The Venice Trilogy – III: Europe’s First ‘Ghetto’

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” – The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare

It was only in 1385 that the Jews were finally allowed to settle in Venice. Venice needed them (or better said, needed their money) to finance one of its wars. Things went fine till, in 1516, Venice decided to ‘control’ the Jewish community. They limited their residence to a specific neighbourhood, and Europe’s first ‘ghetto’ was born! (The word Ghetto comes from the Venetian word for ‘foundry’). As part of the ‘control’ measures, the Jews had to stick to curfew hours, wear yellow signs (like thieves and prostitutes) and could work only in pawn-shops, lend money, trade in textile or practice medicine. Practice medicine? Yes, that is an interesting story:

Doctors had to inspect naked bodies, something perceived at the time as improper and against the Christian values. Moreover, the fear of contacting disease (given the fresh memories of the Plague) made many Venetians refrain from ‘risking’ the practice of medicine. The Jews, on the other hand, had a comparative advantage: they had access to the medieval body of knowledge developed by the Arabs (Maimonides in Spain would be a perfect example), and they actually found salvation in practicing medicine: doctors did not have to wear the yellow sign and could have more flexibility with curfew hours. To protect themselves from contagion, they wore masks with long, hollow ‘noses’, which acted as filters (they filled them with cotton and spices). If you wonder about the famous mask that has become emblematic of Venice, now you know where it came from!

The first Jews to settle in the Ghetto were Eastern European Ashkenazim, who built two magnificent synagogues, namely the Scola Grande Tedesca and the Scola Canton (XVI c.). Then came the Sephardic Jews, who built the Scola Levantina (also XVI c.), followed by poor Italian immigrants, and then Spanish immigrants escaping the Inquisition. Both communities built synagogues, and they were safer in Venice than elsewhere, since Venice cared more for commerce than for religious ideologies.

At its height (XVII c.), the Ghetto housed around 4000-5000 Jews and had 5 synagogues (all still standing). We joined a guided tour organized by the Jewish Museum (in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo), visiting 3 of the 5 synagogues. The lavishly decorated synagogues of the Ashkenazim attest to their wealth and refined taste, while the buildings in the neighborhood are densely filled with tightly packed rows of windows (they had to save space, and hence the low ceilings). You would see 6 stories in a building that would normally accommodate only 4. This is why the Ghetto’s buildings were known as the Venetian Skyscrapers.

In 1797, Napoleon threw open the Ghetto gates, but one final blow was yet to hit: the Holocaust. Of 289 Jews deported by the Nazis, only 7 returned. ‘The Last Train’ by the Lithuanian artist Arbit Blatas is a grim reminder of this tragedy. The bronze plaque in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo depicts the deportation of the Venetian Jews from the Ghetto, while other plaques nearby depict several related scenes.

Finally, I strongly recommend the guided tour for everyone interested in the Jewish history and culture.

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