Il Ghetto – An Unromantic Legacy

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.

 

Memorial wreath in the Ghetto Vecchio
Memorial wreath in the Ghetto Vecchio

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.

 

The Canton Synagogue: The ban on the construction of freestanding synagogues and the religious requirement that there be no obstruction between Heaven and the congregation, was overcome by setting them up on the top floors of high rise buildings.
The wooden structure with the cupola at top left is the Schola Canton. The ban on the construction of freestanding synagogues and the religious requirement that there be no obstruction between Heaven and the congregation, was overcome by setting them up on the top floors of existing residential buildings. The beautiful interiors belie the drab exterior.

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.

 

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Hi, I'm Madhu. Wanderer. Travel blogger. Story teller. Bitten late and hard by the travel bug, I am on a mission to make up for lost time.

27 thoughts on “Il Ghetto – An Unromantic Legacy

  1. it sounds like you made good use of your time while there, Madhu. Nothing like a guided tour to give you background and local perspective, but with the presence of so many armed police, I can see why you didn’t linger.

  2. Ahhhh … When I read “Ghetto” … I thought, this woman is so brave to be using the word on her blog. 😀 The word has such bad connotation. I never fully understood this history before. You made me read about it as you always pique my interest. Thanks for imparting your knowledge.

  3. Madhu … We returned from our vacation in Italy on June 14th. We stayed in Trastevere in Rome (i believe you mentioned this wonderful neighborhood) and we were in Venice on June 9th and 10th (at the Hotel ai Do Mori – our room had a view of St. Mark’s Basilica). A beautiful city. I was unaware of the “Ghetto” that you wrote about – very sad. There is also a “Ghetto” in Trastevere. “Fodor’s” travel guide noted: “The downside of spiritual revival can be religious intolerance.” Thankfully, “The Ghetto” has emerged from that dark past.
    About the abundance of police officers in Venice … We also saw quite a few. They appeared to be on the alert for the numerous street vendors hawking their merchandise. We saw one man hide behind a cart and watch the police walk thru the square. Then when the police left, the vendors returned.

  4. Isn’t it strange how all down the centuries these people have been victimised and yet have flourished, Madhu? I know that they are by no means the only subjects of religious intolerance but there’s something odd about the way that they seem to invite hatred. And in the current situation it’s hard to defend the Israelis attitude to Palestine, despite all that’s gone before. The whole thing deeply saddens me, but I would most certainly have taken the tour. 🙂

  5. I always love reading about etymology and I had no idea what ghetto was derived from. I appreciate this article very much, Madhu. P.S. I thought that I had seen all your photos of Venice 😀

      1. No, you haven’t by any means. I have learned a lot today. I still have a few posts to read which I will leave for another day. Thank you for all your shares. You always keep the quality of your posts for years now despite of anything that may go on in your life. I admire that.

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