Free Walk in Venice tours - Cannaregio and the Jewish Ghetto
The Jewish Ghetto, the world's oldest, remains intact and is still marked by dark porticoes, peeling paint, laundry hung out to dry, and windows placed so close above one another that you're back aches just thinking about the low ceiling.
Until the 14th century, Jews were allowed to come to Venice for money-lending activities, but were not allowed permanent residents permits. The first Jews were allowed to settle in Venice only in 1385, when the city was involved in a war against neighbouring Chioggia and needed loans from the Jewish money-lenders.
But racism persisted, and in 1516 Venice's ruling council confined all the Jews in a smallen getti, or foundries. The gates were locked at night, and restrictions were placed on Jewish economic activities. Jews were only allowed to operate pawn shops and lend money, trade in textiles, and practice medicine.
They were allowed to area not far from today's train station, where there had be leave the Ghetto during the day, but were marked as Jews: Men wore a yellow circle stitched on the left shoulder of their cloaks or jackets, while women wore a yellow scarf. Later on, the men's circle became a yellow beret and still later a red one.
The first Jews to settle in the Ghetto were the central European Ashkenazim. They built two Synagogues. the Scola Grande Tedesca in 1528-29 and the Scola Canton in 1531-32. They are on the top floors of adjacent buildings, above the Jewish museum and from the outside, are not easily distinguishable from the apartments around them.
Space was limited, and according to Jewish law it is forbidden to have any thing between the Synagogue and the sky - hence their strange attic location. The canton Synagogue was probably added to house the large number of Jews already in the Ghetto.
Next came the Levantine Jews, who practiced the Sepharadic rite. When they got their own neighbourhood, an extension of the Venetian Ghetto granted in 1541, they were wealthy enough to build a Synagogue on the ground, rather than in cramped top floor apartments. The rich red and gold interior of the Levantine Synagogue is particularly beautiful. If you're their in the summer and get to see it. note the intricately carved wooden bimah , or pulpit, and the carved wooden decorations on the ceiling.
Mixed in with the poorer Ashkenazim were Italian Jews who had migrated north to Venice from central and southern Italy. In 1575, they built their own Synagogue on top of some apartments in the same square as the German shul. The Scola Italiana has a cupola, barely visible from the square outside, and a portico with columns marking it's entrance. Inside, there's another exquisitely carved wooden ark of the covenant, housing the Torah.
Levatines and Ashkenazim, Italian and Spanish Jews all lived together in the Ghetto through hard times - including the plague of 1630 - and better times, until Napoleon threw open the gates in 1797 and recognized equal rights to the Jews of Venice. At its height, around 1650, the Ghetto housed about 4,000 people in a space roughly equivalent to 2-1/2 city blocks. Before World War II there were still about 1,300 Jews in the Ghetto, but 289 were deported by the Nazis and only seven returned.