The Venetian Ghetto: An Experiment in Containment, 1516-1866

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2021-04-30

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Established in 1516 on an abandoned manufacturing site, the Ghetto of Venice was an experiment in containment as a means of maintaining coexistence between the early modern Republic’s Christian and Jewish populations. The walls that surrounded the Venetian Ghetto served both Christians and Jews, limiting movement while simultaneously providing protection and socioeconomic stability to both groups. My interdisciplinary analysis of the Ghetto, comprised of the History of Ideas, Social Art History, and Literary Studies reveals the unique role it played in cultural assimilation. The Senate decree of March 29, 1516 states, “two high walls shall be built to close off the other two sides [of the Ghetto], which rise above the canals, and all the quays attached to the...houses shall be walled in.”1 The language of the decree subjugates Venice’s Jewish population, yet it also acknowledges Venice’s economic reliance on a Jewish presence. Visual and literary art created between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries by Ghetto residents and non-residents, including city maps, Ghetto residential plans, and Jewish poetry, uncovers the complex role played by the Ghetto in the minority group’s assimilation into the majority. The Ghetto was intended by Venetian authorities to enhance the Otherness of the Venetian Jew, both in location and construction quality. Venetian Jews, on the other hand, reconceptualized the Ghetto as protection against anti-Jewish Christians.2 The Ghetto both maintained and challenged Christian dominance over Jews; for the Ghetto walls and overly crowded residences subjugated Jewish residents by enclosing them and barring access from Christian space. Nevertheless, Jewish poets in the seventeenth century transformed the Ghetto walls into fortifications, the bridges into drawbridges, and the canals into purifying water that washed anti-Judaism from Venice’s shores. Visual representations of the Ghetto likewise depict the nuanced nature of the Ghetto in early modern Christian-Jewish relations, wherein the Ghetto is represented as a fortress. The significance of the Ghetto’s walls lies in their duality, by which Christians and Jews were granted space to develop cultural identities that later contributed to a unified Venetian identity following Jewish Emancipation. The importance of this duality lies in the long-term development of Venice as a leader in European cultural and economic development.

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Venice (Italy) -- History -- 1508-1797, Italy -- History -- 1815-1870, Jewish ghettos, Jews -- Emancipation, Assimilation (Sociology), Christianity and other religions -- Judaism

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