It is nearly 500 years to the day when, on March 29 1516, the Venetian authorities assigned the site of a polluted, disused “geto”, the Italian for foundry, in the north of the city as where Jews would be segregated from the Christian community.
Wooden gates were erected, all exits were locked, and doors and windows walled up. The authorities ordered that the gates “shall be closed at midnight by four Christian guards appointed and paid for by the Jews”, and opened in the morning. Those found outside the area were subject to heavy fines and imprisonment. It was the first attempt to systematically segregate a community solely on the grounds of their religion. The decision gave birth to the ghetto, one of the most notorious words in history, a byword for discrimination, persecution, poverty and urban deprivation, forever associated with the horrors of the Nazi atrocities of the 1930s and 1940s.
Today, entering the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo, a square in the city’s northern district of Cannaregio, one of the first things a visitor sees are the two bas-relief memorials to the 247 men, women and children who were deported from the ghetto in 1944 and died in the concentration camps in 1944.
When I visited the ghetto last month, I talked about the memorials to Shaul Bassi, director of the Venice Centre for International Jewish Studies, who also teaches literature at the University of Ca’ Foscari in Venice. Shaul is one of the organisers of this year’s 500th anniversary commemorations of the ghetto’s foundation, which will include, among many other events, a performance of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, scheduled to take place later this summer.
He is of course anxious to honour the memory of the terrible events that happened in the ghetto in 1944, but he also wants to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of the ghetto’s previous 400 years in spite of its enduring legacy of segregation and persecution. Part of the community’s success can still be seen in all its glory in the five 16th-century synagogues that Shaul shows me, all on or around the central square. The Spanish, Levantine, Italian, Canton and German synagogues (or ”Schola” as they were known) were all built within a generation of the ghetto’s creation, a testament to the confidence and prosperity of the diverse Jewish community that flourished in the ghetto.
Shaul and many of the other members of the community I spoke to were eager to stress the paradoxical nature of the ghetto. Although built as a place of exclusion, it also enabled Ashkenazi, Levantine, Sephardic and Ponentine Jews from across Europe and the Mediterranean to escape endemic persecution and live within the safety of its walls, observing their own particular languages, customs, cuisine and religious beliefs while pursuing a rich variety of commercial, artistic and scientific endeavours.
The Venetian authorities were indifferent to such developments, as long as the financial consequences of the Jews’ commercial prosperity washed through the city.
In its seventeenth-century heyday, an estimated 5,000 Jews lived in the ghetto. Constrained by space – the ghetto was just one of the 118 tiny islands that make up the city – the community was forced to build upwards, sometimes as high as seven floors, giving the area its unique architecture. It is an enduring feature of ghettos from Venice to Harlem that their inevitable poverty and overcrowding also produces remarkable cultural innovation.
Jewish publishing houses were founded (although printing within the ghetto was prohibited and was undertaken by the city’s many Christian printers). Over a third of Europe’s printed books in Hebrew were published in Venice.
Daniel Bomberg, who worked in the city from 1516 until his death in 1549, published more than 230 of them. He oversaw the first printed edition of the Mikraot Gedolot, the Pentateuch, and selections from Prophets, the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud.
Bomberg’s publications offer an insight into the porousness of the ghetto, despite official prescriptions limiting contact between Jews and Christians. Jewish scholars worked alongside Christian publishers outside of the ghetto, as did many valued Jewish musicians and physicians. At the same time, Christians came to trade in the ghetto and were involved in the design and building of its grand synagogues.
Such exchanges influenced some of the ghetto’s most innovative and influential individuals, none more than Leon Modena (1571-1648). Born in Venice, Leon was the descendant of a French Jewish family who quickly rose to become a respected rabbi, a brilliant scholar and a passionate musician.
His works included the theological treatise Shield and Sword, which he described as “my treatise against the Christians”, and where he defended Judaism and criticised Christianity; The History of the Rites of the Jews, translated in many languages and believed to have influenced the decision to readmit the Jews into England in 1656; and the remarkably confessional autobiography, The Life of Judah, which provided a unique insight into life in the ghetto as well as Leon’s turbulent personal life.
Leon was a mass of contradictions. A pious man, he was a gambler who also criticised and then defended various aspects of Kabbalah and Talmudic traditions. He established a music school in the ghetto and, in the 1620s, supported the Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi in writing his Hebrew Songs of Solomon, which fused Jewish monophonic liturgical music with the baroque, madrigal style he had learnt from Monteverdi in Mantua.
It was a daring step that challenged the traditions of Jewish cantorial music, driven by Leon’s interest in music outside his own tradition, and a desire to innovate.
He also befriended and worked with one of the ghetto’s greatest literary figures, Sara Coppio Sullam (1592-1641). She established a literary salon, wrote sonnets to Catholic noblemen and defended herself against Christian accusations of heresy in her Manifesto (1621), in which she ”refutes and disavows the opinion denying immortality of the soul”.
But, by the time Leon and Sara died in the mid-17th century, Venice and the ghetto’s fortunes were in decline. As the city’s commercial influence waned, so did its Jewish population. In 1797, Napoleon’s invading French army brought the Venetian Republic and its ghetto to an end. Incensed by what they called “the barbarous and senseless name of Ghetto”, Napoleon’s troops ripped the gates off their hinges and burnt them in the main square, accompanied by music, dancing and rejoicing. One history of the ghetto came to an end, although its even darker 20th-century manifestations were of course still to come.
Today, members of Venice’s Jewish community, like Shaul Bassi, acknowledge that the 500th anniversary commemorations must tread a careful line between acknowledging the ghetto’s history of segregation while also celebrating its achievements.
It is a complex heritage, as he admits: “The ghetto is not an easy place; it does not produce a clear-cut message nor does it have the arresting beauty of the rest of Venice”. As well as acknowledging the ghetto’s rich historical legacy, Bassi wants to balance its architectural heritage alongside it as a place where some of the city’s 500-strong Jewish community still lives.
There is also a temptation to romanticise the ghetto, which Bassi and others resist. The novelist Howard Jacobson, author of Shylock is My Name, and a recent participant in events commemorating it, points to the current vogue for “ghetto chic”; when in Rome, he heads for what survives of its ghetto, today filled with kosher restaurants and tourist guides. He also acknowledges the importance of laughing at our current social mores surrounding ghettoisation in places like north London.
Nevertheless, he told me: ”we should be very pleased that, in Europe at least, ghettos are no more. They’re bad for the people who are inside and those who are outside, because they form lurid ideas of what goes on in the ghetto.
“We are most afraid of people when they are being secretive and doing something behind closed doors or a gated community”. Bassi agrees as he prepares to celebrate the Venetian ghetto’s divided legacy, today more of a floating island without walls, but one which still bears the scars of segregation.
The German philosopher Walter Benjamin famously said that every document of civilisation is also a document of barbarism. Perhaps, in remembering the Venice ghetto, we should reverse Benjamin’s formulation and marvel that, in spite of the barbarism that gave birth to the ghetto; in spite of the forces ranged against it, its civilisation flourished.
*This article was published in the London Jewish Chronicle on March 3, 2016.