This Day in Jewish History

1516: Venice Banishes Its Jews to a Ghetto

Abhorring coexistence between Christians and Jews, the Venetian Senate set them apart – but it also thereby acknowledged their residency.

Venice's Jewish ghetto. Organizers hope the 500th anniversary celebration will help to revitalize the city’s dwindling Jewish community.
Andrea Messana

On March 29, 1516, the Senate of Venice issued an edict ordering that the Jews of the town were henceforth forbidden to live among Christian residents, and would be confined to a single quarter, a part of Venice called the “ghetto.”

At the time, “ghetto” did not have the meaning it has today. Rather, it is believed that the name came from the Venetian word meaning “foundry,” because the island called Ghetto Nuova, in the city’s Cannaregio quarter, had once housed a cannon factory. Only later, as other cities followed the example set by Venice, did it come to refer to a closed area where Jews – and more recently, any oppressed group – were confined.

Sanctuary in Venice

Despite the racism behind to the decision, , the fact that a a district was set aside for the Jews was in part a positive step, as it signaled a readiness on the part of the Venetian Republic to accept their presence in general as residents, not something to be taken for granted in the 16th century.

Jews had been present in Venice since at least 1385, when a number of Jewish moneylenders were permitted to settle there, and they were even given land to establish a cemetery. Following the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and from Portugal a short time later, there was an influx of some of the exiles to Venice. By 1516, about 700 Jews were estimated to be living there.

Within a century, that number had grown to some 5,000, all living in the Ghetto. In fact, Venice, as a maritime power and a center for international commerce, the city was a magnet for Jews from other parts of Italy and the continent, as well as from the Levant.

The principal rule governing ghetto life was that all Jews had to return there by midnight, when the gates were locked, with the only exceptions being made for physicians and professional musicians. The island was connected to the rest of the city by a bridge, which was guarded each night by Christian sentries, who were to be hired and paid for, the March 29 edict stipulated, by the Jews.

The ghetto’s original area, of some seven acres, was permitted to grow – confusingly, the original section was called the Ghetto Nuovo, whereas when it expanded, it was into a section called the Ghetto Vecchio (old ghetto). The population, however, grew at a faster rate than the ghetto’s boundaries. As a consequence, the residents began to build up, with the result being “high-rise” buildings, which could be as tall as six stories.

Released by Napoleon

Each ethnic division had its own synagogue, for a total of five. Visitors today can still visit the Scuola Grande Tedesca (Ashkenazi, or German), the Scuola Italiana, Scuola Spagnola, and the Scuola Levantina, which served Jews from the Eastern Mediterranean. The private Scuola Canton was built by four individual families, and may have been intended for Jews from Provence.

The main square of the Venetian Ghetto, shown in modern times.
Didier Descouens, Wikimedia Commons

From the street, however, none of these structures is identifiable as housing a synagogue: Venetian law prohibited separate buildings for the synagogues, so all were situated on the top floors of regular apartment buildings.

Jews’ professional options were limited to a handful of careers: In addition to moneylender or pawn-shop operator, one could be a doctor, printer (Venice was a major center for Hebrew printing) or trader – or a musician.

At various periods, they also had to be identifiable when they ventured out of the ghetto, usually with a yellow hat or a yellow badge.

When Napoleon conquered the Serene Republic of Venice, in 1797, he ordered the emancipation of the Jews. The gates to the ghetto were demolished, and those who could afford to moved out.

Although the city changed hands several times before Italy became independent and unified, in 1866, and some of the restrictions were reinstated, the ghetto was never reestablished.

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the ghetto, Venice is sponsoring a number of events, including an art exhibition, which opens in June at the Doge’s Palace, and a staging, this summer, of “The Merchant of Venice,” in English, for the first time in the city.