Venetian Ghetto in Venice

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The Venetian Ghetto was the area of Venice in which Jews were compelled to live under the Venetian Republic. It is from its name in Italian ("ghetto"), that the English word "ghetto" is derived: in the Venetian language it was named "ghèto".


The English term "ghetto" is an Italian loanword, which actually comes from the Venetian word "ghèto", slag, and was used in this sense in a reference to a foundry where slag was stored located on the same island as the area of Jewish confinement. An alternative etymology is from Italian borghetto, diminutive of borgo ‘borough’.

Location and geography

The Ghetto is an area of the Cannaregio sestiere of Venice, divided into the Ghetto Nuovo ("New Ghetto"), and the adjacent Ghetto Vecchio ("Old Ghetto"). These names of the ghetto sections are misleading, as they refer to an older and newer site at the time of their use by the foundries: in terms of Jewish residence, the Ghetto Nuovo is actually older than the Ghetto Vecchio.


Though it was home to a large number of Jews, the population living in the Venetian Ghetto never assimilated to form a distinct, "Venetian Jewish" ethnicity. Four of the five synagogues were clearly divided according to ethnic identity: separate synagogues existed for the German (the Scuola Grande Tedesca), Italian (the Scuola Italiana), Spanish and Portuguese (the Scuola Spagnola), and Levantine Sephardi communities (The Scola Levantina). The fifth, the Scuola Canton, is believed to have been either French, or a private synagogue for the families who funded its construction. Today, there are also populations of Ashkenazic Jews in Venice, mainly Lubavitchers who operate one of two kosher foodstores, a yeshiva, and the aforementioned Chabad synagogue.

Languages historically spoken in the confines of the Ghetto include Venetian, Italian, Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Arabic, French, and German. In addition, Hebrew was traditionally (and still is) used on signage, inscriptions, and for official purposes such as wedding contracts (as well as, of course, in religious services). Today, English is widely used in the shops and the Museum because of the large number of English-speaking tourists.

The Ghetto today

Today, the Ghetto is still a center of Jewish life in the city. The Jewish Community of Venice, that counts 500 people, is of such cultural vitality that it is often a centre for the cultural life of the entire city.

In fact, the number of cultural initiatives launched seems totally out of proportion to the small size of the community itself: every year, for example, there is an international conference on Hebrew Studies, with particular reference to the history and culture of the Veneto. Other conferences, exhibitions and seminars are held throughout the course of the year.

The temples not only serve as places of worship but also provide lessons on the sacred texts and the Talmud for both children and adults, along with courses in Modern Hebrew, while other social facilities include a kindergarten, an old people's home, A guest house, The Kosher House Giardino dei Melograni, a Kosher Restaurant "Hostaria del Ghetto" and a bakery. Along with its architectural and artistic monuments, the community also boasts a Museum of Jewish Art, the Renato Maestro Library and Archive and the new Info Point inside the Midrash Leon da Modena.

In the Ghetto area there is also a yeshiva, several Judaica shops, and a Chabad synagogue run by Chabad of Venice. Although only around 300 of Venice's roughly 1,000 Jews still live in the Ghetto, many return there during the day for religious services in the two synagogues which are still used (the other three are only used for guided tours, offered by the Jewish Community Museum).

Notable residents

Notable residents of the Ghetto include Leon of Modena, whose family originated in France, as well as his disciple Sarah Coppio Sullam. She was an accomplished writer, debater (through letters), and even hosted her own salon. Meir Magino, the famous glassmaker also came from the ghetto.

In fiction

  • William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, written ca. 1595, features Shylock, a Venetian Jew, and his family.
  • Arnold Wesker's play The Merchant written in 1978 retells the story of Shylock and opens in the Nuovo Ghetto.
  • Geraldine Brooks' 2008 novel People of the Book which traces the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah has a chapter with action taking place in 1609 in the Venetian Ghetto.
  • Sarah Dunant's novel In the Company of the Courtesan, written in 2006, has some scenes which take place in an Jewish pawnshop in the Ghetto
  • Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell features a scene in the Ghetto.
  • Hugo Pratt: Venezianische Legende. Corto Maltese. Bd 8. Novel. Carlson, Hamburg 1985, 1998.
  • Mirjam Pressler: Shylocks Tochter. Venedig im Jahre 1568. Novel. Alibaba Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1999, Bertelsmann, München 2005.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke: Eine Szene aus dem Ghetto. in: Rilke: Geschichten von lieben Gott. Insel, Leipzig 1931, Argon, Berlin 2006. (div. weitere Ausg.)
  • The trilogy by Israel Zangwill:
    • Kinder des Ghetto. 1897. Cronbach, Berlin 1897, 1913 (German)
    • Träumer des Ghetto. 1898. Cronbach, Berlin 1908, 1922 (German)
    • Komödien des Ghetto. 1907. Cronbach, Berlin 1910 (German)]

See also

  • Moses Soave
  • Arnold Wesker
  • History of the Jews in Venice


External links