Saturday, 19 February 2011

Veneto - the Jews of Venice

Something I didn't know about Venice was that it gave the world its first ever ghetto in the early 16th century.  Seen from an early 21st century viewpoint and after everything that happened during the last century, it's easy to condemn this action as a repressive one and a dangerous precedent for future centuries.  From a 16th century perspective, it's a bit more complicated.  Jewish history in Europe goes back thousands of years and, whilst the relationship between Jewish populations and their Christian and Muslim neighbours was never completely harmonious, there were times and places when everyone seemed to get along quite well. 

I first became aware of this when I was visiting Girona in Catalunya, a few years back.  Girona had a flourishing Jewish community back in the 12th century and Jews and Christians lived peacefully together for hundreds of years.  All of this changed with the Edict of Expulsion which saw all Jews expelled from Spain and Spanish territories, including the islands of Sardinia and Sicily - Sicily also had a sizeable Jewish population at this time.  The Portuguese expelled their Jewish population in 1497 and those who left, known as the Sephardi Jews sought refuge in more tolerant places in the Ottoman Empire and countries in northern Europe, like the Netherlands.  You can find out more about Jews in the Netherlands in my blog about the famous Sephardi philosopher Baruch de Spinoza

The Spanish expulsions triggered (yet another) wave of persecution against Jews in western and southern Europe.  Naples, which was also under Spanish rule, didn't expel its Jewish population, but the persecution of Jews was relentless in Italy throughout the early 16th century  It was in this context that the Venetians decided to confine their Jewish population to an area of the city which was uninhabited, ie. an island in the middle of the Cannaregio district of Venice, accessible by two main bridges and a place where the city's Jewish population could easily be 'protected' from anti-Jewish pogroms of their Christian neighbours. 

The origin of the word ghetto

Venice Ghetto by Adrian Murphy

I've read a few different sources on this, but most ethnologists agree that the word ghetto is a derivative of the Venetian word geto from the verb 'to throw/cast' (cf. French  jeter) which doesn't refer to the fact that the Jews were 'cast away' on this island, but rather to the slag heaps from the foundry where metal was cast.  It's hardly surprising that the Venetians came up with the ghetto concept, considering the nature of Venice, which is made up of hundreds of islands, separated (as the Jewish ghetto was) by canals and linked only by boats or bridges.  It was easy to 'seal off' an area of the city and force the Jewish population to live there. 

Although the ghetto was ostensibly a 'safe' place for Jews to live, guarded by Christian watchmen (who were paid for by the Jewish population), in reality it was, like most of the world's subsequent ghettos, nothing more than a living prison.  Jews were only allowed to roam the rest of the city during the daytime and were forced to wear red caps and badges, so they could easily be identified.  As in other parts of the Europe, the Jews were limited in terms of the professions they could have - in Venice, they were limited to work involving textiles, taxes and medicines.  Jewish doctors were renowned and the Venetian Doge always had a Jew as his personal physician.  I wonder what happened if the Doge were taken ill at night!

Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic?

Shylock and Jessica by Gottlieb
 Probably the most famous representation of life for Jews in Venice was Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.  To my great shame, I've never read the play but, as part of my research for this blog, I watched the 2004 film version by Michael Radford.  It's a great movie, with a star-studded cast, including Jeremy Irons, Al Pacino (who played Shakespeare's most famous Jew, Shylock), Lynn Collins and Joseph Fiennes.  By all accounts, the movie uses most of the lines in the original play and, whilst I don't think it was Shakespeare's greatest play (although my unfamiliarity with the text could be clouding my judgement), it did have some classic lines, such as 'all that glisters is not gold' and I was really moved by Shylock's famous Hath not a Jew eyes? speech.

As to whether or not Shakespeare was anti-Semitic?  The story of The Merchant of Venice is incredibly anti-Semitic and Shylock is presented as a caricature, more than a character, a stereotype of the Jew that an Elizabethan audience would recognise and despise.  But in the Hath not a Jew eyes? speech, it's as though Shakespeare is trying to get through the prejudices of his audience and is appealing for greater tolerance towards Jews. 

In the modern age, everyone wants to claim Shakespeare.  We all want to know whether or not he was gay, or racist, anti-Semitic, sexist or even whether or not he was actually a she.  Whilst I think it's important to speculate and this raises some interesting questions for discussion, Shakespeare was writing for an audience that he (or she!) understood very well and I'm not sure his personal opinions really came into it.  If a writer creates a character that is anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, does that mean that the writer is any of these things?  I don't think it does.  Writers portray the society they live in and Shakespeare's plays reflect the world as it was in the late 16th century. 

I think Radford recognised the need to adapt Shylock for a 21st century audience and although he doesn't contemporise the play, as Baz Luhrmann did with Romeo and Juliet, he does direct a portayal of Shylock that is more sympathetic to a modern audience.  The danger of The Merchant of Venice is the powerful nature of Shylock's caricaturisation.  The play was popular in Nazi Germany, when it was used to vindicate the hatred the Nazis had for Jewish people.

Extension of the meaning of ghetto

One way or another, the idea of the Jewish ghetto caught on and, although it wasn't always called this, there were Jewish ghettos in most European cities.  Whilst western Europeans were persecuting Jews in the 16th century, the Polish Empire was pretty tolerant so that, by the 20th century, Poland and other eastern European countries had large Jewish populations.  When the Nazis invaded Poland, they re-established the Jewish ghettos of eastern Europe, the most famous one being in Warsaw.  The Warsaw Ghetto saw an estimated 400,000 Jews cramped in unbearable conditions in a tiny area of the city.  100,000 people died of disease and starvation in the Warsaw Ghetto, even before the Nazis started carting Jews off to the concentration camps, like the one at Auschwitz/Oświęcim.  The ghetto was completely destroyed after an uprising in 1943.

The modern concept of ghetto has extended to include any section of a city that has a large ethnic (and usually impoverished) population.  Some of the most famous ghettos are in the United States, especially in New York, where ghettos were established in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, in East Harlem and in Brighton Beach.  Of course, modern ghettos aren't usually enforced by law, but come into existence due to immigration patterns and are usually reinforced by a vicious circle of invisible 'social boundaries' that keep the ghetto's inhabitants impoverished and out of the wealthier (and usually whiter) parts of the city.  Sociologists like Loic Wacquant described this as hyperghettoization, which leads to certain parts of a city becoming unmanageable in terms of providing infrastructure.  When hyperghettoization occurs, it becomes even harder to break the cycles of violence and poverty for the people who live there. 

The early 20th century saw a lot of black people migrate from the poorer southern states of the US, to the industrial cities of the north, such as Chicago and Detroit.  Much more than in the UK, American cities seem to be incredibly segregated, in terms of race.  Not through deliberate planning by the city authorities, but because of immigration patterns and the effects of hyperghettoization.  In the post World War 2 period, a social phenomenon, known as 'white flight', emerged, where poorer white families in the ghettos, who had more social mobility due to the colour of their skin, moved up the social ladder and migrated to the suburbs of places like Chicago and Detroit, leaving the ghettos almost completely inhabited by black communities, compounding the alienation and ghettoization of black culture.

Venice skyscraper by Jon Kleinman
 Getting back to the idea of the ghetto as a place of protection of refuge, there are constant debates in the LGBT community about the ghettoization of gay culture.  Whilst many modern cities have a specific gay area, often called a 'village', like Soho in London or Le Marais in Paris (which was previously a Jewish ghetto), many gay people argue that there is a real danger in living separately from the mainstream of society.  Ghettoization can reinforce the isolation of the gay community and led to greater stereotyping of people who are LGBT.

The Venetian ghetto today

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the original Jewish ghetto in Venice, is that Venetian Jews were still confined there until as late as 1866.  Although Napoleon's armies pulled down the gates of ghettos all over Europe, the Austrians re-established the Venetian ghetto and Jews continued to live there for most of the 19th century.  As the population of the ghetto increased, its inhabitants were forced to build upwards, so that the buildings of the ghetto began to ressemble 19th-century skycrapers!  The ghetto is still in existence today and is somewhat of a cultural centre for Jews in Venice.  Like most of Venice, it's now more of a tourist attraction. 

Image credits:

The image of the flag of Veneto was provided copyright-free on Wikimedia, the original image having been supplied by wikuser Vajotwo with this derived version being added by wikiuser Flanker - you can see a more detailed description of this image at

The image of the Venice Ghetto sign is by flickruser adrian, acediscovery, a fellow-Irish man, originally from Cork, but now living in London.  Adrian is also interested in travel and the world around us - you can see more of his work (both writing and imagery) on his blog  You can also follow Adrian on Twitter @acediscovery

The image of Shylock and Jessica is by the Jewish painter Maurycy Gottlieb and is in the public domain. 

The image of the 'Venice skyscraper' is by flickuser drdad aka, Jon Kleinman who is from Dayton, Ohio.  You can see more of Jon's photos at
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