Venice Ghetto is 500 Years Old

Venice is full of monumental histories to its glorious past, from its baroque churches to the grandeur of St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge thronged with tourists, but for me nowhere is more poignant than a gloomy little alleyway leading into the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, a square in the city’s northern district of Canareggio. The stone entrance still bears the holes where large wooden gates were first erected by the Christian Venetian authorities 500 years ago on 29 March 1516, establishing the world’s first ghetto. 

At dusk the ghetto’s gates were locked shut by Christian guards who were paid for by the residents within. In the morning the gates were opened and the Jews were allowed limited movement across the city. It was a situation that endured until 1797, when Napoleon’s invading French army brought the Venetian Republic to an end, and with it the ghetto. Extolling the principles of liberté, égalité, fraternité, and incensed by what they called “the barbarous and senseless name of Ghetto”, Napoleon’s troops ripped the gates off their hinges and burnt them in the main square, accompanied by music, dancing and rejoicing. 

To visit the ghetto, as I did earlier this month, is to step into a world that is both part of and separate from the rest of Venice. Approaching it by night, the contrast between the ghetto’s vast, almost completely empty square, free from the incessant church bells and bustle of the rest of Venice, spoke volumes of the rich but divided history of this most contentious of places. 

At first, the square looks like any other in Venice, but closer inspection reveals a different history. The tall, narrow buildings, higher than most in the city, were the result of being confined on what is just one of the city’s many tiny islands, the site of an old foundry, or geto in Italian, which gave its name to the ghetto. With no chance of building outwards, the ghetto’s inhabitants had to build upwards.

In one corner of the main square stands a memorial to the 247 men, women and children who were deported and died in the concentration camps in 1944. The evening I visit it was guarded by a cold and bored detachment of Italian policemen, a sign that prejudice still lurks even in this corner of multicultural Europe. On the other side stands the Jewish Museum and the Grand German Synagogue, just one of eight built by Ashkenazi, Levantine, Sephardic, Ponnentine and Italian Jewish communities that flourished in the ghetto within just a generation of its creation. 

The square’s vivid contrasts capture much of the ghetto’s 500-year history. Although created as a way of segregating Jews from Christians, the ghetto was a place where the authorities allowed its various communities to flourish—as long as they didn’t question the Venetian status quo. It also acted as a safe haven from the murderous persecution, expulsions and pogroms suffered by Jews from across Europe during this period (and beyond). Trade, science and the arts flourished, with over one third of all Hebrew publications printed in Venice. Some of the period’s most renowned physicians, rabbis, musicians and writers lived and worked in among the ghetto’s 6,000 inhabitants, including the famed rabbi Leon Modena, who published books on theology criticising Christian anti-Semitism, and proposing polyphonic musical innovations within and outside of the synagogues. The ghetto was also a permeable place, with Jewish physicians and musicians allowed to work beyond its walls and alongside Christians who in turn entered the area to buy goods and even build its magnificent synagogues. As I walked through the ghetto’s streets, learnt about its sights and talked to some of the small community that still lived there, I began to understand that its legacy was far more than just that of segregation and discrimination. 

Visiting the ghetto’s Jewish Museum the morning after my arrival, I ate cake and drank caffè doppio with Shaul Bassi, director of the Venice Centre for International Jewish Studies. Shaul is one of the organisers of the 500th anniversary commemorations, which will include a performance of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, scheduled to take place later this summer. Shaul appreciates that the commemoration needs to tread a careful line between acknowledging its history of persecution and celebrating its achievements. “When we started thinking about the ceremonies to commemorate this year’s anniversary, we said we want to send a universal message about the story of the Jews of Venice as part of a much larger set of ideas and values that are important today, when Europe is once again not welcoming people from beyond its shores, but repelling them”. He acknowledges that “the ghetto is not an easy place, but people should come here to see what kind of questions it raises for them today”. 

Leaving the city the following day bathed in cold but bright sunshine, it struck me that this year’s anniversary should be about looking forward as much as backward in understanding the complicated legacy of the ghetto. 


Jerry Brotton presents Radio 3’s “The Venice Ghetto”, available now on the BBC iPlayer. He is the author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Penguin). 

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