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Venice's Ghetto

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Venice Ghetto - Scuola Italiana LEFT: Façade of the Scuola Italiana, or Italian Synagogue, in the Ghetto Nuovo.

Life in Venice's Ghetto

The Venetian Ghetto was a crowded place, with a population that grew as Jews and conversos (Jews who nominally had converted to Catholicism) came to Venice from other countries of Europe and the Mediterranean. By the mid-1600s, Jews controlled much of Venice's foreign trade, and it wasn't long until immigrant Jewish physicians, lawyers, and scholars played important roles in the daily business of the Venetian Republic.

During the day, Jews were allowed to leave the Ghetto to work and play throughout Venice. Gates were locked at nightfall and guarded by watchmen who were paid by the Jewish community. (In practice, the law wasn't always enforced, and it wasn't uncommon for young Jewish men to party after dark in the Catholic areas of the city.)

As the population increased, more space was added by annexing the neighboring Ghetto Vecchio, or "Old Foundry" area in 1641 for Levantine Jews (some from the Ottoman Empire, others descendants of Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492.) 

 Apartment densities were increased by adding floors and, where necessary, lowering ceilings in existing houses. Some buildings reached six stories--an unprecedented height for Venice. Yet despite the amount of housing that was crammed into the Ghetto's modest boundaries, there wasn't enough sleeping space for the estimated 5,000 Jews who lived in the district before the European plague of 1630 that killed a third of Venice's population. 

Daily activity in the Ghetto was both colorful and lively. In Venice and Environs: Jewish Itineraries, the authors write: 

"The merchants brought oriental customs with them. According to Leone da Modena, 'they prayed after the Turkish manner.' They also wore turbans, while the women wore expensive clothes, costly jewellery and tall stiff caps decorated with precious stones. A far cry from the modest habits of the German Jews.

"With the arrival of the so-called nazione ponentina (the Sephardic Jews) in 1589, the Venice ghetto took on its definitive form: loan banks and second-hand cloth shops and various synagogues distributed aound the main campo....the ghetto became a centre of trade not only for Jewish residents and visitors but also for the Christian Venetians, who poured into the district every morning when the gates were opened."

"...Within the gates of the ghetto there were not only places of worship and study but also a theatre, an academy of music and literary salons. The main calle of the Ghetto Vecchio was lined by all sorts of shops from those selling everyday supplies to the booksellers in Campiello delle Scole. There was also a twenty-four-room hotel at the Scuola Levantina, an inn and a hospital."

Next page: Rivalries, persecution, rebirth


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