02 July 2008

Italy: Venice's ghetto

Benjie Fowler, 28, is a freelance art history tutor and tour leader for UK and worldwide travel companies, and does private guiding in and around Rome. His work is focused on Italy, where he's developing a business organising art history. He writes a blog about his experiences and in a recent post discussed the Ghetto of Venice.
Barely tolerated elsewhere in Italy, Jews were able to live in Venice as they undoubtedly benefited the city. Not that they were treated well – they were used as scapegoats to reduce internal political tension and excluded from all trade and positions except lending money (which was prohibited by Christian doctrine). In 1508 when Venice was under attack from the pan-European League of Cambrai, the Jews of the Veneto took refuge in the lagoon and were welcomed as they brought with them much-needed wealth in a time of crisis. But a mere 8 years later, March 29th 1516, the Doge decreed that all Jews should be housed in the secure area around the old foundry, locked in at midnight and guarded (at their own expense) by Christian gatekeepers. From the Italian word gettare meaning ‘to cast’, the first geto was born.
Some of the buildings are seven stories tall, with low ceilings. The Ghetto Novo (formed in 1516) forms a ring, surrounded by water. Fowler points to a passageway:
Looking closer at the passageway leading to one of the three bridges, square indentations in the stone were left by the hinges on the gates that closed the Ghetto by night, until they were removed by Napoleon’s troops in 1797.
When the Germans occupied Venice, more than 200 Jews were deported; only seven survived. Fowler discusses the six 16th and 17th century synagogues of different communities, when Venice was a great center of rabbinical culture and where Hebrew printers thrived. He writes that the community provided doctors to the Queen of France, and Pope Paul III, and began new communities in London and Amsterdam. Henry VIII even consulted a Venetian rabbi in his divorce suit against Katherine of Aragon.

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