On Tuesday, May 24, the Law Library of Congress commemorated the 500th anniversary since the establishment of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice. The commemorative program, “La Città degli Ebrei/The City of the Jews: Segregated Space and the Admission of Strangers in the Jewish Ghetto of Venice,” featured many distinguished guest speakers.
His Excellency Armando Varricchio, the newly-appointed ambassador of Italy to the United States, gave introductory remarks highlighting how the Jewish population of Venice, although segregated within the city walls to a space known as a “ghetto,” remained very active members of society. The Venetian Jews served as merchants, bankers and intellectuals–writing books about law, the arts and daily life. “Venice would have not been the same without the great contribution of the Jewish Venetian; they were a very dynamic component of society,” he said.
Executive Director of the Centro Primo Levi New York, Natalia Indrimi, also delivered remarks about the Venetian Ghetto. She shared how the Centro Primo Levi has been active in promoting the work of Primo Levi and the history of Italian Jews. She remarked on “how the history of this minority is symbolic of what a small group of people who are different,” can impact a society. She added that the history of the Venetian Jews can provide insight into how different groups of people living together in a “melting pot” relate to each other and society.
Professor Bernard Cooperman, the Louis L. Kaplan Professor of Jewish History at the University of Maryland, delivered a presentation titled “The Ghetto of Venice: Real-World Problems under Segregation.” The word “ghetto,” according to Professor Cooperman, has lost its Jewish connotation. He explained how many people associate the word “ghetto” with minorities or the inner city, but do not know that the word comes from the Italian word for foundry. “By 1633 the word no longer meant foundry, but a place where Jews lived,” he said. Cooperman also expounded on the active role Venetian Jews played in the economic framework of Venetian society as money lenders and vendors of second-hand goods. He drew connections between people living in segregated groups today to the segregation that was commonplace in early modern Italy.
University of Maryland History Professor, Stefano Villani, in closing, nuanced the experience of foreigners, particularly non-Catholic Christians, in early modern Italy. During his presentation– “To Be a Foreigner in Early Modern Italy: Were There Ghettos for Non-Catholic Christians?”– he spoke about the Protestant Reformation, the Inquisition, and the experiences and segregated living spaces of non-Catholic foreigners, particularly that of the German protestant merchants.
Update: Event video added below.