The World’s First Jewish Ghetto

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    In 1516 a decree ordered that all the Jews in Venice be relocated to geto, an island in the old foundry area – geto from the Italian word to cast or found – giving Venice the dubious distinction of having the world’s first so-called “ghetto”. The Campo Gheto Nuovo was located in the Cannaregio sestiere (one of the six districts of Venice) and was surrounded by canals. Coming and going was strictly controlled and Christian guards were stationed at each of the three exit bridges. Ironically, the Jewish community was forced to pay the salaries for their “service”. There were many restrictions imposed on the Jewish community regarding the hours they were permitted to be out of the ghetto and the trades they were allowed to practice.

    Jews brought wealth and learning and were conditionally welcomed in Venice, but like every other ethnic group, were segregated from the Venetians. Segregation seemed to be the order of the day since as each successive wave of Jews seeking asylum from the persecution in their home countries arrived they congregated together in the small area allotted to them according to their language, culture and national identity. Each group built their own synagogue (scola) and because space was at a premium, several were built on different floors in the same building that now houses the Museo Communità Ebraica. The museum organizes tours of the ghetto, the Jewish Cemetery, and the five synagogues which are rotated for viewing according to the time of the year.

    When the designated area could no longer hold the expanding community, another section called “Gheto Vecchio” was consigned for Jewish settlement and joined to the adjacent existing one. Actually the names are confusing as the original ghetto (Nuovo) means “new” and the new section (Vecchio) means “old”.

    Venice Bridge to the Gheto Novo

    Synagogues were referred to as “schools” since they served different functions: teaching ritual observance and religious law, as well as gathering for prayers.  The German (Ashkenazi) were the first to construct their one floor synagogue in 1528; while the Sephardic in 1580 built the grandest of the synagogues “Scola Spagnola” (Spanish school) in its own building. It was called a “clandestine synagogue” because under Venetian law, Jewish religious buildings were mandated to be inconspicuous. It had a simple unadorned façade, with just a small discreet plaque, while the interior was grand due to the prosperity of the Sephardic community. Since architecture was not one of the “approved” trades for Jews, they hired renowned Italian Baroque architect Baldasarre Longhene – a student of Vincenzo Scamozzi and Andrea Palladio – to build their sumptuous synagogue and provided him with written instructions as to their ritual requirements.

    Longhene was responsible for building many of the monumental buildings and churches of Venice — including the Basilica de Santa Maria della Salute — and designed the scola according to his taste, not strictly adhering to all the instructions he had been given. Curiously, instead of being outraged, it seems the community accepted their synagogue’s resemblance to a church and was proud of its elegance and beauty.

    Another interesting factlet: marble was a valuable commodity strictly reserved for churches and Venetian nobility and Jews were barred from its use to build or even decorate their synagogues. To emulate the look of marble, a technique called “marmorino” was employed which – at the time – was painting with a feather to resemble the striations inherent in marble. Nowadays marble is readily available and marmorino is the coveted and more expensive decorating material.

    The ghetto existed in a defined space, so instead of building out, the Jews were forced to build up, and the term “skyscrapers of Venice” refers to the seven and eight story buildings existing only in the ghetto. It wasn’t until 1797 when Napoleon occupied the city and opened the heretofore locked gates of the ghetto that physical segregation was ended. Nowadays the ghetto is completely integrated and only the Scola Spagnola still holds services.

    Burano Lace Jewish Star

    It is worth noting that in Campo San Moisè, a square not far from Piazza San Marco, there is a church dedicated to (Saint) Moses (Venetians considered Old Testament prophets saints). It has a high-baroque façade designed by Alessandro Tremignon, with an array of life-size statues and an altar sculpture by Heinrich Meyring. Moses stands at the very top of the church and if you look closely you will see horns protruding from his forehead. The altar sculpture is a monumental work of art and it too casts Moses with horns… Michelangelo was not the only artist to portray Moses in this fashion; during the 15th and 16th centuries many did so. It was the result of a mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible into the Latin Vulgate Bible. The Hebrew should have been translated into a “great radiation of light” or “rays of light” streaming out of Moses’ head from being so close to the Lord. Perhaps the problem rests with Saint Jerome’s translation which actually describes Moses as “giving off hornlike rays”. Regardless, for hundreds of years Jews were thought of as devils with horns. Even in the States many years ago, when I was taking a motor trip across the country, I was stopped for a few days in Oklahoma with car trouble, and was asked where my horns were when it was discovered that I was of Jewish descent. As a student of art I was aware of Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses but I was horrified that at the dawn of the 21st century people still believed that Jews actually had horns.

    So regardless that the word ghetto was coined in Venice and came to mean a space segregating and confining Jews apart from the greater population – and under living conditions far from pleasant – and notwithstanding Shakespeare’s rather cruel portrayal of Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice”, at least in the Venetian Republic to some degree Jews were protected by law, allowed to practice their religion and prosper financially. This was a monumental liberal achievement in the 16th century when Jews in other regions of Italy — and surrounding countries that were under the Pope’s sway — were forced to convert or flee with little more than their lives. Even at one point Venice was harshly sanctioned by Rome for its liberal policies regarding its Jewish population but they continued to defy edicts from Pope Paul IV and declined to impose the rigid restrictions Rome demanded.

    Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis

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