On March 29, 1516, the Venetian Senate, under the leadership of Doge Leonardo Loredan, decreed that "Jews must all live together" in a guarded and enclosed area of the city. The designated area, in the northern district of Cannaregio, had been the site of a depository for waste from an old copper foundry. Surrounded by canals, this small island was demarcated by two gates that were to be opened in the morning at the sound of the bell in St. Mark's belfry and closed at midnight by Christian keepers paid by the Jewish residents. Two boats were to patrol the canals around the island at night. This confined space would become the world's first legally instituted Jewish ghetto. Although the etymology of the word "ghetto" is still debated, a case can be made for the Venetian dialect's word for foundry, geto, or for the Italian word getto, meaning "casting." To mark the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Venice Ghetto, the city, along with a special commemorative committee and the Jewish community, has mounted an ambitious exhibition in the Doge's Palace, the residence of Venice's doges (elected chief magistrates) and the seat of power in the Venetian Republic that issued the 1516 decree. Curated by scholar Donatella Calabi, "Venice, the Jews and Europe: 1516-2016" tracks the urban organization, architecture and daily community life of Jews both within and outside the Ghetto.
The show, which is on view through November 13, covers a broad sweep of history--from the establishment of the Ghetto in 1516 to the arrival of Napoleon in 1797 (which led to the fall of the Venetian Empire and the destruction of the Ghetto gates) to the role of Jews in the city up through the 20th century.
Accompanied by a 536-page illustrated book, published by Marsilio Editori and distributed in the U.S. by Rizzoli, the exhibition traces the progressive expansion of the Ghetto's three enclosures--Nuovo Ghetto (1516), Vecchio Ghetto (1541) and Nuovissimo Ghetto (1633)--the evolution of its architecture and the rise of shops, banks and services. Because of the limited space in the Ghetto, the only way to create room for the influx of newcomers (as Jews, unwelcome in many other cities, flocked to Venice front all over Europe) was to build up. Thus existing structures were added onto, creating many six-story, tenement-like buildings--the "high-rises" of their time.
When the Jewish Ghetto was created in 1516, Venice was a major center of commerce, noted for its...