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:
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