This Day in World History
April 10, 1516
First Jewish ghetto established in Venice
On April 10, 1516, the government of Venice officially confined the city’s Jews to one small area of the city — the first Jewish ghetto. This area remained the required home to the city’s Jews until Napoleon took the city in 1797 and abolished it. Nevertheless, the old ghetto remains the center of Venetian Jewry.
The idea of limiting people perceived as different was not unique to sixteenth-century Venice — or to the treatment of Jews. Greeks, Germans, and Turks in Venice all lived in certain quarters of the city. Groups were confined to certain areas in other cities as well. With Jews in Christian Europe, however, misunderstanding gave birth to fear, mistrust, and intolerance, which colored rules about and conditions in these enclaves.
Laws forbade Jews from leaving at night and were enforced by closing their gates. Another Venice law banned the construction of standalone synagogues. These places of worship, then, were built on top of other structures.
The ghetto was cramped, though Venice’s Jews were better off than Rome’s. The Tiber River flooded the ghetto in that city in the rainy season each year. Nevertheless, Rome’s Jews were forced each year to beg to be allowed to stay in this unpleasant space for another twelve months — and to pay a tax for the privilege.
On the other hand, the ghetto did provide some benefits for Jews. The closed gates afforded them a measure of protection from attack. Proximity to one another made it easier to maintain Jewish traditions and culture.
One thing that remains unclear is how the Jewish ghetto got its name. Historians are unable to pin down the origin of the term. Some suggest it comes from gietto, Italian for a cannon foundry, which was located near the Venice ghetto. That would be pronounced as djetto rather than ghetto, however. Another possibility is that it developed from Giudeica, referring to Jews.