The Italian language has given us many words. Pizza, pasta, primadonna, opera, ballerina, soprano; the list goes on and on! But did you know the Italians also gave us the word ghetto, meaning enclave or inner-city slum? In fact the word is from Venetian dialect and originally had a completely different meaning. But before we get into that, lets take a look at the history that led to Venice’s ghetto being formed.
Throughout the last thousand years Europe and the Mediterranean have seen a number of religious conflicts from the crusades of the 10th and 11th centuries, through the papal ascendancy that followed, to the legendary inquisitions of the 13th and 14th centuries. Almost all the people who had power were Christians and anyone outside the faith could, and often would, be seen at best as rather different, at worst as a sworn enemy.
Against this background it’s not difficult to understand why Europe was a difficult place to live, especially for Jewish people, who were seen as strange, potential enemies of the Christian state. Jews were often forbidden to live in many towns or own land, so their lives were particularly restricted.
The first Jews began to settle in Venice around the 10th century after persecution in the crusades, despite the fact that they weren’t officially permitted to. It’s possible that dwindling coffers may have created tolerance in the Venetian Republic as they could sell the Jews temporary visas. The Jewish settlers were, however, forbidden to choose their own professions, being restricted to working in Medicine, money lending or as second-hand clothes sellers.
The Catholic church was vehemently against allowing Jews to settle in Western Europe and had already forced many to flee. So when the Venice Jews sought the protection of the city during the War of the League of the Cambrai (1508-1516) – a war between France, the Venetian Republic and the Papal State – the Venetian government had a difficult problem to resolve.
By the end of the war in 1516, Venice was overflowing with refugees and a fiery debate ensued about where to house the Jews. The solution that the Venetians came up with, however, was rather canny. The plan was to placate the church, and local opposition, whilst allowing the Jews to stay. So on 29th March 1516 Senate laws were passed to house the Jews on a small, disused artillery foundry island in the district of Cannaregio. The district was then on the outer reaches of the city and importantly well away from the power centres of St Mark’s, Castello and the Arsenale shipyard.
Simply put, the Jews were housed at the foundry where artillery was made. The Venetian word for a foundry is geto, (also spelt ghèto), pronounced jeto, derived from the verb gettare meaning to throw. And over the years the guttural pronunciation of the word by the Ashkenazi Jews residents changed the word to the current ghetto, pronounced get-to.
The original ghetto island was accessible via 2 small bridges that were gated and locked from midnight to dawn. Christian guards scoured the surrounding canals by boat during the night to stop nocturnal violations, although in practice doctors were allowed in and out at any time of day and young Jewish men often partied in Catholic areas of the city after dark. Residents were allowed to leave the ghetto throughout the day but in order to do so had to war a yellow hat or badge as identification – an ominous portent of the murderous practices adopted by the 20th century Nazis.
But whilst today the word ghetto suggests negative segregation either due to economic, religious or cultural persecution, back in 1516 the intention was only to house the Jews separately to protect them from the church or in the case of war and to grant them freedom to practice their faith, rather than to punish them. In fact Venice’s ghetto was home to prosperous merchants and doctors with contemporary descriptions referring to it as a “biblical camp of the Hebrews” and a place of holiness enabling people to maintain their religious purity. Alongside its 5 synagogues, the ghetto also included a theatre, academy of music, hospital and 24-room hotel.
It’s also worth remembering that throughout Europe and the Mediterranean region it was quite usual for foreign merchants to be housed in separate quarters of trading cities. Sixteenth century Venice, for example, also restricted the living quarters of the Turkish and German merchants
The Venetian Ghetto was a crowded place too. At its height, it housed around 5000 people and space was a premium. New building was also prohibited so annexing the neighbouring old foundry area and adding floors to existing buildings added much-needed accommodation. Despite its expansion, the ghetto still had the densest population within the city and consequently is now the main place within Venice where you are likely to see the tallest buildings – 6 or 7 story buildings rather than the norm of 4 to 5 stories elsewhere in the city.
Napoleon demolished the ghetto gates in 1797, but the liberation was short-lived as the gates were reinstated during the Austrian occupation. Venetian Jews only realised full freedom in 1866 when Venice joined the unified Italy and the residents became Italian.
In 1938 Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist leader passed new racial laws that deprived Jews of many civil rights and many of the 1670 Venetian Jews fled the country. They continued to flee as the Germans advanced and Jews were declared ‘enemy aliens’. The Nazis finally took control of Venice and Mestre on 9th September 1943. A total of 247 Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps, most to Auschwitz-Birkenau, between late 1943 and the summer of 1944. Only 8 returned and a large memorial by Arbit Blatas commemorates Venice’s holocaust victims in the main square, Campo del Ghetto Nuovo.
Today the gates are gone and the neighbourhood that gave the world the word ghetto is a small, quiet area within the mainly residential Cannaregio district. It is home to a Jewish museum, kosher shops, cafes and restaurants and a school. Sadly many of the synagogues are closed or only open on special religious days as not enough Jews live in the city to keep them going. Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg has, however, donated €5 million towards the restoration of the ghetto buildings ahead of its 500th anniversary in 2016. And in the meantime, whilst the Venice ghetto was not perfect, it stands as a testament to centuries of Jewish history and the protection and freedom to practice the Jewish faith that the Venetians offered. Happy 500th anniversary.
Jewish Ghetto website : http://www.ghetto.it/ghetto/en/index.asp
Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum) : the small museum displays centuries of Venetian Jewish culture including silver Hanukkah lamps and Torahs, and handwritten, beautifully decorated wedding contracts in Hebrew.
Website : www.museoebraico.it
Address & telephone : Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, Cannaregio 2902/B, 30121 / 041/715359
Opening hours :
June to September – open 10–7, Sunday to Friday
October to May – open 10–6, Sunday to Friday
Price : Museum €3; guided tour and museum €8.50
Tours : The museum offers hourly tours of the ghetto and its five synagogues in Italian and English (on the half hour). Tours start daily at 10:30
Getting there : the nearest vaporetto water bus stops are San Marcuola and Guglie