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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice

What is the Jewish Ghetto?

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice, also known as the Jewish Quarter or the Venetian Ghetto, was the first ghetto in Europe, established in the early 16th century, which opened up when Venice finally joined Italy in 1866.


Jewish Ghetto sign

Jewish Ghetto History

In the northernmost sestiere (or district) of Venice, Cannaregio, lies The Ghetto. There are technically two, adjacent to one another: Ghetto Nuovo (the new) and Ghetto Vecchio (the old). They were only accessed by two bridges and constituted a segregated city within a city for the Jewish population.


Today, the word ‘ghetto’ has haunting connotations. In America, ghettos evoke deprivation, crime, and state dependence along racial lines. In Europe, it’s impossible not to reflect on the Holocaust. During the Second World War, Nazi Germany established Jewish Quarters across Eastern Europe, some on the boundaries of historical Jewish and Roma areas. Huge numbers of people were forced into these small areas with little food, sanitation, or work. Some were so-called open ghettos, where there were severe restrictions entering and leaving. Most, however, were closed; sealed off from the rest of the city, patrolled by armed guards with the threat of capital punishment, and filled with overcrowded scenes of untold misery. Indeed, the ghetto became the precursor to Nazi concentration and death camps leading to six million Jewish deaths, nearly two-thirds of the entire European Jewish population.


Knowing that the first ghetto in Europe was in Venice, established by Doge Leonardo Loredan in 1516, can come as a shock to some. However, this must be understood within the context of the time. Throughout the past two thousand years, Jews faced discrimination and persecution, especially by Christians who blamed them for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Cities across Europe imposed harsh and humiliating restrictions on Jews, and they were often forcibly expelled. In Venice, they were previously only allowed to visit the city for a maximum of 15 days a year until they were granted permission to remain permanently in a specific area. The word ‘ghetto’ actually derives from the Venetian word giotto or geto meaning ‘foundry’. They were given space where there was once an iron foundry casting metal for canons until 1390 when it moved to the Arsenale. Confusingly, Ghetto Nuovo is older than Ghetto Vecchio as the names refer not to the Jewish areas but the foundries that were once there. Relative to the treatment of Jews elsewhere the ghetto provided a tolerated place for Jews to live, work, and pray. Nevertheless, they were still required to lock their gates at night and pay for guards to enforce their own curfew. There were many struggles to thrive beyond the confines of the ghetto, which only ended in 1797 when Napoleon Bonaparte dissolved the Venetian Republic, and ended the ghetto's separation from the city on the 11th of July the same year. It was not until Venice joined Italy in 1866 that the residents gained full freedom.


Jewish Ghetto street entrance

Hidden behind the plain buildings – much higher than the rest of Venice as the Jewish residents were forced to build up – are five impressive clandestine synagogues, two of which are still in use today. The most mesmerising of these is the Scuola Grande Tedesca (or the Great German Synagogue). Built in the 1520s, the simple exterior belies the splendour of rich red and gold within and an elliptical women’s gallery.


It’s estimated that around 5,000 Jews lived here between the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, there are fewer than 500 Jewish residents in Venice (only a handful of which choose to reside here), but a community still survives, from the bakeries and shops to the museum, art gallery, and international annual conferences on Hebrew Studies.


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