It was to here in 1516 that each of the 1,000 Jews living in Venice at the time was forced to relocate. The Venetians had been ordered by the pope in Rome to expel the Jews altogether, but chose instead to contain them within an easily controlled area. Whether they were wealthy landlords or humble traders, each Jewish family was given a few days to clear out of their homes and squeeze onto this tiny island. Tucked away from the Grand Canal and the major trading routes, it was considered an undesirable part of Venice. The island had once been home to a foundry, or gheto in the Venetian dialect, and the name stuck when the new inhabitants moved in: this was the world’s first Jewish Ghetto.
Several synagogues were established in the ghetto: at first by the Ashkenazi Jews of German and northern European origin, and later by the Sephardi Jews from the Mediterranean. These later arrivals were given favourable status by the Venetian authorities who valued their connections with the dominant Ottoman Empire. They were allowed to settle in what is now confusingly known as the Old Ghetto, an area backing onto a strategically important arm of the Grand Canal.
Celebration of the area’s Jewish heritage is now evident as soon as you cross the Ponte de Gheto Novo to enter the main square. Young Lubavitch men in distinctive white shirts and uniform beards encourage visitors to join in traditional Jewish songs and dances, while nearby shops sell religious gifts for visitors to take home. The synagogues of the ghetto are open to visitors by guided tour and show the dramatic contrast between the modest Ashkenazi prayer rooms (with some of its original 16th-century decoration intact) and the Baroque-inspired opulence of the Sephardic synagogue, built clearly as much for show as for function. Those with a hankering for traditional Jewish cuisine can join the queues at Gam Gam, a popular restaurant that has attracted good reviews for its wide selection of fresh Mediterranean dishes.
Confinement in the ghetto ended in 1797 with Napoleon’s conquest of Venice, but the Jewish community was to suffer further tragedy during World War II. Initially considered safe in the early years of Mussolini’s fascist rule, the Jews were later persecuted and eventually 248 were deported to German concentration camps. Only eight returned. Back in the main square of the ghetto is a high wall topped with an eerie barbed wire fence and a series of plaques commemorating those who perished in the Holocaust.
While the creation of the ghetto in the 16th century was intended to deal with ‘the Jewish problem’ as the Church saw it, history shows the policy probably had an unexpected consequence. Venetian historian Monica Vidoni, who shows visitors around the ghetto as part of Context Travel’s Shylock’s Venice walk, pointed out that while life in the ghetto was undoubtedly harsh for the 280 years of its existence, it did strengthen the bonds within the Jewish community who were forced to live together. The resulting sense of Jewish identity was perhaps stronger than it would have been if the community had been free to integrate into Venetian society.