THE VENETIAN “GHETTO”

The Ghetto of Venice is located in the District of Cannaregio and is made up of three sections: the Ghetto Vecchio (the Old Ghetto), the Ghetto Nuovo (the New Ghetto) and the Ghetto Novissimo (the Very New Ghetto). The first Jewish community that settled down in Venice came from Central Europe; they were Ashkenazic Jews and lived in the Ghetto Nuovo (the new Ghetto) which is actually the oldest one despite the name. The New Ghetto is like a very small island surrounded by canals. Before the Jewish community settled down in the Ghetto, the area was a manufacturing site with foundries where cannons and bells were cast. The area was called “getto” because “getto” is the Italian word for “casting”. The Italian word “getto” is actually pronounced with a sweet “g” (dʒ) but the first Jews who lived in the area were from Germany and therefore pronounced it with a hard “g” (as in the English word “get”) because in German language the “g” is usually a hard sound. Such hard “g” sound is written “gh” in Italian. From then on, the Venetians too started to refer to the area as “the Ghetto”; the first official documents that were written to organize the Ghetto, referred to the area as “Geto” or “Getto” but from 1541 onwards the word “Ghetto” began to appear in the documents. The word “Ghetto” then spread around the world and entered in the vocabulary of many other languages to define the urban areas of European towns where the Jewish communities were forced to live. The Venetian Ghetto is the first Ghetto in history and it is the only one which still preserves the original features: one can still see the very high houses of up to 8 floors (the highest in Venice) as due to the lack of room, the Jews had to add storeys one on top of the other as they were not allowed to expand outside of the area. It is calculated that the room available for each person was just 2 sqm.

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Venice Ghetto in 1516

The new Ghetto in 1516

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Evidence of the presence of the Jewish community in Venice

The first document that proves the presence of Jewish people in Venice is a Senate decree issued in 1368: the Senate granted the Jewish community a secluded area on the Lido for them to build their cemetery.

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Jewish Cemetery

Jewish cemetery on the Lido

Around the same period the Senate issued another decree to allow some Jewish money lenders from Mestre to lend money to Venetians at low interest rate in exchange for a temporary residence permit. At that time the Jews were not allowed to live in the city of Venice, they lived in Mestre or in other nearby areas in the mainland and they used to go to and fro from Mestre to Venice for their business.

According to other researches, in the XIII century, a Jewish community used to live in a part of Venice called the Spinalonga Island (modern Giudecca), where they built two synagogues. Due to the presence of the Jewish community, the name of the island was soon changed into “Giudecca”. There is no evidence of such theory and other researches reckon that the name Giudecca comes from the word “giudicato” (venetian dialect “Zudegà) meaning “judged” in the sense of “sentenced” as the Senate confined to Spinalonga a few people that were accused of scheming against the Republic.

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Money lenders from Mestre

In the 2nd half of the XIV century Venice was going through a difficult period. The plague and the wars against Genoa had caused serious financial problems, cash flow circulation was on the decrease, trade was not as lucrative as before and the number of poor was on the increase; the Republic needed to impose forcible money collection; government securities were less and less valuable and many investors had to sell them off just to be able to pay the very high property taxes. The usual loan facilities were not enough to get out of the crisis and there was a need for fresh capital. Merchants needed to have access to bank credit in order to run their business and cash flow circulation was necessary also to meet the needs of the poor. The Council decided to negotiate again with money lenders from Mestre, both Christians and Jews, who wished to start their business in Venice; money lenders had the capacity of bringing fresh capitals, their interest rates were fixed and controlled by the Republic; the Republic managed and controlled this new financial process through taxes and forced loans imposed upon money lenders; the Government aim was also to reduce the level of political tension by controlling poverty and by channelizing people discontent against the money lenders. Especially the Jews would soon become the ideal scapegoat for the Establishment. Beforehand, money lending was considered as usury and therefore banned because of religious belief. On the other hand the Venetians who needed to have access to loans had already developed business relationships with money lenders from Mestre. Given such difficult financial climate, the Council, in 1382, approved a proposal to grant money lenders access to Venice: the Magistrate's Court would regulate the money lending business by imposing a maximum 10% interest rate (it was up to 20-30% in other towns);  penalties were prescribed for trasgressors; the Court also kept a list of official money lenders who were allowed to do their business in town for 5 years only. According to notary deeds, the majority of money lenders were Jews. After 5 years the Senate proposed a new written agreement in which the money lenders were actually called “Jews”; such agreement stated that the Jews could have a 10 years residential permit but had to pay an annual tax of 4000 ducats. The Jews had therefore became some sort of a juridical exception. Also, the Senate promised the Jews to give them an entire residential district in town which was considered as an actual privilege by the Jews themselves. Negotiations went on for many years, with the Jews on one side and the Senate on the other trying to put the pressure on the Jews to lower the loan rates and raise taxation. The promise of an entire district of their own was often used to blackmail the Jews and impose them special terms.

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Jewish community expelled from Venice town

By the end of the IVX century, the financial situation improved in Venice thanks also to the flourishing of the maritime trade: as it was often the case, when things got better, preachers and politicians accused the Jews to have become too much influential and to vex the poor instead of helping them. As a result of such accusations, the Senate in 1397 decided to expel the Jews from Venice town with the only exception of Jewish doctors, because they were considered to be the best doctors in town and therefore too useful to do without. The Jews were therefore forced to withdraw to the mainland, many settled down in Mestre. They were granted a residential permit in Venice for only 15 days in a row, during which time they had to wear a yellow circle on their cloaks (which was replaced by a yellow hat in 1496).

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David Norsa

David Norsa with the yellow circle on his cloak

The Senate also decided to forbid the Jews to buy real estate in Venetian territories apart from the Giudecca island and Outremar lands. The Jews anyway found ways and tricks to keep going to Venice when they needed to: a few Senates decrees were specifically issued to limit their freedom of action: in 1423 a decree was issued to impose the Jews to sell the real estate they had bought “against the law”; in 1424 another decree established that sexual intercourse between Jewish men and Christian women was a criminal offense: the culprit had to pay a fine and serve 6 months in prison if the partner was a lower class woman and 12 months in case of a noblewoman. For most of the IVX century the Jews were officially banned from Venice; most of them lived in Mestre where they kept doing their money lending business in 3 authorized pawnshops. They were allowed to stay in Venice for maximum 15 days in a row per year.

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XV Century: the Cambrai war, refugees flee to Venice, the Ghetto

By the end of the century another financial crisis hit Venice: furthermore in 1500 a few noblemen who, together with some Jewish money lenders from Mestre, had lent large funds to the Government to support the military action in the war against Ferrara, demanded their money back. The Senate was compelled to take measures that would become a turning point in the relationship between Venice and the Jewish community: in 1503 a new decree from the Senate allowed the Jews to live in Venice with their families and their employees and to freely go everywhere they wanted in Venice. The Jews were also allowed to carry weapons for their personal security and were not obliged to wear the yellow hat in case of possible dangerous circumstances. In 1508 the Cambrai war broke out: Pope Jules II, the emperor Maximilian I and Ferdinand II of Aragon joined forces against Venice. In 1508 following the Cambrai war Venice lost many mainland towns and the enemy arrived up to Venice lagoon shores. Many refugees preferred to seek safety in the lagoon islands; many of them were Jews, some of them were bankers; before the war they were allowed to reside in Venice for maximum 15 days in a row, therefore they were used to going to and fro from the mainland to the City for their business; due to the war these Jewish bankers asked the Senate to be allowed to permanently reside in town; the Senate agreed, especilally because the Jewish bankers would bring with them their capitals which could be very useful to Venice as the war was still going on. The Jewish community then moved to Venice town and in the beginning Jewish families lived scattered around the City. As soon as the war was over the attitude towards the Jews changed for the worse.

As it would be often the case, after a military success or a lucky escape, the Venetians seemed to find a new religious inspiration as if the end of a danger or a victory on the enemy were due to God’s intervention. Such grace from God should be somehow paid back and many thought that chasing out the Jews would be a good way to show their gratitude for God’s help.

When the danger of the French army was gone, many preachers publicly incited the mob by saying that any possible misfortune of Venice was due to the presence of the Jews in town. In 1511 the Jews grew tired of such slanders and they turned to the Council of the 10 wise-men to complain; the political power was not against the presence of the Jews because their capital was essential to the Venetian economy and also because the Jews were a perfect scapegoat for people discontent. In 1514 the Senate needed more funds and so allowed the Jews to open 9 second hand clothes shops in Rialto in exchange for 5000 ducats. Not much later the preachers accused the Jews to corrupt young people’s mind and illegally build synagogues. They eventually managed to assert their claims and demanded that the Jews should be confined in the area of the “New Ghetto”. The Franciscan preachers said that for the Republic to survive it was necessary to get back God’s favour and pay for the sin of having allowed the Jews to live in town; to them the Ghetto represented some sort of request for indulgence. The Senate put forth the proposal of secluding the Jews in a dedicated area and the Doge approved it; in 1516 the following edict was issued:

“The Jews shall all live together in Corte de Case, which are located in the Ghetto close to San Girolamo’s church; in order to prevent their going round during the night, two gates shall be built, one on the side of the Old Ghetto where the little bridge is, and the other on the other side… the gates shall be opened in the morning at the tolling of the “Marangona” bell and shall be closed at midnight by four Christian guards whose salary shall be paid by the Jews at the rate that our Cabinet will consider as suitable”.

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The New Ghetto in Venice

The New Ghetto

The chosen area was a very small island in the District of Cannaregio: the lodgers were quickly evicted and the empty houses rented to the Jews at higher rental rates. The area was to be surrounded by high walls; doors and windows that looked on the outside had to be walled up. All the exits were to be closed, apart from the two gates which were to be opened in the morning at the tolling of Saint Marks bells and closed at midnight; two Christian guards who lived in the Ghetto, would open and close the gates; their salary was to be paid by the Jewish community. Two boats from the Council of the 10, constantly rowed round the island 24 hours a day, to “guarantee safety” to the citizens. Being caught outside of the Ghetto between midnight and 6 o’clock was an infringement of the law that entailed severe penalties: the first and the second time the culprit would be punished with a fine but the third time would be sentenced to 2 months imprisonment and forced to pay a much higher fine. In the past the Jewish community regarded the Senate’s old promise to allocate them an entire district as a failure of the Republic to keep the agreed upon terms; but now they talked about it with fear and disillusion. The Republic had simply a vested interest in allowing the Jews to reside in town: the Jews were excellent merchants and therefore brought wealth to the city. Furthermore, Christians were not allowed to lend money as it was considered to be against the Christian religion, so money lending was left to the Jews. The Jews then became an important financial resource for “la Serenissima” as the taxes collected from their income could be used to support Venice military efforts. Furthermore the Senate had found a perfect scapegoat to channelize any possible discontent of the population.

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The "German Nation"

The first Jewish community to live in the Ghetto in 1516 was a mixture of Italian Jews and a group of German Ashkenazi Jews.All together they were about 700 people;they were called the “German Nation”.Apart from money lending they were not allowed to do practice any other profession so many of them used to sell second hand clothes and rags to make a living.There used to be three pawnshops in Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, the red, the white and the black one;apparently their names came from the colors of the receipts they issued.Every 5 years the Jewish community had to negotiate with the Senate the renewal of their residential permit.In order to get the renewal they offered loans and donations to the Republic; in 1536 the number of Jews who lived in the Ghetto was about 1400.In 1537 for the first time the Senate granted the Jewish community a residential permit of 10 years.Such agreement was actually considered to be fairly good if compared to the terms other Jewish communities had to be subject to in other countries. The word spread out and many Jews considered the idea of moving to Venice.

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"Levantine" Jews

In the first half of the XVI century, a new maritime trade route started to pose a threat to Venice commercial dominance in the Adriatic sea: the sea route from the town of Ancona to Ragusa (Sicly) and then to Costantinople was shorter and safer; the Adriatic Sea was overrun by dangerous corsairs and Venice needed to find a new way to beat the new competitors from Ancona. At the end of the XV century many Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal and a lot of Jewish merchants went to Venice; they were called “Levantine Jews” because before arriving in Venice they had lived in some ports of the Ottoman Empire. Venice soon realized the great potential of the newly arrived to help the Republic regain trade supremacy in the Adriatic sea. The "Levantine Jews" were merchants sea travelers and had excellent international business contacts and relationship with Romania, the Balkan area and the Ottoman Empire. Due to the arrival of the Levantine Jews there was less and less room in the Ghetto; as the Levantine Jews started to complain about the lack of space for rooms and warehouses, the Senate granted them to take one long street adjacent to the New Ghetto in 1541: this area was then called “the Old Ghetto” and was also to be closed at night as the “New Ghetto”. The owner of the houses of the area was forced to evict his tenants and was granted a 1/3 higher rental fare, to be paid by the newly arrived. Trade business in Venice was thus partly shifted from the Venetian merchants to the Levantine Jews who were the only Jews allowed to work as merchants. The Levantine Jews were rather different from the Jews of the "German Nation": different language, different background, different religious rituals and different jobs. The Levantine were foreigners, most of them were  originally Spanish and Portuguese, expert merchants who were used to sailing for their trade business - the German Nation were money lenders, used to living in Venice and working in their pawn shops. Thanks to their trading skills, little by little the Levantine Jews became richer then the "German Nation" also because the Republic of Venice  kept raising taxes on pawn shops and impose lower interest rates on loansenice.

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"Ponentine" Jews

After the victorious battle of Lepanto and therefore the end of the Ottoman threat, the Jewish community was accused of having supported the enemy through their trading activity; as a result, the Senate approved a new norm to decrease their loan interest rate from 10 to 5%. After the war the financial resources of the Republic dried up and therefore the possible flow of Jewish people to Venice was considered as an important source of income. In 1577 a very enterprising Jewish "Marran" merchant called Daniel Rodriguez proposed the Senate to establish a free port in Split (Croatia). According to his project the trade route Venice-Split-Costantinople would be an excellent alternative commercial route for trading with the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore such new route would avoid the increasing danger of raids on Venetian ships by corsairs and pirates to. In order to implement his project, Rodriguez tried to persuade Venice that in order to implement his project, it was necessary to increase the presence of Jews both in Split and Venice. Venice regarded Rodriguez proposal as an excellent project to beat the increasing trade competition from Genoa and Ancona. Rodriguez asked the Senate to be allowed to bring 50 families of Jewish merchants to Venice; each one of them was willing to pay a tax fee of 100 ducats. Rodriguez wanted to facilitate the migration to Venice of those Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity and wanted to go to Venice directly, without having to go to the Ottoman Empire fist as the Levantine Jews had done. In 1589 the senate accepted Rodriguez proposal and granted the merchants the right to live in town for 10 years, freedom of worship and exemption from paying any tax related to the money lending activity of the Venetian Jewish Community. This group of Jewish merchant was then called “Ponentine” as most of them came directly from Spain; they were also called “Marranos” meaning Jews converted to Christian religion. When they arrived in Venice, they could return to their own original faith.

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Publishing business

In the beginning of the XVI century the Jewish Community in the Ghetto developed a flourishing publishing business that became renowned for the high quality of the production. Many Jewish intellectuals went to Venice from the whole Italian territory to work for Venetian publishers. The Jews were not allowed to work on their own as publishers or printers, they could only cooperate with Venetian publishers. Daniel Bromberg was the first to print books with Jewish fonts: he printed the Pentateuch, a selection from the Book of Prophets and three editions of the Rabbinical Bible with Hiddish text, translation in Aramaic and comments of famous Jewish exegetes. He also printed the Babilonian Talmud in 12 volumes (1510-1523). In 1553 the Coucil decided to investigate whether parts of the Talmud could be against the law. As a result the Talmud were burnt in Saint Mark’s Square and then again in Campo dè Fiori. Only 10 years later the Venetian publishers were again allowed to print Jewish books: the Council in 1564 gave permission to read the Talmud with its comments but still the text had to be first submitted to the Board of Censors.

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The "Golden Age" of the Ghetto

After 100 years of living in the Ghetto, the different Jewish groups started to merge together, the German Nation became numerically smaller compared to the Levantine and Ponentine Jewish merchants. In the Ghetto various languages were spoken: Spanish, Turkish, Portuguese, Greek, Polish, German and various Italian dialects; Jewish language was the only common element among the different groups but soon everyone began to use and master Italian language with Venetian accent. The “golden age” of the Ghetto was the XVII century: the very first group of Jews to live in the Ghetto were 700 people, but in 1536 there were 1424 inhabitants and in the middle of the XVII century about 4000-5000 people. In 1663 the Ghetto had to be enlarged to include another section called “Ghetto Novissimo” (the very new Ghetto). Some members of the Jewish community were well known also outside of Venice: in 1638 Rabbi Leon of Modena published a collection of Jewish rites, customs and regulations called “Historia de’ riti Hebraici; Sara Copio Sullam  was a poetess and leading force of a literary salon; Simone Luzzato published in 1638 and essay called “Discorso circa il stato de gl'Hebrei et in particolar dimoranti nell'inclita città di Venetia" (Discourse Concerning the Condition of the Jews, and in particular those living in the Fair City of Venice"); Moses Ben Mordecai Zacuto published a long poem, “Tofteh 'Aruk”, or (L'Inferno Figurato) where he described the punishment of hell.

The “Ponentine” Jewish community became rather rich in the XVII century and built the biggest and sumptuous synagogue, the "Spanish Scola".

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The Plague

The plague killed one third (50.000) of the population of Venice in 1630 and everything changed. A lot of people left Venice and Jewish merchants had to stop their import/export business as most goods were regarded to be infected by the plague and had to be burnt. It seemed that Venice and the Ghetto were coming to an agonizing end. In fact, a few Jewish groups were still attracted by Venice. In 1633 the leaders of the Levantine and Ponentine Jews asked the Senate to enlarge the Ghetto to make room for 20 Jewish families who were willing to live and work in Venice. The Senate agreed, thinking that more Jewish merchants would bring to Venice more business as maritime trade was at a standstill. The new section of the Ghetto was called the “Ghetto Novissimo”.

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Ghetto Novissimo

Ghetto Nuovo (orange), Ghetto Vecchio (yellow), Ghetto Novissimo (pale blue)

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The Cretan war

In 1645 Venice and the Turks once again got involved in a conflict, the Cretan War, that went on for 25 years over predominance in the Mediterranean sea. The island of Candia (Creete) was lost to the Turks in 1669 after a siege of 20 years. The loss of Candia was actually the end of an entire historical cycle for Venice. The war severely affected Venice finances and trade and as a consequence taxes were increased on the Jewish pawnshops and the role of the Jews as trade middlemen became less and less important. The Senate imposed on the Jewish community a loan of 150.000 ducats in 1669, 1681 and again in 1686.

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The Great Turkish war

In 1684 a new war against the Turks (Great Turkish War) broke out and again as Venice finance dried up the Jewish community was submitted to heavy taxation. Conflicts arose among the groups of the Jewish community because of the problems related to the collection of the amount of money that the Republic demanded.

The military campaign against the Turks from 1684 to 1699 did not bring much benefit to Venice; the Republic finance dried up due of the war expenses and only the Adriatic sea was left for Venetian trade. In 1714 the Turks attacked Venice and managed to conquer all Venetian harbors in the Aegean Sea. Venice was thus cut off the main new trading routes and started to go through a slow and irreversible decay The peace treaty signed in Passarowitz  in 1718 sealed the defeat and disappearance of Venice from the Eastern seas. Since then Venice became more and more isolated.

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No more Ghetto

Everything was over in 1797: once again the Jewish community offered money and gold to help the Republic to resist Napoleon’s army. Eventually the Senate was persuaded that there was no point in trying to fight as Napoleon’s army was just far too strong; the Senate issued a thanksgiving Decree to officially thank the Jewish community for their financial help; the government abdicated and gave consent to the French army to occupy Venice. A temporary Municipality was set up and issued a Decree about the Ghetto: “the gates of the Ghetto shall be taken off in order to eliminate any mark of separation between Jewish citizens and the other citizens as there shan’t be any”. The Jewish community was enthusiastic; rabbis, merchants and the whole Jewish community  danced together in the “Campo del Ghetto Nuovo” to celebrate and cheer for freedom and Napoleon. This was the end of the history of the Ghetto: the Jews had become Venetian citizens.

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