Venice had always had a comparatively large Jewish population, and in 1516, the Republic felt compelled to move them all into one area so they could keep an eye on them. Gates were locked at night, and guards patrolled the canals around the quarters after curfew. However, Jews living within the ghetto were guaranteed freedom to practice their religion.
This was the first “ghetto,” probably drawing its name from a Venetian word, gheto, that referred to the slag from a foundry located on the site at one time. Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” was set in this ghetto, which was inhabited by five different sects of Jews: German/Swiss, Italian, Levantine, Spanish, and Sephardic, each with its own synagogue.
By 1650, the tiny patch of of land held about 4,000 inhabitants in crowded buildings with synagogues located in the attics so nothing would come between them and the sky.
In 1797, Napoleon ended the segregation of Jews, and they spread out into the rest of the city.
In 1943, Nazis decimated the Jewish population of Venice as they did elsewhere, and today about 500 Jews live in all of Venice. Some Orthodox Jews still live in the ghetto.
I recently discovered that I have some Venetian (Spanish) Jewish ancestry myself, and so wanted to at least see the area. We didn’t have the opportunity to do any formal tours, but I enjoyed walking around. The next time we visit Venice (because there will be a next time!) I can hopefully set up a real tour.
In the afternoon, we bought vaporetto tickets and visited the islands of San Giorgio and Giudecca. I discovered that I get a bit seasick on vaporettos 🙂 But it was still fun to get a different perspective on the city, and the islands are pleasantly serene.