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The First Ghetto, Lost Beauty In Venice's Jewish Quarter

A visit on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the neighborhood where Jews were forced to live, giving the world the culture, confinement and indignity of the ghetto.

Venice's Ponte de Ghetto Novo
Venice's Ponte de Ghetto Novo
Maurizio Assalto

VENICE — In the doorways of the cobblestonestreets and alleyways of Venice's Jewish quarter, you can still spot a long, rectangular crevice where the sacred mezuzahused to be. When entering a home, visitors would touch the covered parchment inscribed with Hebrew verses from the Torah, then put their fingers to their lips in a sign of respect for the Jewish faith.

These days, however, there is no mezuzah left, just the hollow slit as a reminder for attentive passersby of what used to be.

There are only a few traces left of the Jewish population that made the quarter their home for hundreds of years. There are some street signs here and there; the odd menorah jutting out from a facade; a kosher restaurant; a bakery selling traditional breads and sweets; an art gallery with paintings depicting the daily life of a bygone era.

You may see the rare traditionally dressed Hasidic Jew passing by, but today there are only around 40 Jewish residents left in the quarter, out of about 500 in the entire city of 260,000.

This year the Jewish ghetto — where the word and concept originated — celebrates a half-millennium of life. It was instituted on March 29, 1516, during a time of intense crisis for the Venetian Republic. Embroiled in a costly war and threatened by the twin advances of the Austrians and the Ottomans, the city succumbed to a wave of xenophobic pessimism and branded the city's Jewish residents as "outsiders."

Franciscan friars inflamed the passions against a people they believed were "corrupting" local culture, and the city established a decree isolating Jews to a trapezoidal area near the foundry. In Venetian, the word for foundry is geto (pronounced "jeto"); the influence of later German residents led to the pronunciation earning a hard "g," evolving into the word "ghetto." This is how the first "Jewish ghetto" was born, a sinister phrase that wove itself into Europe's lexicon and historical memory, and eventually spread around the world.

High walls, yellow hats

Jews were forced to stay confined to the quarter between sunset and sunrise, with transgressions punished by fines or even prison time. The ghetto was surrounded by high walls, with all the entryways enclosed by guarded gates. Residents had to pay for access to boats that traveled to nearby canals, had to wear yellow hats that identified them as Jews to other Venetians, and paid rent 30% higher than other residents in the new homes they were assigned.

Within their neighborhood, however, the Venetian Jews were given ample legal autonomy and other freedoms denied to the city's larger population — such as the right to divorce, for example. Over time, the community's leaders negotiated their rights with the city's leadership, paying increasingly onerous "taxes" in return.

Ever since the 1300s, Venice's government had shrewdly realized that Jewish money lending services could serve as an effective tool to pacify social pressures in the city, acting as a subsidy to the poorest classes while concentrating any backlash against creditors to the Jewish community.

Crossing into the "ghetto" from the Rio San Girolamo bridge, you come face to face with the three old money-lending banks — the green, red, and black — under a portico where real-life inspirations for Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice once practiced their business.

Over the course of decades, the heavily indebted Venetian Republic progressively increased taxes on Jewish lenders while limiting the interest rates they could charge on clients, from an initial 15% down to 5%. These changes forced them to seek loans themselves from Venetian nobles, and eventually by the 1700s many of the lenders were operating at a loss. They accepted these hardships in exchange for remaining in the safety of the quarter.

Jewish merchants of Sephardic origin, expelled from the Iberian peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition between 1492 and 1496, joined the ghetto's original inhabitants, where they were nicknamed "Levantines" for the circuitous trip they took through Middle Eastern ports to safely reach the laguna of Venice.

The maritime republic of Venice — its trading power weakened by an outbreak of piracy in the 16th century — appreciated the newcomers' entrepreneurial spirit and web of international contacts, and provided them their own space near the old foundry in 1541, just across the bridge from the original Jewish quarter. With the later arrival of 50 rich merchant families from Spain — many of them forced converts to Christianity who reverted to Judaism once they escaped — and the addition of more land to the neighborhood, locals completed the University of Venetian Jews in 1589.

The three separate groups living in the ghetto — the original Ashkenazi inhabitants called the Natione Todesca, the Sephardic immigrants called the Natione Levantina, and the later Iberian arrivals called the Natione Ponentina — all had their own different customs, rites and languages. Over time the groups merged, giving life to a new vernacular that blended Yiddish, Spanish and Venetian.

Napoleon to Mussolini

The quarter's population continued to grow, reaching as many as 5,000 people in the mid-1600s, when it's estimated individual living space in the ghetto was only around 9 square meters. Due to the quarter's increasingly cramped size, many buildings rose to six to eight stories, compared to only three to four larger in the rest of the city. Synagogues were only recognizable from the outside by their five large aligned windows, to represent the five scrolls of the Hebrew Bible.

The neighborhood developed into a center of science and culture by the 17th century, thanks to the presence of skilled physicians and intellectuals from all over Europe, who traveled to Venice to assist in the publishing of the first print versions of the Torah and Talmud. The ghetto became home to famed Jewish thinkers, poets, and authors such as Leon of Modena, Sara Copia Sullam, and Moses Zacuto.

Through the ages the Jewish community's relationship with Venetian authorities veered between highs and lows, until Napoleon's arrival in 1797 marked the end of segregation and the unification of the ghetto with the city proper. The richest Jews moved to the central area of San Marco, while their brethren slowly disappeared from the old walls of the quarter over time.

Some of them tragically returned in early December 1944, when Benito Mussolini's Nazi-aligned Italian Social Republic declared all Jews "enemy aliens" and confined them to the ghetto before the German SS sent them to concentration camps elsewhere in Italy. Some 200 Jewish residents were deported, but only seven survived and were able to return home to Venice. A series of bronze bas-reliefs designed by Lithuanian artist Arbit Blatas in the 1980s, a memorial to those dark days, still stands beside the 19th century Jewish old-age home where five elderly Jewish women live.

As we mark 500 years since its institution, Venice's Jewish ghetto still bears traces of the people that made this their home — for better or worse. The quarter stands as a testament to their culture, their sacrifices, and their dedication to live in a city that never entirely accepted them.

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