Jews in Venice

The world's first Ghetto

Sunday in the Ghetto

One of Venice’s Jewish historians, Elia Capsali, wrote:

Having heard that the Germans were approaching Padua, like thorns in our eyes and prickles in our hearts, the majority of Jews hurried to escape to Venice. They took their money and came, for they feared for their very lives.

Capsali was writing in 1508 about the approach of Emperor Maximilian’s troops, in the War of Cambrai. So many refugees swelled Venice’s Jewish population that in 1516 the Senate decreed they should be isolated in one place, on an island known as the Ghetto Nuovo.

The word ‘ghetto’ derives from the foundry (geto) that occupied the island until 1390, when it was moved to the Arsenale; and the word came to be pronounced with a hard ‘g’ thanks to its first German residents. The name was quickly borrowed for similar segregated neighbourhoods all over Europe, perhaps because it’s poignantly apt in Hebrew (where the root for ‘cut off’ sounds very similar).

And cut off its residents were, from midnight to dawn, on an island surrounded by a moat-like canal, all its watergates locked and patrolled by a miniature Christian navy whose wages were levied from the Jews. And although there were no restrictions in the daytime, the Church insisted the Jews wear distinctive badges.

As bad as that was, the Republic seemed like a bed of roses compared to many European states at the time, and stood out as one of the few places in Counter-Reformation Italy where Jews could live in peace; Venetian law specifically protected them and forbade preachers from inciting mobs against them – a common enough practice in the day. It was never as closed off as the Ghetto in Rome, however, where the popes were constantly trying to convert the residents.

This treatment, however, had little to do with any precocious concept of human rights: Jews in Venice were blackmailed for their security. Like most governments, Venice’s exploited the Jews mercilessly, while their legal activities were limited to the rag trade, medicine and money-lending. The latter's stalls were set up in the Ghetto's campo, and were known by the colours of their receipts, and some of the fittings of the red Banco Rosso still survive under the brick portico at No.2912.

But the Venetians were also receptive to the culture and learning in the Ghetto, and had plenty of empathy for the Jews, whose tradition-bound mercantile society, halfway between Western and Eastern cultures, was similar to their own. The Ghetto's salons were among the most fashionable in the city; in autumn people would come to see it, white as snow with goose down plucked from the main ingredient of the season’s religious feasts.

And there was money left for each new wave of immigrants to build a sumptuous synagogue, locally known as scuole. To cope with the influx of refugees, the Ghetto was expanded twice, in 1541 into the adjacent Ghetto Vecchio (the old foundry, around Campo delle Scuole) and in 1633, into the Ghetto Nuovissimo (Calle Farnese). Even so, to squeeze in a population from Italy, France, Germany, Spain and the Ottoman empire that numbered 5,000 at its peak in the 17th century, the houses of the Ghetto are the tallest in Venice, some rising seven storeys, with cramped low ceilings, eerily presaging the ghetto tenements of centuries to come. Yet its very density offered the chance for cultural exchanges unique in the Jewish diaspora.

When Napoleon threw open the gates in 1797, it is said the few impoverished residents who remained were too weak to leave, although if so, they recharged quickly; 50 years after Napoleon, it was a Jew named Daniele Manin who led the revolt against Austria. During the Second World War, 250 Venetian Jews were were sent to concentration camps in Trieste and Auschwitz, and only eight ever returned.

Today Venice's Jews live everywhere in the city, but return on Saturdays to worship—easy because travel by gondola is permissible on the Sabbath.

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