Home Purpose of Course Grading &
Extra Credit



Benjamin C.I. Ravid, "From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto" in David B. Ruderman, ed., Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York, 1992)

The phenomenon of the Jewish quarter in pre-emancipation Europe, one of the most basic features of the life of the Jews, still awaits a comprehensive and definitive treatment. Such an undertaking ideally requires a systematic investigation of the specific conditions under which the Jews resided until the eighteenth century, and indeed in some areas well into the nineteenth. First, the origins of the Jewish settlement, an event often completely shrouded in darkness or illuminated only by the dim light of dubious legend, must be carefully examined. Then a precise distinction must always be maintained between three forms of Jewish quarters: (1) voluntary Jewish quarters; (2) quarters assigned to the Jews, either for their convenience or for their protection, as an inducement for them to settle in an area, without however establishing a legally exclusive Jewish quarter; (3) the compulsory segregated Jewish quarter in which all Jews were required to live and in which no Christians were permitted to live. Upon encountering a legally compulsory and exclusive segregated Jewish quarter, the researcher must investigate several problems, including the pressure, often emanating from clerical circles, leading to its establishment; the attitude of the authorities, who may have instituted a compulsory and exclusive quarter as a compromise between freedom of residence and expulsion; the nature of the new, proposed Jewish quarter; the reaction of the Jews to the new situation; the actual implementation of the segregatory legislation, which was often delayed, and its subsequent enforcement. Finally, despite the special function of the Jewish quarter in the specific context of Jewish-Christian relations and the Christian attitude toward Judaism, it must also be placed in the general context of the residential patterns of other groups, both native and foreign, in the location under investigation.

Accordingly, any serious attempt to engage in comprehensive research on the ghettos of Venice raises at least four significant, yet inadequately researched, sets of questions:

1. The main issue: the origin of the word ghetto in Venice (including an examination of the foundries supposedly once existing on the site of the ghetto), the establishment of the three ghettos of that city, and the subsequent history of those areas (i.e., specific matters of topography, demography, and administration, as distinct from a general religious-cultural history of the Jews of the city).
2. As background: the history of the development of Jewish quarters both in Christian Europe and under the rule of Islam, and where applicable, the later enactment of compulsory and segregated Jewish quarters.

3. As parallel context: the wider issue of the phenomenon of special residential quarters, both voluntary and compulsory, for certain elements of the native population--usually for social and moral reasons -- and also for foreigners, usually for economic or religious reasons.

4. As postscript: the history of the changing nuance of the word ghetto from the time it was first used in connection with the Jews until the present.

The investigation of these problems is of special relevance and interest in view of the general importance of Venice in European history, its significance as a center of Jewish life and culture, and the fact that the Venetian experience gave rise to the widely used and later on equally misused and misunderstood term ghetto. The following represents a summary of current research which I plan to present more extensively in the future.


From their earliest diaspora days onward, Jews chose freely, for a variety of religious and social reasons, to live close together, as did many other groups residing in foreign lands. This tendency was strengthened in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as the secular authorities, primarily in the Germanic lands and reconquista Spain, offered Jews special quarters as an inducement to settle in their realms. These quarters, often referred to as the Jewish quarter or street in the vernacular of the country, were neither compulsory nor segregated. Jews continued to have contacts on all levels--economic, intellectual, and social--with their Christian neighbors. However, the Catholic church always looked askance at these relationships, and in 1179 the third Lateran Council stipulated that henceforth Christians should not dwell together with Jews. To become effective, this vague policy statement had to be translated into legislation by the numerous European secular authorities, and on the whole, only infrequently were laws confining the Jews to segregated quarters enacted in the Middle Ages and not always were those laws actually implemented. The few segregated Jewish quarters which indeed were then established were never called ghettos, since the term originated in Venice and came to be associated with the Jews only in the sixteenth century.

While the Venetian government permitted individual Jews to reside in the city of Venice, it never officially authorized Jews to settle in it as a group in the Middle Ages, with the exception of the brief period from 1382 to 1397. However, the government did allow Jewish moneylenders to live on the mainland, across the lagoon in Mestre and in Padua and elsewhere, and the terms of the charter of those moneylenders of Mestre allowed them to seek refuge in Venice in case of war. Understandably, in 1509, during the war of the League of Cambrai, as the enemies of Venice overran the Venetian mainland, Jewish moneylenders residing there were among the many refugees who fled to Venice. Soon afterward, when the Venetian government recovered those mainland territories, it ordered the refugees to return home. However, it realized that allowing the Jews to stay in the city was doubly beneficial: first, they could be required to provide the hard-pressed treasury with substantial annual payments, and second, allowing them to engage in moneylending in the city itself would be convenient for the needy poor, whose numbers had been swelled by war. Accordingly, in 1513 the government issued a five-year charter which authorized the Jews to stay in the city and to lend money in it.

Jewish moneylending was clearly very important. In addition to giving the government an additional source of revenue and assisting in promoting urban tranquillity, it also had great significance in the religious sphere. Since Christians as well as Jews adhered to the biblical commandment which forbade members of the same faith to lend money to each other at interest, the presence of Jewish pawnbrokers lending money on interest-on-loan pledges to the Christian poor rendered it unnecessary for Christians to engage in that activity in violation of the religious tradition. Thus, the Jewish moneylenders not only helped to solve the socioeconomic problems of an increasingly urbanized economy, but also made it less necessary for Christians to violate church law by lending money at interest to fellow Christians. Consequently, the Venetian government periodically renewed charters allowing Jews to engage in moneylending down to the end of the Republic in 1797.

While the Venetian government tolerated the presence of the Jews in the city, many Venetians were upset by the new phenomenon of the presence of Jews all over the city, and the clergy preached against them, especially at Eastertime when anti-Jewish sentiment tended to intensify, demanding their expulsion. As a compromise, on 29 March 1516, the Venetian Senate took action. The preamble to legislation of that day asserted that although the Jews had been permitted to live in Venice primarily for the safety of the loan-pledges of Christian Venetians which were in their hands, nevertheless no God-fearing inhabitant of the city desired that they should spread out all over it, living in the same houses as Christians and going wherever they pleased day and night, allegedly committing many detestable things to the grave offense of God and against the laws of the Republic. The legislation of the Senate required all Jews then living in the city and those who were to come in the future to go and reside on the island known as the ghetto nuovo (the new ghetto). Gates were to be erected in two places, and locked at sunset (not midnight as sometimes erroneously asserted) and only opened again at sunrise, with a substantial fine levied against any Jew caught outside after hours. The Christian inhabitants of the ghetto were required to vacate their premises, and as an incentive for landlords to comply, the Jews were required to pay them a rent one-third higher than that previously paid, with that increase exempt from taxation.

Thus, the ghetto of Venice came into being. Clearly, the word ghetto is of Venetian rather than of Jewish origin, as has sometimes been conjectured. It is encountered in Venetian sources from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and today it is generally presumed that the word derives from the Italian verb gettare (to pour or to cast), because of the previous presence of foundries in the area.

Despite the attempts of the Jews to ward off segregation in this new compulsory area, the Venetian government was adamant; while willing to make minor concessions on a few administrative details, it was unwilling to yield on the general principle that all the Jews in the city had to live in the ghetto. The presence of the Jews was necessary for economic reasons, and the ghetto was the institution that relegated them to their appropriate permanent position in Christian society.

Some twenty-five years later, in 1541, a group of visiting Levantine Jewish merchants complained to the Venetian government that there was not sufficient room for themselves and their merchandise in the ghetto and requested additional space. The government investigated and found their complaint to be valid. Noting, in the context of a larger plan designed to make Venice more attractive to foreign merchants, that the greater part of the imports from the Ottoman Balkans was handled by these Jewish merchants, it granted their request. It ordered that twenty dwellings in the not yet fully built-up area known as the ghetto vecchio (the old ghetto), located across the canal from the ghetto nuovo, be walled up, joined by a footbridge to the ghetto nuovo, and assigned to the Jewish merchants, who were only allowed to stay there temporarily without their families. However, these restrictions were soon disregarded as the merchants settled in the ghetto vecchio with their families for lengthy periods.

The word ghetto was not for long to remain confined only to the city of Venice. In 1555, as a part of the new hostile Counter-Reformation attitude toward the Jews, Pope Paul IV, shortly after his inauguration, issued the bull Cum Nimis Absurdum which sought severely to restrict the Jews. Its first paragraph provided that henceforth in all places in the papal states the Jews were to live on a single street, and should it not suffice, then on as many adjacent ones as should be necessary, separated from Christians, with only one entrance and exit. Accordingly, that same year the Jews of Rome were required to move into a new compulsory enclosed quarter in that city, which, as far as is known today, apparently was first called a ghetto in the bull Dudum a Felicis of Pius IV in 1562.

Influenced by the papal example, many local Italian authorities instituted special compulsory quarters for the Jews. Following the Venetian and now also Roman nomenclature, these new residential areas were given the name of ghetto. Indeed, that word was used in the legislation which required the Jews to move into the newly designated areas. Thus, for example, an edict issued in Tuscany in 1571 required all the Jews living in the region of Florence either to leave or to go permanently to live in the ghetto set aside for them in the city of Florence. Similar legislation, issued in 1572, confining the Jews of the region of Siena to a segregated area in the city of Siena, also specifically referred to that area as the ghetto. The word ghetto was used in Hebrew documents by the Jews of Padua in 1582, in connection with the compulsory Jewish quarter contemplated for their residence, and when in 1601 the city council of Padua, which had been under Venetian rule since 1405, finally decided after years of discussion and negotiation to implement the segregation of the Jews into a special enclosed area, it referred to that area as a ghetto. The word ghetto also was used by the Jews of Mantua in 1610, after the government had indicated its intention to establish one, but before the actual implementation.

Significantly, this new usage of the word ghetto for a compulsory Jewish quarter came into usage also in Venice. In 1630, the Jewish merchants in the city requested that the ghetto be enlarged for the sake of some additional wealthy families of Jewish merchants who, they claimed, would come to the city if they had suitable living quarters. Very sharp objections were raised both by the Christian landlords who owned the buildings in the ghetto as well as by those Jews who had built additional stories, on the grounds that expanding the ghetto might lead to their own dwellings going unrented. Thereupon, to demonstrate that they did not seek the enlargement of the ghetto for their own sake but only for that of the newcomers, the Jewish merchants offered a guarantee of three thousand ducats that twenty additional Jewish families would come, with that sum to be prorated if necessary according to the number of families that did not actually arrive. The Senate, always concerned with attracting merchants to the city in order to enhance trade and no doubt especially so after the plague of 1630-31, accepted this offer and in March 1633 provided that an area containing twenty dwellings located across from the ghetto nuovo in a direction almost opposite from the ghetto vecchio be enclosed and joined to the ghetto nuovo by a footbridge over the canal. This area was not designated by any name in the Senate legislation of 1633, but almost immediately it was being referred to by the Venetian authorities as the ghetto nuovissimo, i.e., the newest ghetto.

In light of developments elsewhere, it is understandable that when a third compulsory Jewish quarter was established in Venice, it was referred to as a ghetto. And since in Venice there already existed areas called the old ghetto (ghetto vecchio) and the new ghetto (ghetto nouvo), this third ghetto became known as the newest ghetto (ghetto nuovissimo). However, the ghetto nuovissimo differed from the ghetto nuovo and the ghetto vecchio in one important respect. While the latter two designations had been in use prior to the residence of the Jews in those locations and apparently owed their origin to the former presence of foundries in the area, the ghetto nuovissimo had never been the site of a foundry. Rather, it was called the ghetto nuovissimo because it was the site of the newest compulsory, segregated, walled-up Jewish quarter. The term ghetto had come full circle in its city of origin: from an original specific usage as a foundry in Venice, to a generic usage in other cities designating a compulsory, segregated, walled-in Jewish quarter with no relation to a foundry, and then to that generic usage also in Venice.


The initial sunset closing time of the ghetto gates established by the Venetian government in 1516 was extended slightly a few weeks later at the request of the Jews, until the first hour of the night in summer and the second hour of the night in winter (presumably a necessary concession since it got darker considerably earlier in winter). Only Jewish doctors treating Christian patients and Jewish merchants who had to attend to their business seem to have been routinely allowed to be outside after hours, but on occasion other Jews, including representatives of the Jewish community who had to negotiate charter renewals with the government, singers and dancers who performed especially at carnival time, and individuals who had special skills and needs, were granted the privilege on a one-time basis, often only until a specified hour of the night. Only extremely rarely indeed was permission granted to reside outside the ghetto.

While apparently the hour of closing of the ghetto gates was very slightly modified by administrative rulings over the decades, in 1738 the Senate for the first time incorporated the hours of the opening and closing of the ghetto gates in the charter of the Jews, restoring the original provisions of sunrise and sunset. The charter of 1760 extended the closing hour to the second hour of the night in the summer and the fourth hour of the night in winter, while the charter of 1788 more liberally fixed it as midnight without any seasonal qualifications. That charter was only slightly over a year away from its expiration when in May 1797, as the conquering army of Napoleon Bonaparte stood poised across the lagoon at Mestre, the Venetian government dissolved itself in favor of a municipal council. Shortly afterward, the special restrictive charter system of the Jews of Venice, with all that it entailed, came to an end, and the ghetto gates were torn down.


Although the complex attitude of Christianity toward Judaism and the Jews must always be kept in mind when discussing legislation of Christian authorities on the matter of Jewish quarters, nevertheless it is instructive to consider briefly Venetian provisions requiring other groups in the city to live in compulsory quarters.

Merchants from the Germanic lands were required, from at least the early fourteenth century on, to go with their merchandise directly to reside in a special building known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. Initially, this provision had been instituted to make evasion of customs, duty payments and the violation of certain Venetian commercial laws more difficult, but it assumed religious significance after the Reformation when it also had the effect of hampering somewhat the spread of new Protestant ideas and practices in the city by restricting the freedom of residence of merchants from the North.

For a while in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Venetian government followed the practice adopted also in some other European cities at that time of attempting to confine prostitutes to certain houses. Presumably even less successful was legislation requiring prostitutes and pimps to be recognizable through the wearing of yellow items of clothing, a step reminiscent of the Jewish badge which had been introduced in 1397 and replaced by a hat in 1497.

The segregation of the Jews served as a precedent for the segregation of the Moslem Ottoman Turkish merchants in Venice. Apparently, the initial impetus for providing them with their own quarters came from the Turks themselves. After their internment as enemy subjects in Venice during the Venetian-Ottoman war of 1570-73, according to the papal nuncio in Venice, the Turks requested from the Venetian government, for the convenience of their trade, a place of their own similar to the Jews who had their ghetto. The Venetian government was for the most part favorably inclined toward this idea for various reasons, and discussed several proposals for almost fifty years. Finally, in 1621, it required the Turkish merchants to live in a certain building which was first to be carefully isolated from its surroundings in a manner reminiscent of those provisions which had been made for the isolation of the ghetto nuovo and vecchio, and subsequently this building became known as the Fondaco dei Turchi. Yet, interestingly, not all Venetians favored this segregation of the Turks. An anonymous memorandum of 1602 urged the government not to grant the Turks a fondaco, claiming among other things that the concentration of many Turks in one place would be very dangerous and lead to the erection of mosques and to the worship of Mohammed, causing greater scandal than that provoked by the Jews and the Protestant Germans; additionally it asserted that the pernicious innovation of a fondaco would further the political aims of the Turks, who, headed by one sultan and possessing great naval power, were in a position to harm Venice much more than were the Jews, who were without any head or prince and everywhere depressed.

These arguments, taken together with the comment of the Catholic patriarch of Venice, Girolamo Querini, in 1528 that the Greek Orthodox Christians in Venice, whose freedom of worship was severely restricted, were worse than the Jews, serve as a reminder of the complexity of the attitudes held toward the Jews in Renaissance Venice, as indeed in most other times and places.


While the word ghetto had never been applied to a Jewish quarter prior to 1516, compulsory, segregated and enclosed Jewish quarters had existed prior to 1516 in a few places; for example, the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt, established in 1462, may perhaps be the best-known and longest-lasting institution of its kind. Thus, the oft-encountered statement that the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516 is correct in a technical, linguistic sense but in a wider context, misleading. Although the institution of the compulsory, exclusive and enclosed Jewish quarter was called a ghetto for the first time in Venice in 1516 it was not unknown prior to then. In short, to apply the term ghetto to an area prior to 1516 is anachronistic, while to state that the first ghetto was established in 1516 is somewhat of a misrepresentation.

The Jewish ghetto of Venice was apparently first mentioned in the Hebrew language in the Diary of David Ha-Reuveni, who came to Venice in the winter of 1523-24. Realizing that many of his readers would not know what he meant, he explained the word in a gloss as he related that "I went with R. Moses to the ghetto, the place of the Jews." The word ghetto first seems to have appeared in print in the English language in Thomas Coryat's travelogue Coryat's Crudities (London, 1611) in connection with his visit to Venice. Coryat also felt the need to explain the word: "It was at a place where the whole fraternity of the Jews dwelleth together, which is called the ghetto." It should be noted that the ghetto is not encountered in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice (London, 1596); Shylock also fared better than his real-life coreligionists in that he was not subjected to wearing a special yellow hat; additionally, both he and Antonio would have been severely punished by the Venetian authorities for their transaction, for Jewish moneylending was restricted to small-scale pawnbroking, with loans limited to three ducats per pledge.

In later years, the Venetian origin of the word ghetto came to be forgotten, as it was used exclusively in its secondary meaning as referring to compulsory Jewish quarters, and much ink was spilled by eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century authors in attempts to ascertain its etymology. Subsequently, in a process that has not yet been traced, the word ghetto came to be used in a looser sense to refer to any area densely populated by Jews, even in places where they had freedom of residence and could and did live in the same districts and houses as Christians. Eventually it came to be the general designation for areas densely inhabited by members of any minority group, almost always for voluntary socioeconomic reasons rather than for compulsory legal ones as had been the case with the initial Jewish ghetto. Indeed, the ghetto has even been extended to the animal world; an article in the Wall Street Journal, discussing the mating habits of South African flamingos, related that "they want mud to build their nests--180-pound mounds they slap together in ghettos of up to 60,000." Thus while the institution which had given birth to the word ghetto had long come to an end, the word assumed a life of its own and entered the general everyday vocabulary, similar to other words emerging from the Jewish experience, such as diaspora and holocaust.

It must be noted that the varied usages of the word ghetto in different senses has created a certain blurring of the historical reality, especially when the word is used loosely in phrases such as "the age of the ghetto," "out of the ghetto," and "ghetto mentality," which are so often applied to the Jewish experience especially in Central and Eastern Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and even nineteenth centuries. Actually, the word can be used in the original Counter-Reformation Italian sense of a compulsory and segregated Jewish quarter only in connection with the Jewish experience in a few places in the Germanic lands, and certainly not at all with that in Poland-Russia. Although up to the Russian Revolution of 1917 many Jews lived in small towns and rural villages that were predominantly Jewish, they were never confined to specific, segregated, walled-up quarters apart from their Christian neighbors. Despite the general Russian restriction that officially no Jew could live outside the Pale of Settlement (i.e., basically the Polish territory annexed by Russia in the late eighteenth-century partitions of Poland), the Pale never possessed the one essential characteristic of the ghetto, because within it the Jews were not segregated in walled-up quarters apart from their Christian neighbors. Additionally, the requirement that all Jews were to live within the Pale was not always enforced; indeed, at certain times, specific groups of Jews such as agriculturalists, holders of university degrees, merchants of the first guild, artisans, and army veterans were granted official permission to live outside the Pale. If the word ghetto is to be used in its original literal sense in connection with Eastern Europe, then it must be asserted that the age of the ghetto arrived there only after the German invasions during the Second World War. However, there was a basic difference: unlike those ghettos of earlier days which were designed to provide the Jews with a clearly defined, permanent place in Christian society, these twentieth-century ghettos constituted merely a temporary stage on the planned road to total liquidation.

Of course the use of the word ghetto is even more misleading when applied to the experience of Jewish immigrants in North America, with its completely different legal traditions, religious heritage, and social environment. In this context, the word ghetto used in expressions such as "ghetto life" and "ghetto mentality" is intended by those who use it to refer primarily to the Eastern European pattern of Jewish life and certain of its manifold manifestations, often in a critical sense, and has nothing to do with the institution of the ghetto as it originated on the Italian peninsula.

To a great extent because of the negative connotations of the word ghetto, the nature of Jewish life in the ghetto is often misunderstood. The establishment of ghettos did not lead, as perhaps most readily revealed in the autobiography of Leon Modena, to the breaking off of Jewish contacts with the outside world on any level, from the highest to the lowest, much to the consternation of church and state alike. Additionally, apart from the question of whether the ghetto succeeded in fulfilling the expectations of those in the outside world who desired its establishment, from the internal Jewish perspective many evaluations of the alleged impact of the ghetto upon the cultural and intellectual life of the Jews and their mentality require substantial revision. For example, an investigation of the cultural life inside the ghetto of Venice and the extent to which external trends penetrated it--as attested by the writings of Leon Modena, Simone Luzzatto, and Sara Copia Sullam--leads to a reevaluation of the alleged negative impact of the ghetto in the intellectual and cultural spheres. In general, the determining element in Jewish self-expression and creativity was not so much the circumstance of whether or not Jews were required to live in a ghetto, but rather the nature of the outside environment and whether it offered an attractive supplement to traditional Jewish genres of intellectual activity. In all places, Jewish culture should be examined in the context of the environment, and developments--especially those subjectively evaluated as undesirable--not merely attributed to the alleged impact of the ghetto.

In conclusion, an extended investigation of why the word ghetto is used so loosely and imprecisely in Jewish history and contemporary sociology would reveal many complex motivations. The most common reason is no doubt merely a simple casual use of the word without any thought or awareness of its origin and nature. Others, however, are somewhat less innocent and may involve a desire, proceeding from either religious, nationalistic, or psychological considerations--often almost instinctive or barely conscious--to portray the life of the Jews in the preemancipation European diaspora unfavorably. Thus the word ghetto has become a value concept with negative connotations, rather than a descriptive word indicating a particular legal, residential system under which Jews lived. The result has been to blur the historical reality of one of the basic aspects of Jewish survival, the Jewish quarter, and thus gives additional urgency to the need for its systematic examination.


This article is based primarily on B. Ravid, "The Religious, Economic and Social Background and Context of the Establishment of the Ghetti of Venice," in Gli Ebrei e Venezia, ed. G. Cozzi (Venice, 1987), 211-59; idem, "The Establishment of the Ghetto Nuovissimo of Venice," in Jews in Italy: Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Umberto Cassuto on the 1 00th Anniversary of His Birth, H. Beinart, ed. (Jerusalem, 1988), 35-54; idem, "The Venetian Ghetto in Historical Perspective," in The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi: Leon Modena's Life of Judah, trans. and ed. M. R. Cohen (Princeton, 1988), 279-85; and idem, "New Light on the Ghetti of Venice," to appear in the Festschrift in Honor of Shlomo Simonsohn. See also S. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 18 vols. (Philadelphia, 1952-83), 9:32-36, 11:8796, 14:114-20; and S. Rawidowicz, "On the Concept of Galut," in his Israel: The Ever-Dying People and Other Essays (Rutherford, N.J., 1986), 96-117.