The Venice Ghetto was created on 29 March 1516 as Ghetto Nuovo (The new Ghetto). It was later amplified with Ghetto Vecchio (The old Ghetto), and Ghetto Nuovissimo (The newest Ghetto). In the mid-1600 5000 Jews lived in Venice. It was one of Europe’s first attempts to isolate Jews, and the name, Ghetto, meaning casting metal, comes from a prior foundry situated on the site. The Ghetto was abolished by Napoleon with the fall of the Republic of Venice.
The situation for Jews after the fall of Jerusalem.
Jews have been oppressed throughout the world for almost two thousand years. After the Jewish-Roman wars, 66 – 135 AD the Jews were scattered around the middle east and Europe. And in various parts and in various ways the Jewish communities were always looked upon with suspicion or even hatred. Sometimes they were ostracized just because of their secluded ways, and strange rites, while other times they took the blame for anything from the Black Plague to the death of Christ.
After the Islamic Empires’ conquer of the Levant in the 600s, the pressure on the Jewish community was somewhat relieved there. They could reestablish their community in Jerusalem, and they were allowed to freely practice their religion and their trades.
That was not always the case in Europe. Especially during the crusades, Jews further north suffered mistreatment. The soldiers of the church were sometimes even encouraged to simply kill any infidels to be guaranteed access to heaven. The fact that Jews were knowledgeable about the Bible and still wouldn’t accept Jesus as their savior, was a big issue. One can safely say that the stronger the Catholic church, the worse the situation for the Jews.
- In 1290 an Edict by King Edward expelled all Jews from England.
- In 1306 and later in 1394 all Jews were expelled from France.
- In 1420, all Jews in Austria were stripped of their properties. A year later they were imposed to accept the Christian faith. Of those who didn’t, a little more than 200 men and women were burnt alive.
- In 1506 several hundred supposedly Jewish men, women and children were hunted down, tortured, killed, and burnt in Lisbon, in the so-called Lisbon massacre. The perpetrators were a mob of ordinary citizens, and they were promised absolution for any sins committed in conjunction with the killings.
These are just a few of many similar events. In all cases, the assets and real estate of the Jews were stolen.
The situation for Jews in medieval Europe.
One problem most statesmen had to address was the fact that some trades that were very important for society, were carried out very well by the Jewish community.
As an example, for Christians, to lend money for interest, usury, was regarded at least as morally incorrect, and at most right out sinful, and therefore forbidden. Jews didn’t have the same doctrine, and as they were already sinful to the Church, to them, it didn’t really matter. Financing large projects or lending out money was also regarded as safer when the middleman was a neutral and unbias Jew, rather than someone possibly close to the very powerful Catholic church… And if the debtor eventually became insolvent, he could always just kill the Jewish creditor, something that happened a lot. At least if the borrower was a King or an Emperor.
Some trades like medicine were absolutely necessary for a healthy population, and Jews were good doctors. Other professions were often wholly forbidden for the Jews. They had to become specialized in the few possibilities for an income that remained.
Their services were essential, and that made the whole Jewish community essential.
Medieval Europe didn’t like the Jews, but it needed them.
Venice, Jews, and the Venice Ghetto.
So, why was Venice different from London, Paris, and Vienna?
Two facts are important to understand why the Jews in Venice were somewhat less oppressed than in many other countries further north.
- Venice was never closely tied to the Catholic church. Religion was important, and obviously, Catholicism dominated every aspect of everyday life. But Venice didn’t fully submit to the Papal state. Nor did she submit to anyone else. The only real Gods for the Venetians were always commerce, trading, and money-making. Venice was never more dogmatic than that she could oversee just about anything if there was a profitable outcome to be made.
- Venice had very close contacts with the eastern Mediterranean. The way Muslims treated Jews reasonably fairly, spilled over to Venice. Jews were heavily discriminated against, but still less so in Venice than in many parts of central Europe.
Jews in Mestre.
Jews lived in Venice and its surroundings for hundreds of years before the Venice Ghetto was installed. They lived in the lagoon city as well as on the Mainland, in various cities and villages. They were not regarded as citizens, and they were often mistreated, feared, and overtaxed just like everywhere else, but being an important part of the Venetian economic reality, they were generally tolerated. The biggest Jewish community in the 15th century was in Mestre.
At the beginning of 1500 things changed. The League of Cambrai attacked Venice in 1508. Before and after that many Jews took refuge in Venice, and the Hebrew population in the lagoon grew.
The Republic wanted to resolve the situation with all these Hebrews in the city, and possible confrontations with the chruch. So, they decided to separate them from the Christians.
The first Venice Ghetto.
The Venice Ghetto was one of the first-ever attempts to isolate Jews. It was created on 29 March 1516, and the Senate had chosen a small island in the outskirts of the city for the purpose. The spot was ideal, surrounded by canals and only three access points. The island had been the site for a foundry, making mortars, small cannons, for the busy Arsenale. The foundry was later moved inside the shipyard and so the spot was available… Heavily polluted but available.
So the Jews moved in.
The island became both a prison and a sanctuary. The canals were patrolled by guards (Which the Jewish community itself had to pay for), and the bridges were locked in the evening and guarded by soldiers. It was forbidden for any Jewish person to roam Venice after nightfall.
But still, the even more hostile environment around Venice, on the mainland, and in other countries, caused steady immigration to the lagoon city. In Venice, the Jews were both heavily discriminated against and oppressed, but they were at least safe from any assault by angry mobs of citizens or bigoted Christians. Being locked in at night did not only mean a limitation of movement, it also meant security and possibly a peaceful night’s sleep.
The second and third Ghetto.
From around the mid16th century, new, well-dressed, and aristocratic personalities came to the Ghetto. These were Sephardi Jews, and they were much more wealthy than their Italian and German peers. They originated from Spain and Portugal and after the Lisbon massacre, they had fled the Iberian peninsula to northern Africa and France and Italy. Many of them had reached Constantinople, and from there they had come to Venice.
These Jews were rich, and they represented business relations with the east. They had to be accommodated in a different manner. This is when Venice opened a small part of the surrounding area for Jewish residents. It became Ghetto Vecchio, and it is situated to the west of Ghetto Nuovo.
In Ghetto Vecchio, though still guarded and closed by night, the apartments were a little less poor. Contrary to the previous European Ashkenazi Jews, the Sephardim were not only bankers or simple salesmen. They were traders, many with their own ships and their own business network. And they got better houses. The palaces in Ghetto Vecchio are close to Venetian standards.
Later on, another small extension was conceived to the west, the so-called Ghetto Novissimo.
There could be some confusion about the names as Ghetto Nuovo (the new ghetto), in fact, is the oldest one, and Ghetto Vecchio (the old ghetto) is more recent. In this part of the city, there were several small metallurgical industries. The newest of these was situated on the island. The block where Ghetto Vecchio was later instituted, originally had another foundry, but one that was older.
The Venice Ghetto and the strange building techniques.
Jews weren’t allowed to own property. They couldn’t invest and more so, they couldn’t own their houses. So, every building inside the Venice Ghetto was owned by a Christian, and then rented to the Jewish tenant. This meant two things.
- The houses inside the Ghetto weren’t maintained and built with the same accuracy as the palaces outside. It didn’t really matter how the Jews lived, as they were not regarded as citizens anyway, but merely temporary residents.
- Any Jew with more funds than was necessary for the daily expenses, couldn’t invest his capital. At least not in real estate. He had to just keep it… Or lend it for interest. And that helped the banking system.
But back to the problem with overcrowding. As Jews couldn’t move outside and as space within the Ghetto was limited, the only way to solve the housing shortage, was to build upwards, with more floors on each building.
Venice has its foundation of mud, so there is always the problem of sinking, subsidence. More floors would mean more weight and more subsidence. To compensate for this, they simply built lighter houses. The height of the living space was reduced significantly. Walls and floors were made thinner to reduce weight. The result was buildings with 7, 8, or even 9 floors. Something that would have been unthinkable outside of the Ghetto.
People’s average height was lesser in the middle ages, but many apartments are as low as 6 feet, floor to ceiling. Today, a man of normal stature can easily find himself unable to stand straight in certain homes.
The Ghetto – Origin of the name.
The name, Ghetto probably derives from the Venetian word Geto, meaning throw or throwing. It probably refers to the technical term for casting metal. Less probable, meaning a dump for metal residues, leftovers from the production. Anyway, it was a polluted and soiled spot with a very low value to the Venetians.
The G in Geto is pronounced as J, as in jet. (Compare Gettare in Italian.). But as many of the Jews had German or central European origins, they pronounced it G, as in go. So the name changed from Geto (with a soft G) to Ghetto (with a guttural G and a harder T). The H after the G is a way to define the hard G pronunciation in Italian.
Today the term Ghetto generally means “A part of a city in which members of a particular group or race live usually in poor conditions”.
The banking system in the Venice Ghetto.
In 1516 a man by the name of Elia Calimano came to the Ghetto. He had fled persecution at Treviso, no more than 20 miles away, and sought refuge in Venice. He opened the first bank, Banco Rosso, the red bank. It was soon followed by the green bank and the black bank. The colors were there to distinguish documents issued by the different financial institutes, an important fact as many clients couldn’t read.
The Jewish banking system was more or less divided into two parts. One part was the big financial transactions between wealthy citizens and between citizens and the Republic. Here the Banker functioned as a middleman.
The second part was a way to use banks as a way to ease some of the hardships ordinary Venetians suffered. Funds were deposited by wealthy Christians. Then any normal citizen could take a loan. As security, he must deposit a valuable object, and if he couldn’t pay back the loan with the established interests, the object was confiscated by the bank. A sort of pawnshop.
Even though lending money was prohibited for Christians, they could evade punishment by lending to Jews, who were sinners anyway. The interest rates were set by the Republic. In this way, a semi-official, half-acceptable finance system was implemented. A system that included all classes, and where everybody could make a profit. The only one that was excluded was the church.
And so, the church watched jealously over the trade. Any valuable that had any Christian significance could send the banker to prison or worse. The officials of the Republic were sometimes forced to take the Jews’ side in conflicts with the Clerics. At least as much as necessary to save the profitable business.
But not everybody could be a banker or an international trader.
Jews were prohibited to do almost all trades, so those who weren’t bankers or doctors still had to invent a livelihood.
Traces of one such interesting invention can be found even today if you look at some of the houses in the Ghetto… Those who face the canal. If you look closely, you can detect windows so low that they are almost under the canal’s surface. Today they are closed up, but once upon a time they were open.
The location of the “window” allowed water from the lagoon to enter with every turn of the tide.
Poor individuals could get scraps from the nearby butcher, scrape off the last meat and then leave the bones in the store down there, under the house. It must have been a rather disgusting mess, but after a few weeks, the crabs of which the canals are full had done their job. Entering through the square windows with every high tide, they would have eaten the bones clean and shiny.
Then agile fingers cut and ground the bones into buttons, and other similar objects to sell with a profit.
And that is only one of many ingenious ways, the people of the Ghetto managed to survive.
The Synagogs of the Venice Ghetto.
The Jews were allowed to practice their religious rites and celebrate their traditional holidays. Jews in Venice who had been forced to baptize as Christians were sometimes even allowed to reconvert to Judaism, the so-called marrani. This caused some uneasiness among Catholics and again the Republic found itself in a diplomatic dilemma. Although the Republic generally preferred not to interfere in religious affairs, they sometimes found themselves in opposition to the Church. Depending on the Doge, sometimes the Jews were the ones who took the hardest blow.
The Ghetto is small but even so, in the very limited space, they managed to squeeze in no less than five Synagogues, in Ghetto Nuovo and the adjacent Ghetto Vecchio. They are inconspicuous from the outside since the synagogues could not be recognizable from the street. A simple facade but rich in details and decorations on the inside.
They are always situated on the top floor, as nothing should be between the faithful and God. You can detect them by their five windows in a row.
The Synagogues were called Scole, Schools, as they were also places of study. They generally take the name of the community of origin of their faithful. The synagogues can be visited with a guide from the Jewish Museum.
The five Synagogs are:
- The Great German Scola. The oldest. It was formerly frequented by Jews of German origin. In Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.
- The Italian Scola. Founded by Jews of the Italian rite. It is situated in Calle Ghetto Vecchio in Ghetto Nuovo. Right at the entrance to the Campo.
- The Levantine Scola. For Jews of Spanish origin. In Calle Ghetto Vecchio in Ghetto Vecchio. Towards Fondamenta Cannaregio, where the Calle is widening.
- The Spanish Scola. The largest. It was established by Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin. It is in front of the Scola Levantina in Ghetto Vecchio.
- The Canton Scola, of Ashkenazi rite, is located next to the Great German School in Ghetto Nuovo.
The Venice Ghetto during the centuries.
Before 1516 the Jewish community counted between almost 2000 individuals in and around Venice, mostly in Mestre and on the Mainland. At the beginning of 1500, these Jews mostly transferred to Venice, and together with refugees from other territories the population in the Ghetto rapidly rose to almost 5000 people in the mid-1500.
The last wave of migration occurred in 1589 with the Ponentina nation (Sephardim).
Some of these Jews were baptized and had taken Christian names (marrani). But they were still adherent to most of the Hebrew tradition.
In 1600, the golden age of the Venice Ghetto, it still counted ca 5000 inhabitants, and the Ghetto Nuovissimo was introduced.
The Bubonic Plague raged through the Ghetto just as it did the rest of Venice, and the population shrank violently during the years of the disease. Many Jews emigrated to western destinations like the cities on the other side of Italy, Livorno, Genova, and western Europe like Amsterdam, and London. In the mid-1700 there were ca 1800 Jews left.
The Venice Ghetto formally ended as a restriction for Jews.
In 1797, Napoleon conquered Venice. The Ghetto together with all discriminatory laws against the Jews was abolished. Suddenly the Jews could move anywhere, buy their own house, and pursue any professional path.
With fascism, another terrible period for the Jews began. At the end of the 1920s, around 1500 Jews still lived in Venice. Interestingly the population almost doubled in 1938, when the racial laws were introduced, as many Christians of some Jewish descent suddenly were regarded as Hebrews. In 1940 about half of the Jewish population in Venice emigrated to safer territories.
In 1943, 254 Venetian Jews were deported to German Concentration camps. 8 of them survived.
After the war, there was a wave of immigrants from northern Europe, but with the creation of the new State of Israel, many of them continued to Palestine. Today the Jewish community in Venice counts about 500 residents. Most of them do not live inside the Ghetto. But although these numbers seem low compared to 5000 in the 17th century, Venice’s Jewish community is very lively and active.
Something you definitely will experience if you would like to visit.
The Practical Information.
- Sundays to Thursdays 10am – 5:30pm
- Fridays 10am – 3:30pm
From the Museum you can visit the Synagogs. They are open for guided visits but closed to the public if they are in use. The Museum also organize guided tours to the Old Cemetery at Lido.
- After that, the attractions are mainly outdoors.
- Check the tall buildings with the very low flats.
- Check the two guard houses at the bridge to Fondamenta del Ormesini on the northern side.
- If you are Jewish (… or if you’re not), check out Chabad of Venice at Ghetto Nuovo 2915.
- And visit the Banco rosso, the red bank, next door at Ghetto Nuovo 2913
… Then, have a bite.
- Gam Gam is a classical good Kosher restaurant with typical Jewish dishes. At the entrance to Ghetto Vecchio all the way down to the southwest. It’s sometimes crowded and a bit slow, but the food is very good.
- If you’re not into Kosher, walk over to the north Fondamenta dei Ormesini, and you’ll have a vast choice of excellent restaurants.
- Right there you also have Torrefazione Cannaregio, one of the best coffe shops in Venice.