Venice Marks 500th Anniversary of World’s First Ghetto

The Republic of Venice separated out not only Jews, but also Germans, Dutch, Persians and Turks. Either way, Jewish culture there thrived.

An aerial view of the area of the Venice Ghetto, 2016.
Davide Calimani for CoopCulture, courtesy the Jewish Museum of Venice

The world’s first ghetto wasn’t set up in Warsaw or Lodz. It was established in 1516 in the rich and cosmopolitan Republic of Venice, during the reign of Dodge Leonardo Loredan.

Today, 500 years later, Venice and its Jewish community are commemorating the event with the exhibition “Venice, the Jews and Europe, 1516-2016.” The exhibition, which was organized by the Venice municipality and other Italian and international agencies, was launched on June 19 and will be open to the public until November 13.

In a show of defiance, the organizers have staged the event at the Palazzo Ducale, where the Dodge signed the senatorial decree ordering the separation of the city’s hundreds of Jews from the other citizens. The Jews were closed off in the Cannaregio district.

“Placing the exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale is symbolic and intends to reflect a reappropriation of full citizenship status from the city’s most prestigious location the palace  where the Senate made its decision to erect the ghetto,” says Donatella Calabi, the exhibition’s curator and a lecturer in urban history. Last year she published the French-language book “Ghetto de Venise – 500 ans.”

Every day, long lines of people wend their way outside the magnificent palazzo that served the Republic’s rulers for the 1,100 years of its existence. Not all visitors go see the exhibition’s exhibits and documents, most of them being shown for the first time. Obviously, they include the famous monologue by Shylock in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which is screened in a loop in one of the beautiful halls that houses the exhibition.

The Jewish community hopes that many of the hordes of tourists descending on Venice will visit the exhibition and learn about the rich Jewish history of this city of canals – the lively autonomous life that took place in the world’s first ghetto. To enrich their experience, the community also invites tourists to visit the Jewish museum and see the five lavish synagogues at the main square of the ghetto, where the first printed copy of the Talmud was published.

The exhibition shows the stages of the ghetto’s establishment and development, and explores the residents’ diverse social and cultural fabric. And it follows the ghetto’s changes over its 250-plus years of history, from its establishment in 1516 to the opening of its gates in 1797 as a result of an edict by Venice’s new ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, and beyond.

The area of the Jewish ghetto in Venice, 2013.
AP / Michelle Locke

The Venice Ghetto was founded on March 29, 1516, following a Senate decision to gather all the city’s Jews 700 people into the Cannaregio quarter. The quarter contained a foundry getto in the local dialect and this spawned the name ghetto that, in Jewish history, is now largely identified with the Nazi period.

“The area will have two entrances, which will be opened in the morning to the chimes of the Marangona bell in the Saint Marco tower,” the Senate’s decree stipulated. “The gates will be locked in the evening by four Christian watchmen who will receive their salaries from the Jews.”

In practice, Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto to do business and make a living, on condition they wore a yellow circular patch or yellow cap. The Senate’s decision to put a wall around the ghetto was never carried out.

The organizers and researchers who prepared the exhibition delved through archives in Venice, Padua, the National Library in Jerusalem, the Louvre and elsewhere to present the history of the ghetto’s Jews in the wider context of the Republic whose motto was “justice, freedom and well-being” toward all national, ethnic and religious minorities under its rule.

Not really segregation

The ghetto wasn’t designed to discriminate against its residents, says Prof. Gadi Luzzatto Voghera in his article “The Jewish Ghetto of Venice.” Luzzatto is a historian, researcher and the director of the Jewish library in Venice, where he was born and grew up.

“It was part of a comprehensive policy aimed at maintaining peace between the various communities of Venice,” he says.

Out of concern for law and order and harmony among Venice’s different communities, La Serenissima, as the Republic was known, imposed limits on its minorities. “These restrictions weren’t all equally stringent and were imposed in relation to the perceived threat each minority posed to the government,” Calabi told Haaretz. At the beginning of the 16th century, Venice decided to separate out not only Jews, but also Germans, Dutch, Persians and Turks.

“Even citizens of Tuscany and Lucca were gathered into areas designated for them,” says Calabi, adding that “it’s inaccurate to talk of segregation – it was more a way of controlling.”

The Jewish ghetto, which reached a peak population of between 3,000 and 5,000, included local Jews, Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Marranos and Jews from the Middle East.

Relations between them were not always harmonious. Jews from the different communities almost never intermarried, says Luzzatto. Each community had its own synagogue. Five such shuls remain today, two of which alternate in serving the 450 Jews still living throughout the city. One is open in the summer, while the one with heating is open in the winter.

The shrinking Venice community, almost one-third of which perished in the Holocaust, was joined 10 years ago by Chabad members trying to bring the messiah’s message to the ghetto’s picturesque alleys. Some in the community consider them “too loud.”

There is tension between them and the local community, which is mainly secular, writes Luzzatto. “This tension is no different than the one experienced by different communities here 400 years ago.”

The spirit of our times isn’t passing over this community. In March, Islamists hacked into the Jewish library website, and for a few hours posted calls for “an Islamic struggle for the liberation of Palestine,” with some anti-Semitism thrown in, says Luzzatto.