The Doge’s council of Venice, by its singular act of confining seven hundred Venetian Jews within an abandoned foundry on March 29, 1516, gave to the world a word that is now synonymous with segregated ethnic populations.
Jewish presence in Venice dates back to the 10th century. Jews were not allowed to live on the main islands even then, but were free to work where they pleased subject to discriminatory employment taxes. By the 15th century the influx of refugees fleeing the Inquisition prompted the Doge’s council to forcibly isolate them within the Ghetto (old Venetian slang for foundry) Nuovo in the Cannaregio sestiere.
With even more Jews filing in from anti-Semitic regions across Europe in the ensuing years, the settlement expanded to include older parts of the ruined foundry – Ghetto Vecchio, and later Ghetto Nuovissimo – with distinct class and cultural divides between prosperous Sephardic Jews from the Levant and the Iberian peninsula, the moderately well off German and Northern European (Ashkenazi) Jews and the Italian Jews at the bottom of the order. Their individual synagogues are expressions of their communal wealth and influence, with the Levantine (Middle Eastern) Sephardic temples displaying the most elaborate ornamentation.
The ghetto was intended to restrict the movement of jews into the city. They could only come out to work during the day and were restrained within the tiny island at night, with access points barred by gates and its boundaries policed by soldiers whose salaries they had to bear themselves. Their scope of work was limited to specific professions and they were still expected to wear distinguishing markings – yellow armbands or hats – to set them apart from the general population.
Despite all the hardship however, the community flourished. And given their influence across the seas, even came to control a significant percentage of maritime trade by the 17th century and right up to the 1900s.
The arrival of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, finally broke the barriers isolating the ghetto. Jews could henceforth move around freely and build houses in the city, although many continued to live in the ghetto. By the mid 1900s Fascist racial policies brought on a reverse exodus. Then the Nazis rounded up and forcibly deported 205 of the 1200 remaining Jews, including their chief Rabbi Adolfo Ottolenghi to concentration camps. Only eight returned.
Barely 30 of a total of about 500 Venetian Jews live in the old ghetto today. A quiet neighbourhood with a profusion of ethnic eateries and bars, that seemed to me like a somber, less vibrant version of the Jewish Marais in Paris. its solemn tranquility marred this day by the disquieting presence of armed police. I wasn’t quite sure if their presence was routine or a temporary response to some perceived threat.
The Museo Ebraico, on the main square – Campo del Ghetto Nuovo – curates an interesting collection of Venetian Jewish art including fascinating wedding contracts. I signed up for their guided walking tour around the neighborhood, that departs hourly (Starting 10.30 Jewish weekdays. Closed Sat.) and includes visits to three of the five atmospheric renaissance synagogues. It was an enriching morning, worlds apart from the romance of San Marco.