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 & The Arts 

Aberdulais Falls: A case study in Welsh heritage

This free course, Aberdulais Falls: A case study in Welsh heritage, looks at the Aberdulais Falls in Wales, and considers the key issues affecting the decision-making of the bodies which are responsible for looking after our heritage. We examine the heritage debates: who decides what should be preserved from the past as our heritage, who is this heritage for, and how should it be presented and explained?

Free course
2 hrs
What were Victorian pauper's graves like? Creative commons image Icon DncnH under CC-BY under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

What were Victorian pauper's graves like?

An account of a tragedy in a London graveyard gives an insight into the way the poor were buried in 19th Century England.

Article
Total War - 1644-1645 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Wark Clements article icon

History & The Arts 

Total War - 1644-1645

Marston Moor marked the start of a new, deeper phase of the war

Article
The mother of the American Athens Creative commons image Icon Jules & Jenny under Creative Commons BY 4.0 license article icon

History & The Arts 

The mother of the American Athens

An excusrion to Lincolnshire, to see the original Boston.

Article
High Street History: Post-war buildings Creative commons image Icon TenThirtyNine under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

High Street History: Post-war buildings

Unloved by many, the concrete and glass of the post-war era is finding its place on the High Street.

Article
The outgoing Prime Minister and his replacement: Gladstone makes way for Rosebery Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Illustrated London News article icon

History & The Arts 

The outgoing Prime Minister and his replacement: Gladstone makes way for Rosebery

As Downing Street changes hands again, we dip into the archives to find out what happened in 1894 when ill-health forced William Gladstone to quit in favour of his foreign secretary Lord Rosebery. This extract originally appeared in The Northern Echo.

Article
Before The Windrush: How did Liverpool become such a poorly-integrated city? Creative commons image Icon Rodhullandemu under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Before The Windrush: How did Liverpool become such a poorly-integrated city?

A century ago, Liverpool revelled in its cosmopolitan character. Nowadays, though, the city is far less ethnically mixed. What happened?

Article
Tracing your family history Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Tracing your family history

These days, everyone seems to want to know about the origins of their family. Nick Barratt tells you how to start finding out.

Article