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Understanding the Venetian Ghetto from a Historical and Literary Perspective

In 1516, on a swampy Venetian island, originally the site of a foundry, the Ghetto Nuovo was established 500 years ago. The island, and a connected island, which was established later and known as the Ghetto Vecchio, was home to Venetian Jews. By law, they were relegated to live within this gated and walled area known today as the Venetian Ghetto, to segregate them from the surrounding Christian population in Venice.

The Venetian government allowed the Jewish residents to engage in restricted trades such as money lending, pawning and second hand clothing sales outside these segregated spaces during the daytime; however, at night, the gates that surrounded the Venetian Ghetto were locked and guarded. Despite the seclusion of the Venetian Ghetto, it became a thriving cultural hub over time. There many early Hebrew books were first published, including the Hebrew Bible and the Babylonian Talmud. In fact, nearly a third of Hebrew books printed in Europe before 1650 were printed in Venice.

Ambassador of Italy to the United States Armando Varricchio looks over display items with Ann Brener and Nathan Dorn during "Understanding Seclusion: The Legal Dimensions of the Ghetto," hosted by the Law Library in commemoration of the ongoing 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, February 21, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Ambassador of Italy to the United States Armando Varricchio views a display of rare books related to the Venice Ghetto with Library of Congress staff Ann Brener and Nathan Dorn . Photo by Shawn Miller.

On Tuesday, February 21, the Law Library of Congress commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Venetian Ghetto with a program, “Understanding Seclusion: the Legal Dimensions of the Ghetto.” The program explored the legal aspects of the segregated ghetto through historical and literary lenses.

This was the second program in a series that the Law Library has prepared to commemorate the anniversary. The Law Library hosted its first program last spring, which highlighted the work of Primo Levi and Venetian Jews’ contributions to the arts and economic framework of Venice.

The Law Library will host its third commemorative program on June 21, 2017— a mock appeal of the judgement and punishment of Shylock, a Venetian Jewish character from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The mock appeal will feature Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as presiding judge.

The second program featured the Ambassador of Italy to the United States, Armando Varricchio. He delivered opening remarks about the numerous events that the Embassy of Italy, Italian Cultural Institute, and Primo Levi Center held to commemorate the anniversary. He discussed the cultural influence of the Venetian Jews, stating that although the people were forced to live in seclusion, “their souls, minds and spirits were flying high to produce such great works of arts and culture.” He also remarked on the prolific number of Hebrew books that were published in the Venetian Ghetto, and how this period offers an opportunity to understand how laws reflect societal values. “History is our teacher,” he concluded.

Ambassador of Italy to the United States Armando Varricchio speaks during "Understanding Seclusion: The Legal Dimensions of the Ghetto," hosted by the Law Library in commemoration of the ongoing 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, February 21, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Ambassador of Italy to the United States Armando Varricchio. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Benjamin Ravid, professor emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, discussed the Venetian Ghetto from a historical perspective.  He began by discussing the etymology of the word “ghetto” and how it comes from the Italian word, ghèto, which referred to a foundry. Over time the word has been used to describe all Jewish quarters. He noted that even before 1516 Jewish quarters had been segregated, but the segregation was not legally enforced and these quarters would have not been described as a “ghetto.” For example, there was a ghetto in Frankfurt, Germany that existed in 1474, but it was not described as a “ghetto,” until later.

Benjamin Ravid, professor emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, speaks during "Understanding Seclusion: The Legal Dimensions of the Ghetto," hosted by the Law Library in commemoration of the ongoing 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, February 21, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Benjamin Ravid, professor emeritus of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The Venetian Ghetto had three important and necessary characteristics, according to Ravid: first, it was what he described as “compulsory;” that is, “every Jew had to live inside the ghetto, no exceptions”; second, the ghetto was also “enclosed”—walled and gated, and locked at night; and third, the ghetto was “segregated,”—no Christians were permitted to live there. Christians who had lived there previously were required to move out once the ghetto was officially established as a residential area for the Jewish population. Landlords were given tax incentives to comply, while Jewish residents had to pay more.

Professor Ravid noted that although the ghetto was locked at night to prevent relations between Jews and Christians, during the daytime Christians entered the ghetto to use the pawn shops and meet with moneylenders. Christians, Ravid noted, also cut through the ghetto for traveling convenience offering opportunity for engagement between the two religious groups. There was in essence what Professor Ravid described as a “Judaic-Venetian” culture whereby the Christians were familiar with Jewish culture, and the Jewish people were versed in the Italian and Latin language.

Furthermore, Ravid described Venice as a city of laws where the Jewish population had the right to due process—even if the laws were not exactly fair to them. Ravid concluded with a thought-provoking note: “While every ghetto was a Jewish quarter, not every Jewish quarter was a ghetto.”

Dick Schneider, associate dean for international affairs and professor of law at the Wake Forest University School of Law, discussed the seclusion of the Venetian Ghetto from a literary perspective. He began by discussing the Shylock mock appeal that he organized in Venice during the summer of 2016, which commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Venetian Ghetto and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The mock appeal featured the Honorable U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as the presiding judge.

Dean Schneider remarked that “Shakespeare was not writing history, but rather he was writing a play.”  Schneider explained that Shakespeare does not explicitly mention the Venetian Ghetto in the play. He explained that, nevertheless, the character Shylock provides insight about the Venetian Jewish experience—particularly the prohibitive laws targeted toward Venetian Jews at the time and the pressures they experienced to convert to Christianity.

Dick Schneider, associate dean for international affairs and professor of law at Wake Forest University, speaks during "Understanding Seclusion: The Legal Dimensions of the Ghetto," hosted by the Law Library in commemoration of the ongoing 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto in Venice, February 21, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Dick Schneider, associate dean for international affairs and professor of law at Wake Forest University. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Schneider remarked on how the attorneys and judges who participated in his organized mock appeal, and other mock appeals, have had to decide whether to apply the 16th century Venetian or English law or 20th century human-rights law to determine Shylock’s fate. Most often human-rights arguments have been used, according to Schneider. For example, he noted that attorneys have argued that Shylock’s due process rights were violated when the trial turned from a civil to a criminal trial; that his penalty was cruel and unusual punishment; or even that his religious freedom was violated. In other words, he explained, Shylock is often vindicated under more contemporary laws during the mock appeals.

Dean Schneider concluded by discussing in detail how Shylock argues for his own humanity during the play and how Venetian Jews of the time were not full members of society because of the restrictions regarding where they could live, when they could leave the Venetian Ghetto, and even the limitations placed on them professionally.

Prior to the overall program, rare books and documents from the Library of Congress collections related to the Venetian Ghetto were on display.  At the conclusion of the remarks by Professor Ravid and Dean Schneider, the documentary film, “The Venice Ghetto, 500 Years of Life” (2015), was shown. As retired Law Librarian of Congress, Roberta I. Shaffer  stated in her opening remarks, the Law Library’s second commemoration of the Venetian Ghetto offered a “full day of learning about the Venetian Ghetto.”

A video of this program will be posted on the Library of Congress YouTube page, as well as linked to this blog post, once it becomes available.

Update: “Ghetto Nuova” in the first paragraph was listed incorrectly and has been changed to “Ghetto Nuovo” and the accent on the word ghèto in the seventh paragraph has also been corrected.

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