decree. Curated by scholar Donatella Calabi, “Venice, the Jews and Europe: 1516-2016” tracks the urban organization, architecture and daily community life of Jews both within and outside the Ghetto.
The show, which is on view through November 13, covers a broad sweep of history—from the establishment of the Ghetto in 1516 to the arrival of Napoleon in 1797 (which led to the fall of the Venetian Empire and the destruction of the Ghetto gates) to the role of Jews in the city up through the 20th century.
Accompanied by a 536-page illustrated book, published by Marsilio Editori and distributed in the U.S. by Rizzoli, the exhibition traces the progressive expansion of the Ghetto’s three enclosures—Nuovo Ghetto (1516), Vecchio Ghetto (1541) and Nuovissimo Ghetto (1633)—the evolution of its architecture and the rise of shops, banks and services. Because of the limited space in the Ghetto, the only way to create room for the influx of newcomers (as Jews, unwelcome in many other cities, flocked to Venice from all over Europe) was to build up. Thus existing structures were added onto, creating many six-story, tenement-like buildings—the “high-rises” of their time.
When the Jewish Ghetto was created in 1516, Venice was a major center of commerce, noted for its cosmopolitan atmosphere and cultural diversity. But it was also a time when its government was distrustful of everyone they considered to be outsiders. Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Persians and others were also restricted—in part for their own safety. Although Jews had been working in the main part of the city for centuries, they were not allowed to establish permanent residence there. By confining Jews to the Ghetto, Venice simultaneously included and excluded them.
“As often happens, however,” writes historian of Italian Jewry Riccardo Calimani, “this separation, which was blatantly discriminatory, ended up becoming a useful defense, because the Jews, politically weak outside its walls, became autonomous within them, almost masters of their own actions, in many cases far more so than the inhabitants and subjects of the world outside, who lived at the complete mercy of doge, prince, pope or king.” The Jews were thus segregated, but at the same time protected, within the Ghetto.
The exhibition highlights the rules, prohibitions, abuses and conflicts confronting Venice’s Jewish community; the role of women in that society; as well as the Ghetto’s social makeup and material life. It employs major paintings by Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni Bellini and others, architectural drawings, archival documents, rare books, liturgical objects, multimedia reconstructions, video and models to tell its quincentenary story. The show examines the circumstances that led to the creation of the Ghetto and the way in which it was perceived and transformed over the centuries. It also looks at the Ghetto’s relationships with the rest of the city and with other Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Italy and Europe. Christians, for instance, came to the Ghetto to visit Jewish banks and doctors and to shop for such items as spices, jewelry and fabrics.
Jews were subject to numerous restrictions in Venice. They were allowed only to work in pawnshops or at the Hebrew printing press (a thriving industry), act as moneylenders, trade in textiles or practice medicine. Banking laws kept their interest rates for moneylending low, and they were further burdened by high taxes. Exceptions were made for certain individuals, especially for physicians, who were popular with Venice’s Christian community.
For business or for family reasons, Jewish merchants were able to travel and be away from the Ghetto for periods of time. The majority of inhabitants, however, were engaged in trades such as tailoring, sewing, peddling, second-hand dealing and handicrafts. Playing ball, dancing and gambling were popular pastimes. Outside the Ghetto, Jews, according to the Republic’s sumptuary laws (which applied to all “outsiders” and were, in fact, prevalent throughout Europe), had to wear certain distinguishing symbols—typically a yellow hat, scarf or yellow badge (later, it was a red hat). The exception again was for Jewish doctors, who were allowed to wear black hats.
Despite these restrictions, the crowded living conditions and the intrusive surveillance, Venice’s Jews managed to make the Ghetto a place where Jewish tradition flourished. A cosmopolitan crossroads for Jews of various origins—German, Italian, Levantine, Spanish and Portuguese, all with their different religious rites, languages, cultures and customs—the Ghetto was a city within a city, rich in diversity. Over time, the community built five synagogues, and not only preserved its independent identity, but also influenced the surrounding society.
The 17th century was both Venice’s and the Ghetto’s Golden Age. Jewish commerce and scholarship prospered and the Ghetto’s boundaries were extended to open the Nuovissimo Ghetto for wealthy residents. Economic conditions for Jews deteriorated at the end of the 17th century, and as anti-Jewish sentiment rose in the 18th, new limits were placed on Jewish commercial activity. The Ghetto population decreased from 4,800 in 1655 to 1,700 in 1766, as many prominent families left for other cities. The 19th century was notable for the return of Jews to positions of authority in the city. Many left the Ghetto then, and some purchased fine buildings, often along the Grand Canal. The rise of fascism during World War II, however, brought a new wave of anti-Semitism to the city and led to deportations.
Today, Venice’s Jewish population numbers about 500, only 30 of whom live in the former Ghetto, which is home to all of the city’s major Jewish institutions, including five synagogues and the Jewish Museum.
“The civic value of this exhibition,” writes Gabriella Belli, director of the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, in her essay for the exhibition book, lies in “the obviously harsh realization that an enclosure is an abhorrent physical limit that can never, however, imprison minds and hearts.”