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Venetian Life

Part 3

VENETIAN LIFE book coverWilliam Dean Howells was a 19th Century journalist who served four years as American Consul in Venice before writing a book, Venetian Life, that was published in 1866. A 317-page paperback reprint is available from Marlboro Press, and a Project Gutenberg text is available for download. (See links at bottom of page.)

This feature is the third in a series of excerpts from Howell's book. The text is as readable today as it was nearly 150 years ago.

From Chapter XIV, "The Ghetto and the Jews of Venice":

As I think it extremely questionable whether I could get through a chapter on this subject without some feeble pleasantry on Shylock, and whether, if I did, the reader would be at all satisfied that I had treated the matter fully and fairly, I say at the beginning that Shylock is dead; that, if he lived, Antonio would hardly spit upon his gorgeous pantaloons or his Parisian coat, as he met him on the Rialto; that he would far rather call out Christians, and later a yellow cap, then a red hat, and then a hat of oil-cloth.

They [the Jews] could not acquire houses or lands in Venice, nor practice any trades, nor exercise any noble art but medicine. They were assigned a dwelling place in the vilest and unhealthiest parts of the city, and their quarter was called Ghetto, from the Hebrew nghedah, a congregation.

They were obliged to pay their landlords a third more rent than Christians paid; the ghetto was walled in, and its gates were kept by Christian guards, who every day opened them at dawn and closed them at dark, and who were paid by the Jews.

They were not allowed to issue at all from the Ghetto on holidays, and two barges, with armed men, watched over them night and day, while a special magistracy had charge of their affairs. Their synogogues were built at Mestre, on the mainland, and their dead were buried on the sand upon the sea-shore, whither, on the Mondays of September, the baser sort of Venetians went to make merry, and drunken men and women danced above their desecrated tombs.

These unhappy people were forced also to pay tribute to the state, at first every third year, then every fifth year, and then every tenth year, the privilege of residence being ingeniously renewed to them at these periods for a round sum; but, in spite of all, they flourished upon the waste and wickedness of their oppressors, waxed rich as these waxed poor, and were not again expelled from the city.

There never was any attempt to disturb the Hebrews by violence, except on one occasion, about the close of the Fifteenth Century, when a tumult was raised agaist them for child-murder. This, however, was promptly quelled by the Republic before any harm was done them; and they dwelt peacefully in their Ghetto till the lofty gates of their prison caught the sunlight of modern civilization, and crumbled beneath it.

Then many of the Jews came forth and fixed their habitations in different parts of the city, but many others clung to the spot where their temples still remain, and which was was hallowed by long suffering, and soaked with the blood of innumerable generations of geese. So, although you find Jews everywhere in Venice, you never find a Christian in the Ghetto, which is held to this day by a large Hebrew population.

I do not understand why any class of Jews would still remain in the Ghetto, but it is certain, as I said, that they do remain there in great numbers. It may be that the impurity of the place and the atmosphere is conducive to purity of race; but I question if the Jews buried on the sandy slope of the Lido, and blown over by the sweet sea wind,--it must needs blow many centuries to cleanse them of the Ghetto,--are not rather to be envied by the inhabitants of those high dirty houses and low dirty lanes.

There was not a touch of anything wholesome, or pleasant, or attractive, to relieve the noisomeness of the Ghetto to its visitors; and they applauded, with a common voice, the neatness which had prompted Andrea the gondolier to roll up the carpet from the floor of his gondola, and not to spread it again within the limits of that quarter.

In the good old times when pestilence avenged the poor and oppressed upon their oppressors, what grim and dismal plagues may not have stalked by night and noonday out of those hideous streets, and passed the marble bounds of patrician palaces, and brought to the bedsides of the rich and proud the filthy misery of the Ghetto turned to poison!

Thank God that the good old times are going and gone! One learns in these aged lands to hate and execrate the past.


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