Over five-hundred years after its inception, the Jewish ghetto of Venice reveals all of its charms
The Jewish ghetto of Venice, the first ever built, was established in March 1516. Although documentation chronicles the presence of a Jewish community in Venice from before the year 1000, it was only during the 16th century, due to political unrest in Europe and a significant increase in non-Christian immigrants that, for the first time, the Venetian Senate, issued a decree stating that the Jewish population should move to a specific part of the city, where they could be better ‘controlled’.
For this reason, the Ghetto was located in a secluded Sestiere (neighbourhood) of Cannaregio in a remote northwestern corner of Venice, an abandoned site of a 14th-century foundry. An interesting fact: the word ‘ghetto’ derives from the Yiddish pronunciation ‘geto’, old Venetian dialect for ‘foundry’. This word would soon be used throughout Europe and the world to depict an area where isolated minority groups lived.
What to see at the Jewish ghetto
The Venetian Ghetto nevertheless became a thriving, vibrant district. In 1797, when Napoleon rolled into town, the ghetto was disbanded as an institution, and Jews were free to move elsewhere. However, even in modern days, it is still the centre of Venice’s ever-diminishing community of Jewish families.
Still today, a walk through ‘calli’, ‘campi’ and ‘campielli’ allows visitors to soak up a magical, cocoon-like atmosphere that brings to mind Shakespeare’s play the ‘Merchant of Venice’. Here you can admire ancient synagogues, the ‘schole’ (literally schools), each one built for every ethnic-linguist group inhabiting the ghetto, the ‘tower’ houses, and the workshops.
You can see the more recent memorials dedicated to Holocaust victims, as well as the writings and engravings describing the obligations that the Jews were forced to observe and the remains of the access points and heavy gates that were used to segregate its inhabitants. In spite of being cut off from the rest of the city, the Jews transformed the ghetto into a place where they could develop Jewish traditions, but one that also represented a melting pot of cultures, which influenced Venetian society.