Venice Ghetto at 500 explores its legacy on Jewish life

“Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500,” a new exhibit at the Jewish Community Library, explores the history of the Venice ghetto and the centuries of Jewish life inside it. The exhibit, a joint presentation with the Museo Italo Americano of San Francisco, offers two sets of photos of the place — one from the 1930s and one from the present day.

“We can’t celebrate the founding of the first ghetto, but we can commemorate it through panels that explain the broader themes of the exhibit,” said Andy Muchin, the library’s program coordinator. “The panels show that, though difficult, ghetto life in Venice did have some benefits.” 

Scuola Grande Tedesca (Great German Synagogue) then. photos/courtesy martin munkácsi

Location was not one of them.

On March 29, 1516, all Jews in Venice — Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Turkish and Italian — were ordered to move to Campo di Ghetto Nuovo, an island in the northwest quadrant of the city, just over an acre in size, where cannons once were made. “Ghetto” is derived from the Venetian word “geto,” or foundry.

“The Venetian government gave the Jews a dump,” said Murray Baumgarten, who spoke March 29 at the exhibit’s opening. “The Venetians built islands by putting poles in the sand and covering the area to make little islands that eventually coalesced into bigger islands. The seven- and eight-story buildings in the ghetto all list today, because they don’t have a good foundation.”

An adviser for the exhibit, Baumgarten directs the program in Jewish studies at U.C. Santa Cruz and is a founding member of the Venice Center for International Jewish Studies.

The exhibit “tells the story of the first ghetto and how its founding became a metaphor for all places related to it,” Baumgarten said. “It changed Jewish life and, later, life in the West.”

The Jews were locked in every night, and had to pay for the guards who locked the gates. Curfew was extended only for doctors, professors and entertainers. Because the Bible forbids lending money at interest to one’s own community, the Venetian government called on Jews to serve as moneylenders, doing business with Christians.

And now

“By putting Jews in a ghetto and saying they could do this for a living, the Jews were ‘branded’ with a place of residence and a profession,” Baumgarten said. “From then on, Jews were identified with money in a way they had not been before.” Jews also functioned as merchants and pawnbrokers, dealing in secondhand clothing, curtains, chairs and other small items.

In a nod to arguably the most famous Jew of Venice, the exhibit includes a small display on the fictional Shakespearean character of Shylock. “Shakespeare wrote ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in 1600, when the Venice ghetto had been in existence for 80 years,” Muchin said. “We have an old engraving of a scene from the play and a photo of the Italian coin mentioned in the play.”

Contemporary photographs by Alberto Jona Falco of Milan feature four of the five synagogues still standing in what was the Venice ghetto, which was officially abolished in 1797. Interior shots show the colorful and ornate decoration, while exterior shots illustrate architectural styles.

“You can see the difference in the subcultures of synagogue design,” Muchin said. “They all show Italian architectural concepts, but each has its own feel.”

The second set of photos is of street scenes in the Venice ghetto in the late 1930s, photographed by Erno Munkácsi, founder of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and a member of the Board of the Jewish Council of Budapest. Munkácsi also wrote books about Jewish communities in Hungary and elsewhere in Italy.

The exhibit includes images of pages from the first complete Talmud, printed in the ghetto between 1519 and 1523. Cultural figures who had an impact throughout Italy and beyond are here, too. A plaque shows the translation of a sonnet by poet Sara Copia Sullam, whose work reflects on the difficulties of living as a Jew. One display discusses Salamone Rossi, an Italian Jewish violinist and composer who specialized in religious music.

On display through July 31, “Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500” sets out to explore how the Venice ghetto’s “complex fabric of isolation and interaction resonates with our contemporary Jewish experience” and succeeds at revealing the power of a Jewish community.

“Il Ghetto: The Venice Ghetto at 500,” through July at Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F.

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.