Feature image featuring the main square of the New Ghetto

Why The Jewish Ghetto In Venice Is Not Easily Forgotten

Your visit to the Jewish ghetto in Venice will be to a uniquely located Jewish community. The ghetto comprises three precincts; ghetto Nuovo (the oldest and first ghetto), followed by the ghetto Vecchio, and the most recent and smallest, the ghetto Novissimo. However, a wander through the ghetto’s precincts, including its historical residences and synagogues, as rewarding as it is, also reveals some of the less pleasant stories in the history of Venice. This becomes apparent as we start to peer into the lives of Jews in both the New ghetto and the Old ghetto during the early modern era, and learn of the tragic deportation of modern Jews from the ghetto during World War 2.

The physical environment, history and culture that surrounds the Jewish ghetto influences most who visit. It is a site of both past inequality and resilience. Denied on occasions the opportunity to pursue their own choice of livelihoods, and forbidden to own property, Jews in the ghetto still provided examples of outstanding scholarship and craftsmanship. A visitor’s awareness of the physical isolation of the Jewish community from the rest of Venice, the constraints placed on their movements at night, and the condition of the remaining apartments and synagogues sums up to the atmosphere of the ghetto. Ultimately, one arrives at the holocaust memorial which reminds us all that the Jews in Venice during World War 2 did not escape the atrocities of the Nazis.

The facades of the buildings that enclosed the ghetto and adjacent spaces hold memories of what has occurred over the last 500 years. But the customary tranquillity of the ghetto, its old apartments and synagogues, and its conspicuous memorials, convey enough to make us at times reflect on its history. And certainly, the condition of the ghetto stands in stark contrast to the wealth and opulence on display in the popular tourist areas along the Grand Canal and San Marco.

Venice has always presented herself as a happy soul but we knew the old lady would also have some regrets. Would she share them? We thought of a likely place to find out. The Jewish ghetto.

Origins and Brief History of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice

Venice, from the mediaeval, was an independently powerful and wealthy state. The warehouses along the grand canal bulged with products for trade. For example, Venice’s vast fleet spread its influence through the Mediterranean and along the Adriatic coast, resulting in Venice ruling both Croatia and Montenegro from about 1420-1797.

The wealth of Venice is reflected by the warehouses and palaces that lined the Grand Canal
Palaces and warehouses lined the Grand Canal

The Jews occupied towns on the Veneto mainland prior to their settlement in Venice . They were permitted day travel to Venice during the 14th century to pursue their livelihoods, but weren’t granted permission to settle in Venice until 1385. They were forbidden to own property and were ineligible for membership of trade associations. Their livelihoods were constrained principally to pawn-broking and medicine.

Jews were separated from non- Jewish Venetians during 1516 by being restricted to a small island on the northern side of the city. Access to the island was eventually via one of three narrow bridges which are still in use. Permission was granted to the Jews to leave the island during the day to conduct business, but the island was secured at night. The area came to be known as a ‘ghetto’, the word of Venetian dialect that referred to the foundry that was located on the island. This area is specified as the ‘New’ ghetto, from ‘Ghetto Novo’ meaning new foundry. Venice therefore became host to the world’s first Jewish ghetto.

The Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of Jews from Spain (1478 and 1834) of the 16th Century stirred many foreigners to seek refuge in Venice. Lateral space in the New Ghetto became unavailable and so, at first, the only practical solution to accommodate the refugees was to add stories to existing buildings. Inevitably, this option became impracticable and so the ghetto expanded into an adjacent space which became the Ghetto Vecchio (Old Foundry). The ongoing increase in the Jewish population amidst limited space continued, resulting in the subsequent edition of the smaller ‘Ghetto Novissimo’ and additional storied accommodation. It may seem counter-intuitive, but the New Ghetto preceded the Old Ghetto.

The period of Venetian influence ended in 1797 when the newly formed French republic defeated Venice during the Franco-Austrian war of 1792-1797. Jews briefly enjoyed citizenship under the republican values introduced by France. Nevertheless, Venice was defeated by Austria’s Hapsburg monarchy within a year. The freedom of the city that was enjoyed by Jews as citizens was reversed by Austria and the Jews were again constrained to their island ghetto.

France occupied Venice once more following Napoleon’s rise to power. Napoleon ruled a region of Italy known as ‘The Kingdom of Italy’ of which Venice was a part. This period reintroduced the ideals of freedom and equality, and even though the old orders returned following Napoleon’s defeat, the revolts of 1848 against Austrian rule and the Franco-Austrian war of 1859 laid the future for Italy’s newly acquired nationalism and unification. These historical events bode well for a better future for Venetian Jews.

Getting to the Ghetto From San Marco Piazza

There are many routes to the ghetto within Venice. One is to escape San Marco Square where long queues form to enter the Basilica di San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale.

Piazza San Marco with Colonne di San Marco (winged lion) and San Todaro (protector), and Campanile di San Marco
Piazza San Marco with Colonne di San Marco and San Todaro, and Campanile

One way to get to the ghetto from Sa Marco is to first make your way to the Rialto. Walk to the sounds of bells through the flocks of pigeons in San Marco Square.

Then walk along the water-bordered paths towards the Rialto and the markets. You can use a map if you wish to continue walking to the ghetto from the Rialto. Take time to experience Venice’s maze of varying bridges, alleys, lanes and sottoporteghi.

Alternatively, rest your feet and take a gondola through the narrow waterways or a ferry (vaporetto) along the Grand Canal to the Rialto. You can then continue all the way to the Guglie Ferry Wharf in the Canale di Cannaregio to enter the ghetto.

Getting to the Ghetto from the Bus and Train Terminus

There is an alternate route for visitors who wish to make their way to the ghetto from the bus or train termini. These termini are located reasonably adjacent to each other at the northern end of Venice. The bus terminus in Venice is next to the ferry termini to make it easier for passengers who wish to take the ferry along the Grand Canal towards Rialto and San Marco. Instead, walk across Constitution Bridge (Ponte della Constitutzione) to the opposite side of the Grand canal and then past the entrance to Santa Lucia Railway Station (Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia).

As you walk along the left bank of The Grand Canal you will pass by the Chiesa dei Santi Geremia e Lucia. Turn left when you pass the church along the Canale di Cannaregio and sight the Ponte delle Guglie (Spire Bridge) to cross the Canale di Cannaregio (the Canale di Cannaregio is one of four canals in Venice which is entitled to be labelled ‘canal’ rather than ‘rio’). Once across the Ponte delle Guglie you are facing the ghetto district.

The Ponte delle Guglie (Spire Bridge) is constructed from ‘Istrian’ stone. Istria is a region that spans northern Italy in the vicinity of Trieste, Slovenia, and principally, northern Croatia. The stone is an unusually dense form of calcium carbonate due to compression of its mineral, calcite. This has resulted in its being hard, durable and impervious, most unlike the standard limestones. It is for these reasons that the majority of buildings in Venice have been constructed from this stone.

The Ponte delle Guglie, like the Rialto, is constructed from ‘Istrian stone’.
The Ponte delle Guglie

Either way, next to the canal entrance to the (kosher) Ristorante Gam Gam, located between the Guglie Ferry Wharf and the Ponte delle Guglie, is the weathered exterior of the entrance to Cl. Ghetto Vecchio, the thoroughfare which leads through the Old ghetto to the historical origin of the Jewish Ghetto, the New ghetto.

The Old Ghetto in Venice (ghetto Vecchio)

Strolling Along the Cl. Ghetto Vecchio in the Jewish District

A stroll along the Cl. Ghetto Vecchio through the Old Ghetto is an introduction to the authentic Jewish culture and civilisation of the small Jewish community that remains. As you exit from the enclosed alley (sottoportego) you will see the street entrance into the Gam Gam (Kosher) Ristorante. The aromas emanating from Gam Gam are just a tease of what is on offer from the other shops located along the Cl. Ghetto Vecchio.

Both sides of the alley are populated by old buildings, the facades of some still proudly displaying their medieval scars. Others have been renovated using cement screed, and then painted over. Along the narrow corridor are single doors of private residences. These are interspersed with small businesses and shops which sell sweets and ice cream, artworks, pastries, a brasserie, a restaurant selling pizzas and seafood, and a wine store with side dishes for tasting. Some of the structures project so little onto the alley, and their doorways set so low, that they could easily be passed by without being observed.

Shops and businesses along the Cl. Ghetto Vecchio
Businesses and shops along the Cl. Ghetto Vecchio in the Jewish District

Synagogues in the Old Ghetto on Venice

Jews were officially authorised by Venice to build synagogues during the 16th Century. Given the diaspora resulting from the Spanish expulsion, plus other influences, the Jews who converged on Venice sought to retain their own traditions and customs within the Ghetto. The design and building of the synagogues reflected the continuity sought by each community. Five synagogues had been erected by 1571. The weathered and sometimes obscured facades of the synagogues belie the attention given to their interiors. 

The thoroughfare passes two synagogues located in a small square, the Campiello de la Schola. The Scola Levantina and the Spanish synagogue (Scola Grande Spagnola) are located on the opposite side of the same square.

The Levantine Synagogue

Perhaps the most recognisable of the synagogues is the Levantine Synagogue located in the Campiello de la Schola along the Cl. Ghetto Vecchio. The Scola Levantina is a Shepardic synagogue which was founded in 1541 but rebuilt in the latter 17th Century.

The facade of the Levantine Synagogue
Levantine Synagogue Cl. Ghetto Vecchio

The Spanish Synagogue

The Spanish synagogue (Scola Grande Spagnola, 1580) is located on the opposite side of the same square.
It is shared seasonally with the adjacent Scola Levantina. Both synagogues are recognised for the artistry of their decorative wood work and interior geometric designs.

The facade and well of the Spanish Synagogue in the Old Ghetto in Venice
The facade and well of the Spanish Synagogue

The New Ghetto in Venice (Ghetto Novo)

The Cl. Ghetto Vecchio leads to a small footbridge, the Ponte de Ghetto vecchio, which crosses the Rio del Gheto into the New Ghetto. There are two other foot bridges that provide access to the island from different directions (a rio is a small waterway, insufficiently wide to be called a canal). One is the Ponte de Gheto Novo which spans the rio della Misericordia and provides access to the New Ghetto from the oppostie side of the square.

Ponte de Gheto Novo which spans the rio della Misericordia
Ponte de Gheto Novo

Crossing any of the foot bridges will lead into the main square, the main courtyard of the new ghetto, the Campo di Gheto Nuovo.

The square of the New Ghetto, the Campo di Ghetto Novo
The main square of the New Ghetto in Venice

The square can appear dull and colourless, even though it is enclosed with rows of multi-coloured buildings with a handful of shops on one side. The remaining building space was dominated by old apartments. The earlier architecture of some of those residences must have barely allowed a person to stand. Only about 30 of the 450 Jewish community still live in the Ghetto square. These squares in Venice (campi [trans: fields]) were often earthen until later covered with cobblestones or paved.

Synagogues of the New Ghetto in Venice

The Campo di Gheto Nuovo, the main square of the New Ghetto, hosts three synagogues; La Scola Grande Tedesca (German Synagogue), the Schola Canton, , and Schola Italiana (the Italian Synagogue).

The German and Italian Synagogues

The La Scola Grande Tedesca (German Synagogue, 1528), erected by Ashkenazi Jews in 1528, is the oldest synagogue in Venice. It also has distinguishing interior features.

The Scola Italiana was built by Italian Jews from southern Italy. They sought relief from both Spanish maltreatment and economic hardship. The synagogue is comparatively unembellished compared to some of the other synagogues in the ghetto, a reflection of the impoverishment of these Jews upon their arrival in Venice.

German and Italian Synagogues in the  Campo di Ghetto Nuovo
German and Italian synagogues in New Ghetto

In the image above, the German Synagogue is the large cream building behind the left-most tree. The doorway of the smaller cream building butted up against the German synagogue and seen to the left of the group seated in the background is that of the Museum Embraico which is also the site of a synagogue.

The Italian synagogue formerly occupied the pillared building on the right, its arched windows prominent. A passageway can just be resolved behind the green awning in the corner of the image. This open passageway leads to the Scola Canton, the next synagogue.

Scola Canton

The Canton School (1531-32) was constructed by the German Jews and can be identified by the (unrelated) rooftop wooden cupola.

The Scola Canton and the adjacent distinguishing wooden cupola
The Scola Canton in the New Getto

You can explore the interior of these synagogues here.

Shakespeare in the Ghetto  – The Merchant of Venice

The physical appearance of the ghetto is still representative of Venetian society during the 16th Century. Shakespeare wrote the ‘Merchant of Venice’ between 1596 and 1598, and so we can still imagine Shylock, the Jewish merchant, passing across an ancient bridge into the ghetto. But a visit to the New Ghetto and a familiarity with the history of the Jewish occupation lends context to understanding many of the quotations from the play.

When the play is studied, Shylock is often treated relatively dispassionately. This can particularly be the case if no-one has visited the ghetto. But a knowledge of the ghetto brings a new perspective.
Some of the following quotations reflect Shylock’s loyalty to the fundamentals of his faith and traditions. He also occasionally expressed disdain for Christians, based on the constraints placed on Jewish residences, occupations, freedom of movement, curfews and social isolation. This quite well explains his resentment as reflected in some of the following quotes.

“I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. What news on the Rialto?” (Shylock, Act 1 Scene 3) William Shakespeare Merchant of Venice

“How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian…” (Shylock, Act 1 Scene 3) William Shakespeare Merchant of Venice

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? … If you prick us do we not bleed? … And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?” (Shylock, Act 3 Scene 1) William Shakespeare Merchant of Venice

“He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.” (Shylock, Act 3 Scene 1) William Shakespeare Merchant of Venice

We can assume that Shylock made use of the Banco Rosso which was located on the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo for his occupation as a pawn broker and money lender. The Rialto also gets a mention in the play, as does its adjacent marketplace. We can assume that the trial took place in the Palazzo Ducale.

The Banco Rosso behind a partially boarded sottoportico, in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo.
Banco Rosso (centre-left behind tree and group) in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo

The Banco Rosso in the image above is fronted by a covered walkway, a sottoportico. The arches of the walkway are quite clear. To the right of the Banco Rosso is the entrance to the Sottoportego de Ghetto Novo which is an under-building passage way. It leads to a small bridge and the ghetto Novissimo. The German synagogue is seen as the right-most building in the image.

The Jewish Ghetto in Venice During World War 2

One of the themes that can be pursued during your visit to Europe is the impact of WW2. We asked ourselves the question; What happened to the Jewish community in Venice during WW2?
It was not difficult to imagine the control the Nazis would have exercised over the community on the small island that is the New Ghetto. The Nazis would have stood guard on the bridges. We could imagine them – uniformed, waving weapons, shouting, threatening, dogs barking. No one could get in or out.
There was a small museum, the Museo Embraico, also a synagogue, at one end of the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo. This would be a good place to start. We went in.

The displays of Jewish tradition, religion and scholarship were interesting and its holocaust exhibits not dissimilar to those of other small holocaust museums we have visited. But for one exception. On the landing at the top of a flight of stairs hung a photograph – a considerably enlarged photograph – a photograph of the Jewish community. All dressed up. All those faces. Young and old. Some smiling.

Jewish community assembled in front of the Spanish synagogue
Jewish community assembled in the Campiello de la Scuola

We scrutinised the photograph from the museum intently for clues as to the occasion but could only come away with a handful of guesses. But for the time we spent in the Museum Embraico we had only one image in our minds and only one question. What is the story behind the photograph that led to its being hung in the museum?

We approached the proprietor of a small business outside the museum that was located on one side of the square. We asked about the photograph. He told us that the Nazis had decided during WW2 to transport all the Jews in the ghetto to Auschwitz. He suggested that the photograph may be related to that occasion.

There was a back story. A set of anti-Semitic racial laws had been instituted in 1938. The Nazis replaced the racial laws when they entered Venice in 1943 with those of their own which incorporated the ‘Final Solution’. The Nazis confronted President Jona for a list of names of all Jews in the ghetto – men, women and children. He refused to tell them, and no doubt aware of the consequences, took his own life on 17 September. The Nazis were undeterred and obtained a list from elsewhere. Members of the community we spoke to had a variation of the account. They offered that it was the Rabbi who refused to divulge the names, was shot for his refusal, and identified the source of the list.

The persecution of Jews escalated when the Italian Social Republic declared Jews to be enemies of the State on the 30th November. The arrest and internment of Venetian Jews started on the evening of 5th December and was completed on the 22nd February. Originally they were interred in Italian concentration camps but once the Nazis assumed control, were transported to death camps in Poland, most likely Auschwitz. In all, 246 Venetian Jews, including the Rabbi (Adolfo Ottolenghi) were deported and only 8 survived.

The Holocaust Memorial in the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo

The business owner directed our attention to a memorial in the square – a telling piece of art that holds no punches in the form of five plaques exhibiting nazi abuse themes. Many readers would have seen it. It’s moving – a poignant remembrance of those in Venice who were innocent victims of Nazi atrocities and a reminder of a man who placed the lives of others above his own.

We cannot be certain of when the photograph was taken. Was it of the community before they had been taken away, or on the day they were taken away, or after the war had come to its end when the community had time to recover? The only ones who can tell us the whole story are in the photograph. If only photographs could talk.

Conclusion to Why A Visit To The Jewish Ghetto In Venice Is Not Easily Forgotten

Attitudes of travelers change over the years. Our first journeys tend to be frenetic races against the clock as we exhaust ourselves trying to squeeze in as many venues as possible. Those journeys are about looking – looking at scenery and looking at buildings and looking at what’s inside buildings.
Experience brings change. We start to look with more than our eyes. We did not intend to visit Venice again this trip but we thought it would be disrespectful to the ‘vecchia Signora’ if we passed her door and did not drop in. She embraced us with all her usual charm and as we made our way along the Grand Canal we were again immersed in her familiar noises and vitality.
But this trip Venice shared with us her history of the Jewish Ghetto. There is, in the saddened heart of the old lady Venice, a ghetto, a museum, a telling memorial, a photograph, the memory of a noble man and a story.
A visit to the Jewish district is highly recommended for anyone visiting Venice. It’s hard to forget.

Reference

The Jewish Museum of Venice
museoebraico.it/english/museo.html
PLUS images from the museum

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