Strange Geographies: The First Ghetto

Ransom Riggs

Venice is a city known for its stunning art masterpieces and its architectural marvels, for its famous canals, for being the birthplace of Vivaldi and a haven for classical music and opera lovers. It is not widely known for its ghetto -- and yet the very word itself comes from Venice. Prior to the 16th century, the Jewish quarter of Venice was a foundry, or in Italian, a getto. To control the spread of fire should one break out, the foundry was on an island bordered on all sides by canals. But in 1516, when the city became crowded with refugees after a war with the Papal States, it was decreed that Venice's 1,000 Jews should all live together in one place -- the old foundry island, where they could be locked in at night, though free to roam the city during daylight hours.

The ghetto still stands today, and though it's obviously no longer mandatory, some 450 Jews live there and many more come to attend synagogues, study, and eat together at the ghetto's excellent kosher restaurants. Though officially-designated Jewish quarters existed in Spain and elsewhere hundreds of years before Venice had one, when I visited Venice several weeks ago, I was curious to see what the place where the word "ghetto" was born looked like today. This is what I found.

From one of the bridges leading to the gheto vecchio, you can see the main campo.

When Jews from Spain and Portugal flooded into Venice to escape the Inquisition in 1541, the ghetto welcomed them with open arms -- but soon ran out of space. The solution was to build higher, thus creating a neighborhood of medieval mini-skyscrapers.

The ghetto is tiny -- little more than a cluster of buildings and alleys surrounding a campo or two -- but people take full advantage of what open space is there.

There's a Jewish rest home right on the campo, as well as several synagogues and a Jewish Museum (the Museo Ebraico).

There's also a lot of good kosher food, including this fantastic pastry shop.

Did I mention it was tiny? Look at the shoulder room you get in this alley.

Ghetto residents could roam freely during the day but were locked in at night by walls and gates manned by Christian guards. Napoleon opened the gates and lifted all restrictions on Jews in 1797, and then Mussolini put them back in place in 1938. 1,670 Jewish Venetians were sent to concentration camps.

A section of the original wall remains, complete with Fascist-era barbed wire running atop it.

The scenes on the wall are somber reminders of what happened to many of the ghettos residents in WWII.

This was written on a wall not far away.

As was, somewhat more confusingly, this.

Like much of Venice, the first ghetto is both a fascinating piece of history and a still-living cultural center. If you have the chance to visit Venice, don't miss it!

You can check out more Strange Geographies here.