In 1516, the Venetian Republic changed the course of Jewish world history by opening the first ever Jewish ghetto. Amidst deep persecution, segregation and humiliation, the oppressed Venetian Jews were somehow able to create a thriving society in their enclave, and soon Jews were even attempting to get inside!
If you ever visit Venice, take the train to St. Lucia Railway Station, and cross the scenic bridge in front of you. Turn right onto the Fondamenta de la Misericordia and continue for a couple of minutes. Before long, you’ll start to smell the rich fusions of Jewish and Italian food wafting out of one of the Kosher restaurants. The smell of fried artichokes stuffed with meat and fragrant sardines mix with freshly baked challot and homemade humous, and if you continue to follow your nose into the Jewish quarter, you’ll notice that you’re in a part of Venice quite different from its surroundings. The second sign that you’re in the right place is that you will notice that you’re looking up a lot more – the buildings here are taller than almost any other area in Venice. You will also see how closely packed together they are, and on a rainy day you may even find yourself stranded as the small alleyways fill up with water.
Soon enough you’ll start to recognize various Jewish establishments: a glassblowing workshop carefully molding fragile shofars and chanukiahs, a sweet shop selling traditional Jewish Italian delicacies, a Jewish hotel, a Jewish cultural museum tracing the history of the Venetian Jewish people, and of course, sooner or later you will find at least one of the five remaining synagogues which still stand in the Jewish quarter.
Looking at this busting, vibrant area, you may believe that Jewish life in Venice has always been successful, happy and thriving, and to an extent you would be right – but this prosperous history took place against a backdrop of deep antisemitism and segregation. The Venetian Republic at times did almost everything in its power to break down and wipe out the Jewish community of Venice, but it was in the face of this persecution that the Jews expressed the limits of human strength, as they found ways around the oppressive regime and built a society which was so fruitful that it actually grew, rather than diminished – not only were the Jews able to raise families in Venice, but new immigrants often applied to move in, seeking a better life! How this was possible from within the confines of a ghetto and deep antisemitic oppression is testimony to the resilience of these admirable Jews.
Jews have a long history in Italy, and in Venice in the early 16th century the community was thriving. Despite making up only 923 of the city’s 160,208-strong population (according to the 1555 census,) the Jews were overwhelmingly wealthy and controlled many businesses in the region. Most of them were merchants who made healthy profits, rousing their neighbors’ jealousy, and they of course practiced customs and rituals which many non-Jews could not understand, making them alien and strange in the eyes of their peers.
Hence, antisemitism continued to grow and the Jews were “othered” time and time again. Unsure of what to do with this strange segment of the population, the laws regarding Jews fluctuated regularly, alternatively banning their commerce, then realizing that the economy would struggle without said commerce and thus reinstating it; taking away their rights, then realizing that this made the Jews even more reclusive as a community until eventually the government just reinstated them; banning their religious practices, but then realizing that this simply drove their practices underground, making them harder to keep an eye on, so reverting this law too – it seems that no one knew what to do with the Jews!
No one, it seemed, aside from Doge Leonardo Loredan. Leonardo Loredan was born to a noble family in 1436 and became a talented statesman. In 1501 he was elected the 75th Doge of Venice, a position he held for 20 years. He was known for being fearsome and shrewd in matters of war, understanding the law in depth, partaking in an auspicious marriage, and fathering 9 children who also held important leadership roles. He was also the man who created the world’s first ever Jewish ghetto (it should be noted that there had been previous cases of Jews being confined to particular urban enclaves, but the term “ghetto” was first associated with the Venice Jewish community).
On the 29th of March, 1516, Doge Leonardo Loredan sat down with his senators to discuss what to do about the Jews. This problem had been plaguing Venice for long enough and Leonardo Loredan was determined to be the one to solve it. After hours of intense conversation, they came up with a decree which was enacted immediately: the Jews would be totally and legally isolated from the rest of Venetian society.
With the backdrop of the Holocaust, we may be used to the idea of a ghetto, but in 1516 this was a completely new phenomenon which had never been attempted before. To start, one small area was designated for the Jews to live in. The idea was simple – the Republic of Venice would completely control the lives of the Jews in exchange for their right to practice their religion within the borders of this ghetto.
The first task was to pick a site. Today we know it as the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto,) but back in the 1500s this area was just a small and unassuming part of town, best known for its cannon-making foundry. Molten metal was poured into a mold and formed into cannonballs for use in war. This was a dangerous and monotonous task, so the Doge figured that it was the exact sort of job that should be done by the Jews. Hence, the small Jewish enclave was to be built near the factory. Eventually, when the Ghetto Vecchio was deemed too small to hold all of the city’s Jews, the Ghetto Nuovo (New Ghetto) was also added to the site.
Located in the Cannaregio Sestiere of Venice (one of Venice’s six districts,) this area wasn’t only chosen for its foundry, but also for its bridges. The ghetto only had two bridges with which people could use to enter or leave, meaning that if they were closed, the entire ghetto could be essentially trapped inside. From 6pm each evening until St. Mark’s Campanile Belfry rang its largest bell (the Marangona) at 12pm the next day, the ghetto was closed-off entirely. No one could come in or out. Christian guards circled the ghetto on boats after dark, making sure that no Jew attempted to brave the canals and escape during the night. Any Jew who was found by the surrounding neighborhood’s surveillance teams outside of curfew would face harsh penalties including imprisonment and financial losses.
The ghetto was also closed off with high walls, and the surrounding quays were bricked-in to make coming or going virtually impossible without permission. The Christians who had previously lived in the area were moved out into the far superior homes and villages which once belonged to the Jews, and the ghetto became known as a dark and imposing place which locals would avoid at all cost.
The word “ghetto” has a number of possible origins. The word geto means foundry, which was the main factory in the area, but it’s also linked to the words gatwo (street,) borghetto (little town,) and gettare (to throw away unwanted items). Oxford University claims that these etymological theories are speculative at best, but Marcella Ansaldi, the Director of the Jewish Museum in Venice, agrees with the theory that the word ghetto comes from gettare, symbolic of the “throwing out” of the Jews from the rest of the city.
By the end of the year 1516, 700 Jews already inhabited the ghetto. The Jews were promised military protection and the freedom to practice their religion within the ghetto confines, but aside from that, the laws were harsh. Jews had to wear identification markers to alert others of their religion, their tax and rent was much higher than that of non-Jews, the living conditions were poor and cramped, and only a few jobs were available to them. Most Jews worked as moneylenders, doctors, traders and salesmen, but some were also forced to work in the pawnshops of Venice at low rates set by the government. Because Jews struggled to enter and exit the ghetto, many simply couldn’t find meaningful employment.
As time progressed, it also became difficult for their trade industry to continue, as foreign Jews were restricted from staying in the ghetto for work and trade from the year 1541. Only if government officials explicitly allowed a Jewish trader into Venice would they be permitted to attempt to find accommodation in the already overcrowded ghetto, but the terms of their stay were still limited to a few days and they could not bring any family members with them. That, therefore, was essentially the end of Jewish prosperity in Venice, at least for a little while. Most Jews went to work in the cannon factory or took up selling secondhand items and clothes to make a modest living.
However, as time went on, the community of Jews in the ghetto grew steadily. 100 years later they had reached a population of over 5000! This was not a mistake – Jews really did start trying to move into the ghetto! For all the struggles that the Jews had to endure, they started to find ways to excel at life, despite their confines. Working with what they had, they began opening butchers, bakeries, and shops which were popular with all locals, and money started entering the little quarter. Soon it became a market hub for Venice locals and visitors, and as Jews would only spend their own money inside the ghetto, there was a strong inflow and little outflow.
The tall buildings which housed far too many people grew even higher, making room for all the new immigrants. Today these buildings are in desperate need of restoration lest they collapse, and a few different local groups have set out to preserve the most important of them already.
This newfound Jewish money was used to build new and better infrastructure. Some of the most important constructions were the synagogues: The German Jews built their Scuola Grane Tedesca, the native Italians had their Scuola Italiana, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews formed the Scuola Spagnola, the Levantine Sephardim built the Scuola Levantina and the Ashkenazim erected the Scuola Canton.
The Scuola Grane Tedesca, or the Great German Synagogue, was the first synagogue to be built in the ghetto, in 1528. It still exists today and appears to be a fairly traditional Ashkenazi synagogue, but now it is used as a museum, not a house of prayer. The second synagogue constructed was the Scuola Canton, just four years later. The Ashkenazim were increasingly noticing a rift between the Germanic and French Venetian cultures, so the French decided to break away and form their own community and build a new synagogue, the Scoula Canton, for the Provençal Jews, which would include French architecture and additions to the prayer service. Today this synagogue is also part of the Jewish Museum of Venice.
Next, the Scuola Italiana, or the Italian Synagogue, was built in 1575, to service the local-born Jews. The native Jews were not in the area because of trade or business but because of ancestry, and were therefore the poorest of the groups. Thus, it is the smallest of the synagogues, housing only 25 worshippers. Despite a lovingly-decorated interior, no money was left to enhance the synagogue’s façade, so it remains unremarkable as a building, and blends into its surroundings.
Constructed only 5 years later, the Scuola Spagnola, the Spanish synagogue, was home to the Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in the 1490s. Constructed so shortly after the Scuola Italiana, the Spanish Jews wanted to behave according to local customs, so followed the lead of the Italians and only decorated the inside of the Synagogue, leaving its exterior bare and unremarkable. This synagogue still functions as a house of worship between the start of Passover and the end of Sukkot each year.
In 1541, the Venetian government came to an arrangement with some Levantine merchants who had also originally fled Spain. The Venetian government allowed them to live and trade in the ghetto, and so it was that in 1689 they opened the Scuola Levantina – the first synagogue to be built from scratch and not in a pre-existing building. They wanted it to be larger than the Spanish synagogue and couldn’t find a building that would fit the bill, so they constructed their own!
Between all these communities, the ghetto Jews spoke Venetian, Italian (yes, it’s different to Venetian,) Judeo-Spanish, French, German, and Hebrew, which was the language used in traditional Jewish documents such as Kettubot.
As commerce grew, books, and especially religious books, began to emerge from the ghetto. Soon enough, printing presses were set up to print books in Hebrew, Ladino, and Yiddish, and many famous works were produced from within the ghetto, such as the 1609 Venice Haggadah which is one of the most famous Haggadot in the world. The first press-printed edition of the Talmud, the Bomberg Talmud, was also produced in Venice at this time, instantly becoming a best seller and taking the Jewish world by storm. The riveting story of this Talmud can be found here.
So it was that the Jewish ghetto in Venice grew to become well-known around the world, and increasing pressure was put on the Venetian government to dissolve the harsh rules that governed the ghetto, but these pleas fell on deaf ears. Finally, in 1797 after more than 250 years, Napoleon and the French Army of Italy captured Venice and commanded the Venetian Republic to disband. Two months later, on the 11th of July, 1797, the ghetto finally opened its borders and shed its laws of discrimination.
Napoleon declared that Jews would be treated as equals, and Venice would no longer be allowed to operate under a system of segregation. The ghetto was renamed Contrada dell’unione (The Union District) to represent their reunion with the rest of Venice, but many Jews remained in the district, although under happier circumstances.
Today, the former ghetto still represents the Jewish Quarter of Venice, and it is a hub for religious life in the city. Around 450 Jews live in Venice today but only about 30 of these Jews (around 12 Jewish households), still live in the ghetto area, due to the fact that it’s a very expensive zone.
All 5 synagogues still remain standing, and the 3 central ones are bordered by a Jewish Museum which explains the history of Jewish Venice. Today’s religious Jews tend to worship at the Levantine Synagogue in the winter as it’s the only synagogue with central heating, but they use the Spanish Synagogue in summer as it has a nice breeze. All 5 synagogues host religious lessons, Talmud classes, children’s Jewish studies, courses in Hebrew, and other events. There is also a Jewish kindergarten, yeshiva, Judaica stores, and old age home in the area of the Old Ghetto.
Each year thousands of visitors, both Jewish and not, come to see the ghetto, attend the International Conference on Hebrew Studies held there, or join one of the other Jewish conferences, exhibitions and seminars which also take place in Venice at different points during the year. The floating canal-boat sukkah and floating chanukiah also attract crowds of tourists at the appropriate Jewish festivals.
Unfortunately, rising water levels and lack of proper construction means that many of the buildings in the ghetto are falling to ruin, but renovations are beginning to occur, and as Jewish infrastructure once again offers good job opportunities, Jewish families are slowly beginning to move back into the area.
After 500 years, it is hard to know exactly what life must have been like for the Jews living in the world’s first ghetto, but of some things we can be certain: the Venetian government did all it could to take away the rights and freedoms of the Jews in Venice, subjecting them to harsh discrimination, unfair rules, financial hardships, and restricting their freedom of movement. Yet, even in the face of this, the Jews decided that they would not be trampled on and they continued to stand strong, making the best of a very bad situation. They not only got through the period with dignity and grace, but they also managed to do so with financial success, a growing community, new and exciting places of worship and infrastructure, and success on all terms. If there’s a lesson to learn here, it’s that even in the face of antisemitism and adversity, Jews can, and will, rise up time and time again.