History Talk : Venice Ghetto

The word ghetto has negative implications. The Warsaw Ghetto and other ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe were hellish holding camps. They were walled off parts of towns where Jews were confined before eventually being transported to concentration camps. Today white Americans talk of black ghettos whose populations are stereotyped as living in squalid overcrowded conditions and spending their time taking drugs and mugging each other.
The origin of the word ghetto is the Venetian dialect word geto.The island on which the Venice Ghetto was built had originally been the site of foundries where mortars and small cannons were made for the Venetian navy. In the Venetian dialect the foundries were called getos. The first Jewish inhabitants of this place were mostly Ashkenazis from Germany and Central Europe who spoke Yiddish. They changed the spelling and pronounciation of the word to what it is today.
The Venice Ghetto was founded on in 1516 by the Venetian authorities. At this time across Europe Jews were being persecuted in many places. Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and were suffering in Portugal too. Jews in southern Italy were persecuted. No country gave Jews the inalienable right to citizenship. They were officially banned from living in England. In fact nowhere in Europe outside the territories of the Ottoman Empire was welcoming. Salonika in northern Greece which was under Ottoman control became a haven for Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal. As all that was required of them was the payment of a poll-tax and acknowledgement of’ the superiority of Islam, the empire became a haven for these refugees.
Ghettoization began in Venice on March 29, 1516, when the Senate ordered all Jews residing in the city to move behind the walls of the Ghetto Nuovo ( The decree stipulated that the Jews would be
locked into the Ghetto at night behind gates and would undergo continual surveillance. Jews could not own Ghetto property; therefore, they rented their high-rent flats in perpetuity. According to the senatorial decree, ghetto enclosure was necessary to avoid the improprieties and illegalities that surfaced when Jews spread throughout the city:
“Given the urgent needs of the present times, the said Jews have been permitted to come and live in Venice, and the main purpose of this concession was to preserve the property of Christians which was in their hands. But no godfearing subject of our state would have wished them, after their arrival, to disperse throughout the city, sharing houses with Christians and going wherever they choose by day and night, perpetrating all those misdemeanours and detestable and abominable acts which are generally known and shameful to describe, with grave offence to the Majesty of God and uncommon notoriety on the part of this well-ordered Republic.”
Although previously permitted to visit Venice for a maximum of fifteen days a year, Jews settled permanently in the city following the Venetian Republic’s military defeat by the League of Cambrai in 1509. The economic opportunities of Jewish settlement benefited the republic by replenishing the treasury depleted from the war and promoting the development of private credit markets and public finance.William Thomas, writing the first English book on Italy in 1549, briefly describes the economic presence of the Jews in Venice: “It is almost incredible what gain the Venetians receive by the usury of the Jews, both privately and in common.” Authorities never embraced Jews as full members of the community but as traders in money and merchandise, occupations that induced economic prosperity in the early modern city. Jews thus were tolerated for their usefulness, as they, in the words of Jacques Le Goff, helped “to propel the economy and society . . . ahead toward capitalism.” The economic motives for Jewish settlement in Venice often clashed with concerns over religious difference. Following their arrival in Venice, Jews settled in the parishes of San Cassiano, Sant’Agostino, San Polo, and Santa Maria Mater Domini, which, writes the Venetian noble and diarist Marin Sanudo in April 1515, “is a very bad thing. No one says anything to them because, with these wars, they need them; thus they do what they want.” As allegations circulated of ongoing Jewish misconduct and blasphemy, the Senate decree of March 29, 1516 tightened restrictions on the Jews: “that all the Jews who are at present living in different parishes within our city, and all others who may come here . . . shall be obliged to go at once to dwell together in the houses in the court within the Geto at San Hieronimo, where there is plenty of room for them to live. . . .The Jews may not keep an inn in any part of the city, save the Geto.” The Senate further mandated that the Jews, who would come to reside in the ghetto for nearly three hundred years, would be responsible for paying the salaries of their Christians guards, four of whom would live inside the Ghetto and two would patrol the surrounding canals by boat. Jews could only leave the Ghetto if they were wearing a yellow conical hat or other outlandish garb designed to provoke ridicule. Those who did not wear the yellow hat had to pay a penalty of 50 ducas and spend a month in prison. Additionally, the Venetians were afraid that the Jews could poison their wells and it was decreed that they did not have the right to use the public wells of the city. They could therefore use only the wells located inside the Ghetto to get their water. This ban lasted until1703. When the Black Death was raging in the 14th Century Jews were accused of poisoning wells to make people sick and thereby take over the Christian world. This myth had obviously carried through to the 16th Century.
They were barred from most professions, allowed to engage almost entirely in derided financial jobs such as moneylending and pawn broking. It is a myth that Christians were not allowed to be moneylenders or pawnbrokers. Christians were not supposed to lend money at interest (stigmatised as usury), but there was plenty of creative accounting in order to get around this rule, for example by claiming that a service was being provided with the loan, and in fact Christian banking houses were completely uninhibited by the usury laws. Jews were useful because they were prepared to lend to the very poor. In times of economic difficulty, as in the early 16th century, steps were taken to foster the Jewish community. By providing credit to high risk groups Jews could help boost consumer spending. They were the QuickQuid and Wonga of their day.
A small diversion:- Inside the Ghetto there were three well known pawnshops or banks:- il banco rosso (the red pawnshop), il banco verde (the green pawnshop) and il banco nero (the black pawnshop), presumably due to the colour of the receipts that were given to customers. These three institutions survived until the abolition of the Ghetto in 1797 by Napoleon. It’s said that the Italian expression “andare in rosso – go into the red” to indicate someone going into debt, derived from the name of the the banco rosso. Although I have always understood that going into the red referred to the colour of the ink used in bank ledgers. Red for outgoing funds and black for incoming.
The material effects of the Ghetto changed the landscape of Venice when authorities forced Jews to live on the site of the old foundries. Restoration of the buildings was continually necessary because of the poor quality of Ghetto construction. Bricks were the principal building material used in the Ghetto, as elsewhere in the city. Brick, together with a soft mortar of lime, could withstand the structural movement typical of Venice. Istrian stone, a white limestone significantly lighter than marble, was used for the sills, gutters, and doorframes. To avoid excessive loads, Jews made all public stairways, ceilings and room partitions of wood.
Shops, stores, and lending institutions occupied the Ghetto’s ground floor. To maximize space, this floor was often divided horizontally into two, creating an extra floor with ceilings just under six feet that could be used for storerooms, kitchens, or servant’s quarters. The height of Ghetto structures further compounded the buildings’ fragility. Overcrowding, resulting from natural population growth and immigration, caused the Jews to expand their tenements upwards, constructing buildings up to six stories around the central campo (public square). Constructing tall buildings , anomalous in Venice given the fragile nature of the soft lagoonal terrain, produced architectural instability. Venice was a city founded on a substructure of silt, sand, and clay that could not easily accommodate multistory structures. Jews, therefore, could not trust the load-bearing strength of their vertical structures, built, in the words of Rilke, “with such flimsy stones that the wind no longer seemed to take notice of the walls.”
Authorities expanded the Ghetto complex in 1541 and 1633 with the establishment of the Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovissimo on land adjacent to the Ghetto Nuovo. These extensions to the Ghetto sought to accommodate the housing needs of Levantine Jews from the Ottoman ruled Balkans and the Middle East and Ponentine Jewish merchants, descendants of Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal, whose engagement in “pure mercantile activity” the Venetian government sought to promote. A symbiotic relationship formed between Jews and the Venetian government: Tedeschi (German or Ashkenazi) and southern Italian Jews in the Ghetto Nuovo made a living by working as moneylenders primarily for the urban poor, selling goods secondhand, and serving as doctors; Levantine and Ponentine Jewish merchants in the Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Nuovissimo engaged in wholesale maritime trade via the Mediterranean; while Venice profited from the growth of its commercial activities and increased revenue exacted from the Jews as taxes. Tedeschi Jews remained the most marginalized in the ghetto, as their work did not curry the political and economic favour of the Venetians as did the Levantini, whose direct trade between Venetian and Ottoman territories provided them tax concessions and other privileges. Incidentally, the Levantine Jews were the last wave of Jews to come to an already crowded Ghetto. I suspect that the Venetian authorities invited them in order to facilitate and increase trade between Venice and the Ottoman Empire.They quickly received residence permits because of their commercial value to Venice. However, other Jewish communities wrote unsuccessful pleas to the Doge to stop their settlement because of overcrowding. Zoning the mass housing projects of Venice’s ghetto complex thus represented the social stratification of its inhabitants and their economic usefulness. The residential areas of the Venetian Ghetto segregated housing by ethnicity, class, and trade, at least until the early years of the seventeenth century when Jews moved more freely between Ghetto spaces. Nevertheless, ghettoization for all Jewish residents required curfews and compulsory confinement at night from 1516 to 1797 with the final collapse of the Venetian Republic. Napoleon had the gates demolished and curfews abolished. Jews were at last free to live anywhere they liked.
The formation of the Venice Ghetto was an architectural manifestation of the city’s self-defined republican values. The construction of the Ghetto perpetuated the myth of Venice as a harmonious, stable, just, and tolerant republic, one that protected within its walls a well-established political and social order. Francesco Sansovino emphasized this toleration when writing in 1581 that Jews “prefer to live in Venice rather than in any other part of Italy. Since they are not subject to violence or tyranny here as they are elsewhere… reposing in most singular peace, they enjoy this city almost like a true promised land.” As Sansovino suggests, the Ghetto offered Jews the opportunity to settle in Venice without the fear of physical violence. Although not the land of biblical promise, Venice provided Jews a space to dwell with relative security. Indeed, Leon Modena, rabbi of Venice and one of the most prominent Jews of the seventeenth century, describes how he preferred living in Venice to other Italian cities. In his autobiographical The Life of Judah (compiled between 1617 and 1648), he explains that, after moving to Ferrara in 1604, he longed to return to Venice: “In Ferrara I was received with great affection and was honoured and welcome in that household like a lord benefactor. Unbelievable as it is to tell, that entire holy community, great and humble alike, loves me dearly to this day. They appointed me their regular Sabbath preacher in the Great Synagogue and loved and praised my words. Some young men organized an academy and study society, and to fill my pockets, I would teach them each weekday, and on the Sabbath give them words of Torah and a sermon. In this way I accumulated more than 260 scudi a year. . . . But despite this, I was overcome by depression and did not live there willingly, due to my great longing and love for Venice, the city of my birth.” His success in Ferrara notwithstanding, with its forty-eight percent increase in annual salary, Leon Modena returned to Venice’s cramped Ghetto space.

The distinctive architecture of the Ghetto, established to provide physical form to the subordination of Jews and Judaism in Venice, paradoxically reveals that its enclosing walls and gates attracted a growing Jewish population.The Ghetto segregated Jews as a means of urban classification and social organization. However, the architectural configuration of the ghetto provoked a disordering of Venetian social order.
In I quattro libri dell’architettura (first published in Venice in 1570), Andrea Palladio (the man after whom Palladian architecture is named) gives Venetian architecture special importance for social harmony. Palladian design promoted symmetry and proportion through the traditions of classical architecture. For instance, he talks about the criteria used in church construction writing: “we are bound to include in them [churches] all the embellishments we can, and build them in such a way and with such proportions that together all the parts convey to the eyes of onlookers a sweet harmony and each church fulfills properly the use for which it is intended.”According to Palladian theory, stimulating viewing with harmonious architectural proportion allies form with function. Architects, past and present, are to blame when “they have failed to make every effort to build … in as excellent and noble a form as human circumstances allow.” Visual harmony defines the symmetry of building design to create appropriate settings for Venetian social life. Indeed, Venetian building with its decorative columns and cornices became a marker of civic pride, a source of admiration among the city’s residents and tourists.
The Venice Ghetto did not fulfill the terms of this social contract. If it is true that architectural symmetry and harmony are associated with social order, as Palladio observes, and that the “stunning Venetian cityscape alone gave proof of a well-arranged political and social order,” as Muir describes in his study of Venetian historiography, then the opposite must also be true. That is, the disharmonious, asymmetrical, unstable, and even dangerous Venetian Ghetto can be interpreted as a subversion of Venice’s political and social order. Thus the Ghetto is not merely an expression of Venetian tolerance, but also a visual rebuttal of the traditional “myth of Venice.” The irregular placing of windows, uneven building heights, and unsystematic projection of structures extending into the Ghetto campo created a space that Palladio would have regarded as chaotic.
Renaissance harmony and uniformity do not characterize these buildings. Rather, the Ghetto appears organic, evolving and growing (upward and outward) with the increasing demographic pressures of its inhabitants. It was precisely the haphazard form of the ghetto that ruined plans for architectural uniformity. The appearance of Ghetto buildings accentuated their height and demonstrated the social hierarchy of Ghetto life with wealthier Jews residing on the upper floors because they were able to pay the city an annual tax for the privilege of adding balconies or rooftop belvederes to their apartments. The Christian upper class resided on the piano nobile, or the first floor of a residential palazzo, whereas wealthy Jews often chose to live on the higher floors. The way of life for the Ghetto Jews, even those with significant financial means, did not parallel Christian life. For Jews to obtain more space, they climbed the long stairways to the tops of Ghetto tenements with their panoramic views of Venice. Such views did not give the Jews the right to look, although they did look. Their roaming eyes annoyed Venetian officials since the right to look ostensibly resided with the Christians filling the city’s administrative buildings, palaces, and churches. With the construction of the Ghetto, the Senate instituted barriers on visibility. The government had granted Jews the privilege to settle in the city, but compelled them to reside in buildings that walled up specific windows, quays, doors, and other architectural openings to obstruct the Jews’ views. It was precisely this politics of invisibility that created new sight lines in ghettoized Venice. Authorities sited the Ghetto on the city’s margin to reduce the Jewish presence in Venice, and legislated nighttime curfews and architectural containment to restrict sight lines to and from Ghetto buildings. However, such restructuring of the city’s urban plan provided the Jews with a wide-angled lens to Venice from the Ghetto’s tall towers.

The Venice Ghetto does not appear to have been a great place to live. Its inhabitants were effectively imprisoned every night and had to wear silly clothes when they left their island prison. On the other hand they were allowed to exist without physical persecution which was unusual in 16th Century Europe.
Despite the Ghetto being a de facto prison it became one of Venice’s most popular places. The shops and nightlife of the Ghetto were popular with Venice’s Christian residents. Venetians entering the Ghetto were dazzled by the humming activity, the sheer numbers of people, and the beauty and style of the Ghetto’s people, buildings and business. By the late 16th Century within the gates of the Ghetto there were not only places of worship and study but also a theatre, an academy of music and literary salons. The main calle of the Ghetto Vecchio was lined by all sorts of shops from those selling everyday supplies to the booksellers in Campiello delle Scole. There was also a twenty-four-room hotel at the Scuola Levantina, an inn and a hospital.” Special guides, called senseri, directed visiting Venetians to the shops they wished to patronize. Most of these senseri were Christian, helping their co-religionists sample the beauty and goods of their city’s Jewish quarter (for a fee of course).
Historian Garry Willis explains that in Renaissance Venice, “People with a taste for the exotic went to the Ghetto as fashionable New Yorkers went to Harlem nightclubs in the 1930s.” Aristocrats who visited Italy as part of the “grand tour” of the Continent that every wealthy young Englishman took recorded exploring the Ghetto as a vital element of any visit to Italy. Thomas Coryate visited Venice in 1611 and headed directly for the Jewish Ghetto, where he marveled at the bursting population of 6,000 on the small island. He wrote in his book Coryate’s Crudities “I saw many Jewish women, whereof some were as beautiful as ever I saw, and so gorgeous in their apparel…that some of our English Countesses do scarce exceede them”. His attitude to the Jews was quite ambivalent. Coryate explores Jewish customs – a service at the synagogue, male circumcision, abstinence from pork – with an unsettling mixture of prejudice and grudging admiration. In the book, published in 1611, Coryate regrets how rarely Venetian Jews convert to ‘the Christian religion’ . But he explains that, if they do so, their ‘goodes are confiscated’ to punish them for making ‘their fortunes by usury”. Coryate himself makes a failed attempt to convert a learned man, and faces the threat of attack from a group of ‘forty or fifty’ Jews. He is rescued only in the nick of time by the English Ambassador, Henry Wotton, who happens to be passing ‘in his gondola’.
The Venice Ghetto wasn’t only rich in culture and style. It soon became a major centre of Jewish learning and piety. Venetian Jews were scrupulous in their observance of Jewish holidays. When Purim came around each spring, Venice’s Jews had some particularly unique traditions.
The day before Purim is the Fast of Esther that commemorates Esther’s and the Jewish people’s fast of three days before she went to visit the king and beg for mercy for her kingdom’s Jews. In Venice, Jewish women fasted for three days like Queen Esther; those who couldn’t manage to go without food and water for three whole days would eat or drink only tiny quantities in order to make it through the fast.
When Purim came, the entire Venetian Jewish community would put on a lavish Purim parade and reception. A jester rode on a horse or donkey, recalling the episode in the Book of Esther in which Mordechai rides in a grand procession on the king’s horse, led by Haman. One of the highlights of the day’s revelry was a grand Purim play, which drew not only crowds of Jewish spectators, but was a major cultural event for Venice’s non-Jewish citizens including non-Jews from distant places. Shockingly, Venice’s Jews, who were reviled and looked down upon by their Christian neighbours, were a major source of cultural enlightenment and entertainment.
No copies of Venetian Purim plays remain, but a Purim play from the nearby city of Mantua – which also had a Jewish quarter – survives and gives a taste of what these Purim Shpiels (Purim plays) were like. The Mantua play was called Tsahot Bedihuta DeKidushin and was written in Hebrew. Its plot is based on a Talmudic story involving a master and a slave. Jewish playwright Leone de Sommi (1525-1592) wrote it, and it includes comedy, slapstick, cases of mistaken identity, disguises and song.
Giulio Morosini was a non-Jew who hoped to convert Venice’s Jews to Christianity and he visited the Ghetto frequently. While he seems never to have been successful in convincing Jews to abandon their religion, his descriptions of the Ghetto provide a vivid lens into what Purim there looked like in the 1600s. At a time when women had few rights in Christian society, Morosini was shocked at the equal roles that Jewish women enjoyed in celebrating Purim:
“Now let us look at another celebration at Purim, held outside the synagogue with rejoicing and festivities. The young play at Bullfighting, using oxen and other animals, and in the evening married and unmarried women don masks and go visiting their friends and relatives, where they dine and dance.”
The Jews’ Purim masks were similar to the famous Venetian masks that residents of that city came to wear during balls and during the Christian carnival festival – yet they seem to have predated them. Historians aren’t sure exactly where the Venetian custom of wearing masks came from, but the thriving Jewish community in its midst, which donned masks for Purim since at least the 1400s, is one possible source.
The Ghetto may have been populated by Jews, but it wasn’t a melting pot. Residents came from a variety of countries, cultures, and social classes, making clashes (or at least open hostility) inevitable. This was most obvious in the construction of synagogues, which eventually numbered five: one each for the German, Italian, Spanish, and Levantine communities, and a fifth–the Scuola Canton–which may have been French, or may have created as a private synagogue for the families who undewrote its building expenses.
Synagogues were forbidden by the Venice city authorities even before the Ghetto was established. So they occupied interior rooms of existing buildings so that they would be undetectable from the outside. They were always on the top floor. For religious reasons no structure can be above a synagogue. Each community had its own synagogue.
The oldest one is the German synagogue which was for the Ashkenazi community. It was built in 1528. Also for the Ashkenazis was the Canton Synagogue. This was established only four years after the German Synagogue and may have thus been the result of an emerging division within the local Ashkenazi community. Evidence suggests that the new synagogue was in fact erected by a group of Provencal Jews soon after their arrival in Venice, in a period marked by a sharp increase in the Jewish population of Venice due to immigration from nearby countries. Provencal Jews were forced to leave Arles en masse following the annexation of Provence to France in 1484, with many of them opting to settle in Italy. Several elements seem to prove the Provencal origins of the Canton Synagogue: for instance, it was the only Venetian synagogue where the Lekhah Dodi—a hymn commonly intoned by French Jews on the eve of Sabbath—was sung. Moreover, an arrangement rarely seen in old European synagogues, the synagogue’s “bifocal effect” (created by the bimah and the ark facing each other at the opposite ends of the sanctuary) is a common feature of Provencal synagogue buildings, such as those of Carpentras and Cavaillon.

The Levantine Synagogue was built in 1541 for the community of Balkan and Middle Eastern Jews. It’s on the top floor of a two-story building in the Ghetto Vecchio, and it has retained many of its original features. The largest historic synagogue in Venice is the Spanish Synagogue, built in 1550 for the community of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. It’s hidden inside the upper floors of a four-story building in the Ghetto Vecchio, and the interior is ornately decorated. The Italian Synagogue, as you might guess, was for the community of Italian Jews. It was built in 1575 and is the smallest synagogue in Venice – it holds only 25 people. The Italian Jews were the poorest among the community, so their synagogue was the most simple.
In The Venetian Ghetto, Bernard Dov Cooperman writes:- “The Ghetto’s Jews did not refer to their enforced residence as a jail. Rather, it was a biblical ‘camp of the Hebrews,’ a place of Holiness on the way to the Promised Land. In Verona they declared a public celebration of its establishment. For the puritanical young rabbi, Samuel Aboab, who had first seen Venice as a 13-year-old student, the city’s Ghetto seemed Isaiah’s Jerusalem……Aboab’s attititude tells us much about Venetian Jewry’s intense efforts to order their enclosed world. His choice of words tells us even more about how these Jews identified with their community-behind-walls and gloried in it.”