The history of the Venetian Jewish ghetto

25 Jan 2019 | My Venice

Set in one of the most picturesque sestrieri of the city, the Jews Ghetto tells one of the most important part of the story of the ancient Repubblica della Serenissima.

Let’s go back to the 29 March 1516, when the Venetian Republic created the first ghetto on a small island in the north-western sestiere of Cannaregio. The residents were removed and replaced within a week by Jews already present in Venice. The meaning of the word Ghetto is still nowadays not clear, but its roots can be identified in the Venetian word gheto, name used to call the metal foundry in the parish.

Jews within Venice therefore found a secure place to live despite the restrictions imposed on them, and were soon joined by others fleeing persecution in central Europe. They built two synagogues in the ghetto: the Schola Grande Tedesca and the Schola Canton. The pragmatic Venetian Republic later exploited the economic advantages of allowing Levantine Jews to settle there – charging the residents for rent, water, the cost of the compulsory night-watchman and all services.

As the reputation of the ghetto spread, the population (about 700 in 1516) grew, and when the English traveler Thomas Coryat visited in 1608, he recorded as many as 6,000 inhabitants. The adjacent areas of the Ghetto Vecchio (old ghetto, though it was newer than the original) and later the Ghetto Novissimo were added to accommodate the growing population.

Living conditions were cramped and insanitary. The gates were unlocked at dawn and locked by sunset and all residents were required to wear yellow headgear or a badge. In what was, for a time, a tolerant Venice, Jews were not forced to convert and the ghetto became a place of study and scholarship; money-lending and the sale of some goods, such as jewelry and fur, was allowed. Christians attended concerts in the ghetto, and Christian architects and builders created synagogues. This Jewish melting pot had a lasting cultural impact on Venetian language, cuisine, music and dance.

By 1797 disease, war and politics had deeply shrunk the population of the ghetto to 3,000. Napoleon’s troops brought an end to the Republic of Venice and to the ghetto; they burned down the gates, and French principles of liberty, equality and fraternity allowed the ghetto’s inhabitants at last to be free and equal. The poorest Jewish remained in the ghetto, but many others left for other parts of the city, where they integrated, buying palaces on the Grand Canal and taking part in political life. Some contributed actively to the fight against Austrian occupation.

Today the ghetto is a magical place where you can still breath the lively Jewish soul and learn about its culture in a Venice open to embrace all the religions.


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