Ghetto (15)

The lively Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, in the Cannaregio, is today the centre of what was once the Jewish Quarter of the city. In fact, the word ghetto has its origin in Venice, the city in which, for the first time, the Jewish community was forced to live in segregation. 

It was in 1516 when the authorities of the Republic, alarmed at the enormous number of Jewish people who were living in the city, decided to confine them to this part of the Cannaregio previously occupied by some foundries, called geti in Venetian. From the singular geto, and due to the gutteral pronunciation of the Ashkenazi Jews, it came to be called ghetto. This was the word that began to be used from then to describe the area isolated by two bridges to which the Jews had to return at night, under penalty of confronting the Christian guards who were responsible for keeping watch on the entrances.

During the day, the Jews were allowed to move around the city, but not without previously identifying themselves with insignia and a special hat. Moreover, they were prohibited from carrying out the majority of professions, which forced them to concentrate mainly on running pawnshops and money lending, but with interest rates strictly controlled by the State.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the district steadily grew until occupying the areas known as the Ghetto Vecchio and the Ghetto Nuovissimo, due to the density of the population, as shown by some of the tallest buildings of the period. 

Also dating from this period was the construction of the big synagogues, here called schole, which by 1719 there were nine. These centres represented different ethnic groups that professed different schools of thought of Judaism. For example, while the Schola Grande Tedesca and the Schola Canton practiced the Ashkenazi form or worship, the Schola Levantina and the Schola Spagnola followed the Sephardic customs.

Despite persecution, five of these synagogues still exist, and the Spagnola and Ponentina synagogues are of special historical and architectural value, the two places where religious worship is still practiced today.

Ironically, the end of the Republic in 1797, which meant a cultural decline for many, was a particularly beneficial period for the Venetian Jews, since Napoleon decreed the end of the segregation policy, something that was definitively confirmed in 1866 when Venice came to form part of the Kingdom of Italy.

You should not forget, however, the ominous period that began in 1938, when the fascist authorities of the time initiated a new persecution policy, which culminated during the Second World War with the deportation of 200 Venetian Jews to the Nazi extermination camps. Today, a commemorative plaque recalls that only 8 of these citizens returned.

In the Campo di Ghetto Nuovo is also the small but illustrative Museo Ebraico, the Jewish Museum of Venice, which explains the Jewish culture to visitors. It also organises guided visits to the different synagogues, as well as to the beautiful and melancholic Jewish cemetery in the Lido.

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