The Venetian Ghetto
More background info: Venice
had connections with Judaism from ca. the 10th century onwards, and from the 13th century Jews began to settle in the city, mostly as merchants and moneylenders. They did not enjoy full freedom, though, and at various times had to pay extra taxes or wear special hats or markings on their clothes (precursors of the yellow star imposed by the Nazis
much later). Still, many Jews came to Venice from parts of Europe where they faced much worse persecution – and even expulsion. That’s how numerous Sephardic Jews from Spain
came to the lagoon city. They were also joined by German Jews as well as Roman ones (including the first Italian printer).
In 1516, the Doge (leader of Venice) and the ruling council decreed that the Jews of Venice were allowed to remain in the city but that they had to live in a confined space on an island called (in Venetian) “Gheto Novo”. This became the world’s first Jewish ghetto.
The word “ghetto” most likely derives from the Venetian word “geto” (also spelled “ghèto”, or “getto”), meaning ‘foundry’, as there was a foundry making cannons on this island. This can also solve the terminological confusion that comes from the first, older ghetto being designated “Nuovo”, meaning ‘new’, while the later extension of the ghetto with the arrival of Spanish Sephardic Jews became the “Ghetto Vecchio”, or ‘old ghetto’, despite being the newer one. Explanation: the ‘old’ and ‘new’ here refer to the former foundries, not the Jewish ghettos.
There were restrictions on movement, and during the night the two gates to the ghetto were closed and guards ensured nobody left or entered the ghetto until the gates were opened again in the morning. Inside the ghetto, living conditions weren’t the best but a stronger Jewish community developed nonetheless. Several synagogues for the various factions of Judaism were constructed in the 16th century too, typically on the top floors of multi-storey residential buildings.
The period in which the Jewish community of Venice flourished the most both economically and culturally was in the 17th century. This was followed by a period of decline in the first half of the 18th century. Economic activity was again restricted for Jews and this led to financial hardships.
The arrival of Napoleon
, who forced the Venetian Republic to dissolve, had a great impact on the Jewish ghetto too. It was Napoleon who ended the confinement of Jews to the ghetto and from now on they were free to go anywhere within Venice. A few stayed behind though, but especially the wealthier Jews preferred to move to other parts of the city. When Venice came under Austrian
Habsburg rule, some restrictions for Jews were brought back, but not confinement to the ghetto.
, Jewish life shrunk in Venice. Even though Jews were not as such persecuted yet under Italy
’s Fascists, Mussolini
’s increasing ties with Nazi
Germany threatened Jews in Italy too, especially after the outbreak of WWII
. After Mussolini was deposed and Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, Germany
invaded the northern half of the country, including Venice. Between late 1943 and August 1944, the Holocaust
arrived in Venice with the deportation of a couple of hundred Jews from the ghetto, mostly to Auschwitz
. Only a small handful survived and came back to Venice after WWII. About 1500 Jews still lived in Venice post-WWII but the numbers slowly fell to under a thousand by the mid-1960s, and today only ca. 500 Jews remain in Venice, less than three dozen of whom still live in the ghetto.
Yet, being the oldest and original ghetto in the world, this immense Jewish heritage remains an important aspect of Venice. In 2016, the 500th anniversary of the founding of the ghetto was celebrated with, among other things, a performance of William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”. That year also marked 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, so it was a double anniversary. Yet it was a premiere too: the first time that the play was staged at the very location where some of the action is set.
What there is to see:
The Ghetto square is (together with Campo San Geremia) the largest in the whole of Venice
’s Cannaregio district, and certainly atmospheric.
What gives its Jewish role away immediately are not so much the synagogues, which are quite hidden, but the presence of uniformed security guards. Sadly, this is a common sight and obviously a necessity still at most Jewish sites around the world. There are also a few Jews in traditional dress that underscore the Jewish association of the ghetto and of course there are the specific sites and memorials.
On the wall in the north-western corner of the square there’s a series of bronze bas-relief panels
made by the Jewish artist Arbit Blatas. These depict various aspects of the Holocaust
– deportation, torture, forced labour, executions, massacres. Grim!
The very grimmest bit, however, is a separate, larger bas-relief
(by the same artist and in the same style) in an installation to the east of the Kosher House (see below). This shows the arrival of a deportation train
at the ramp of Auschwitz
Look closely and you can spot little brass plaques set into the pavement. These are of the same sort you get in Germany
, where they are called “Stolpersteine” (literally ‘stumbling stones’), or in Austria
, where they are more transparently known as “Steine des Gedenkens” (‘stones of remembrance’). These state the names of Jewish deportees who perished in the Holocaust. They usually give the name, year of birth, deportation destination (mostly Auschwitz) and, where known, date of death.
Dotted around the New and Old Ghetto are various other plaques, some with wreaths, but with inscriptions mostly in Italian and/or Hebrew so I wasn’t able to decipher them and extract their deeper significance.
In the south-eastern corner of the Ghetto Nuovo square is the Museo Ebraico di Venezia – the Jewish Museum. In addition to its own collection of exhibits the museum also offers guided tours to some of the synagogues of the Ghetto. But as I didn’t go to the museum or on any of those tours I can’t say anything about their quality.
What I can vouch for, though, is the quality of the kosher food served in the Ghetto’s main Jewish restaurant – see below
! Other than that it’s just a very nice and peaceful corner of Venice
, which I found a splendid base from which to explore the rest of the city for a few days.
in the heart of the Cannaregio district (‘sestiere’) of Venice
, a good half mile (700m) to the north-east of the train station and ¾ of a mile (1.1 km) north-west from the Rialto Bridge.
Access and costs: within easy walking distance from the train station; free, except for guided tours.
Details: There are basically three routes for getting to the ghetto, from the Santa Lucia train station to the south-west of the ghetto take the main tourist drag to the left of the station square, via Campo San Geremia, cross Ponte delle Guglie, turn left and walk along the canal, then turn right through the arch into Calle Ghetto Vecchio. Walking to the end of this street takes you to the large square of the Ghetto Nuovo.
Coming from the east you can enter the ghetto via the Ponte de Gheto Novo which is at the western end of Calesele, which in turn branches off Rio Terà Farsetti.
The third option is entering the square from the north via a bridge (at the time of writing a temporary footbridge while the bridge proper is being rebuilt) that turns off left from Fondamenta dei Ormesini, which runs parallel to the Rio della Misericordia, the main waterway running through Cannaregio.
The latter is also where lots of bars and restaurants are located. There are also a couple right on the square of the New Ghetto as well as along Calle Ghetto Vecchio. To dine in style given the subject matter of the ghetto, you may want to consider trying the “Gam Gam” kosher restaurant at the south-western end of Calle Ghetto Vecchio. There are also a kosher shop and a bakery along that street.
As for accommodation
, there are a couple of options right within the ghetto, in particular the rather large Kosher House, the former Casa Israelitica di Reposa (a Jewish old people’s home), which is now a Jewish guest house offering the general public very decent rooms for comparatively budget prices (for Venice
). If you’re not Jewish, however, expect to feel a little out of place – at least that was my experience: my wife and I seemed to be indeed the only non-Jewish guests when we stayed there for three nights in 2020 (not that we were made unwelcome by anybody, far from it, but we did feel a little “exotic” here).
The Jewish Museum has these opening times: Sundays to Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., last guided tour in English at 3 p.m.); Fridays open only to 3:30 p.m. (last tour at 2 p.m.); closed Saturdays and on Jewish holidays. Admission and guided tours of a couple of the religious sites of the ghetto, including at least one synagogue: 10 EUR (concession 8 EUR).
Time required: not long for just a look around the main square and all the memorial plaques and bas-reliefs, which could easily be done in under half an hour. But you may want to go deeper and also see the museum and synagogues and perhaps even stay in the Jewish guest house.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Venice
The most topically related places to see in Venice would naturally be the two Jewish cemeteries on the outer island of Lido (see under Venice for details). The Jewish Museum in the ghetto can arrange guided tours there too (16 EUR per person).
Geographically the closest other dark site that has its own chapter on this website is the Cimitero di San Michele
, which can be reached by vaporetto (water bus) from the eastern part of Cannaregio, the district (‘sestiere’) that the ghetto is located in too.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Not everything about the ghetto is dark, of course. And the main square, the shops and restaurants are for general mainstream tourists too. The Jewish Museum may also appeal to non-Jews and non-dark-tourists.
See also under Venice
- ghetto 01 - eastern access
- ghetto 02 - main square looking west
- ghetto 03 - main square looking north
- ghetto 04 - Kosher House seen from the northwest
- ghetto 05 - Misericordia Canal
- ghetto 06 - memorial plaques
- ghetto 07 - deportation
- ghetto 08 - cultural destruction
- ghetto 09 - torture
- ghetto 10 - Vernichtung durch Arbeit
- ghetto 11 - execution
- ghetto 12 - massacre
- ghetto 13 - maybe the crushing of an uprising
- ghetto 14 - arrival at Auschwitz
- ghetto 15 - memorial plaques in the pavement
- ghetto 16 - wreath
- ghetto 17 - security
- ghetto 18 - hidden synagogue
- ghetto 19 - ghostly by night
- ghetto 20 - kosher food - gefilte fish and latkes