Skip to content

The Jewish Ghetto of Renaissance Venice

Updated Thursday 1st September 2005

Jews were seen as a threat to Christianity, and in Venice a ghetto was created. But, despite this, there appears to be evidence of Venetian Jews being protected.

Thomas Coryat Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission In Renaissance Europe, Jews were seen as a threat to Christianity. Jews had been evicted from England in the 1290s, and were forced out of many other European states in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

In those few places where they were tolerated, such as Venice, it was under sufferance, and only because they were useful.

Venetian laws restricted Jews from working in certain professions such as manufacturing, so they were forced into alternative professions. Fear of Jews was compounded by envy of their success as doctors, merchants and bankers. As moneylenders, Jews played an important part in the Venetian economy. They were also a convenient source of taxation. But the Venetian desire to limit their contact with Christians resulted in the creation in 1516 of a "Jewish ghetto", a specific neighbourhood of Venice. Several thousand Jews were crammed into tall buildings in this small walled area; access to the rest of the city was restricted.

Despite the prejudice against Jews, Patricia found an account of Christian neighbours of the ghetto raising the alarm when seeing burglars in the area. She concludes that despite restrictions Venetian Jews were relatively protected and safe.

Evidence
Document outlining setting up of Jewish ghetto Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission There's a document in the state archives relating to the setting up of the ghetto. It was established in 1516 and politicians ruled that gates had to be shut overnight and manned by Christian guards paid by the Jews inside.

Coryat: "I saw many Jewish women, whereof some were as beautiful as ever I saw, and so gorgeous in their apparel...that some of our English Countesses do scarce exceede them".

The account of the neighbours raising the alarm when burglars were loading goods stolen from the ghetto into a boat was taken from the trial records, which can be found in the State Archives. It included reports of the testimony of the witnesses and of the accused, and is quite detailed.

Jews were seen as a threat to Christianity, and in Venice a ghetto was created. But despite this, there appears to be evidence of Venetian Jews being protected.

Jewish people Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Thinking History

Why did the authorities want to protect the Jews?

Jews in Venice offered useful credit facilities. It is not the case that Christians were prevented from providing financial services. Christians were not supposed to lend money at interest (stigmatised as usury), but there was plenty of creative accounting in order to get around this rule, for example by claiming that a service was being provided with the loan, and in fact Christian banking houses were completely uninhibited by the usury laws. Jews were useful because they were prepared to lend to the very poor. The programme tells us that in times of economic difficulty, as in the early 16th century, steps were taken to foster the Jewish community; by providing credit to high risk groups Jews could help boost consumer spending. But did this relative tolerance last? Later in the 16th century life became much more difficult for Venetian Jews.

Depending on the economic and cultural climate of the day, the Jewish community was either fostered or hounded. Venice, amongst the cities in Europe, was not unique in this regard.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

article icon

History & The Arts 

Passover and Tibet

Particularly amongst non-Orthodox Jews, the practice of the Passover seder constantly changes to reflect new understandings of the traditional themes of bondage and liberation.

Article
History battles – How we remember the past Creative commons image Icon By Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA (Timeless Books) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

History battles – How we remember the past

How we teach history could be changing. Back to the bad old days, or could the 'voices from below' make themselves heard?

Article
Tubman: The Moses of Her People Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public domain / The New England Magazine, 1895 via Wikicommons article icon

History & The Arts 

Tubman: The Moses of Her People

Harriet Tubman led 300 slaves northwards to freedom in 19 trips along the "underground railroad". Dr Will Hardy introduces her story.

Article
Lough Erne: A history on a magnificent scale Creative commons image Icon Kenneth Allen under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Lough Erne: A history on a magnificent scale

The G8 summit is turning Lough Erne into a global focus - and another chapter in a mixed history.

Article
Trellick Tower Creative commons image Icon Ben.Harper under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Trellick Tower

How did the Trellick Tower become "the tower of terror"?

Article
Tremors - The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Wark Clements article icon

History & The Arts 

Tremors - The Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I

One of the great figures of British history: Elizabeth I - The Virgin Queen

Article
What's your heritage? Map Creative commons image Icon By Mukumbura via Flickr under Creative Commons licence under Creative-Commons license activity icon

History & The Arts 

What's your heritage? Map

David Dimbleby's tour of the country, Seven Ages Of Britain, shows how objects can reveal unexpected stories about the past. We want to hear about the things that tell your story. Tell us about a place, object or practice that means something to your sense of identity and community

Activity
Medieval history: Ancestral life audio discussion Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC audio icon

History & The Arts 

Medieval history: Ancestral life audio discussion

Robert Bartlett and Rachel Gibbons discuss the surprising ways in which our ancestors' lives were not that different from ours - and the ways in which they were

Audio
30 mins
The African diaspora: An archaeological perspective Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission free course icon Level 1 icon

History & The Arts 

The African diaspora: An archaeological perspective

In many ways the African diaspora is a contentious episode from the past (and indeed present). This free course, The African diaspora: An archaeological perspective, explores why this area of research has been traditionally under-represented and highlights the ways in which archaeology can contribute to this fast-growing field of study.

Free course
4 hrs