The doges of Venice in 1516 decreed that all Jews living in Venice should be confined to the area, then known in Venetian dialect as the “Gheto”, or foundry
Over the centuries its name became a byword for discrimination and segregation, but the world’s first ghetto, in Venice, is to get a multi-million pound makeover in time for the 500th anniversary of its establishment.
The Ghetto’s five synagogues, dating from the 16th century, are to be restored and its Jewish museum redesigned in order to revitalise the area and better tell the story of Jews in Venice.
The £8 million project to inject new life into the crumbling area in the northern part of the lagoon city, where a few Jewish families still live, is being led by the Venetian Heritage Council, a philanthropic organisation.
It was founded by the Jewish, Belgian-born fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, whose mother was a survivor of the Holocaust.
The hope is that the extensive restoration work will be completed by early next year, when the Ghetto’s 500th anniversary will be commemorated.
It was on March 29, 1516, that the doges of Venice decreed that all Jews living in Venice should be confined to the area, then known in Venetian dialect as the “Gheto”, or foundry.
It was considered ideal by the city’s rulers because it was far removed from the heart of Venice and surrounded by water, making it a virtual prison.
Some Venetians had wanted them to be expelled altogether but the Most Serene Venetian Republic needed their commercial and banking acumen.
Eighty years after the creation of the Ghetto, Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, with Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, the play’s most memorable character.
“The Ghetto of Venice sits at a nexus of world history for Venice, Europe and Jewish culture as a whole. It needs to be saved, its history told,” said Joseph Sitt, the chairman of the Venetian Heritage Council.
The Ghetto’s five synagogues, which were established by Jews from Spain, Portugal, the Levant and Eastern Europe, are in need of extensive repairs.
Broken paving stones will be repaired, structural beams reinforced, rotten timber replaced and leaky roofs patched up.
“The task at hand is a critical one because over the years they have fallen into a steady state of disrepair, due in part to the unique challenges posed by Venice’s geography, and urgently need renovations in order to survive,” the Heritage Council said.
The history of the Ghetto – which gave its name to similarly enclosed Jewish communities around the world – was not widely known, but is “crucial to the understanding of Jewish culture, in one of the most historic cities in the world.”
Jews could only move around the rest of the city if they wore yellow caps or badges, in a grim precursor to measures adopted by the Nazis.
The Ghetto was enclosed by walls, with gates locked at midnight by Christian guards and reopened at dawn.
In Calle del Ghetto Vecchio (Street of the Old Ghetto) a carved stone sign dating from 1704 decrees that Jews who had converted to Christianity were forbidden from entering the area.
Penalties included “the rope [hanging], prison, galleys, flogging … and other greater punishments, depending on the judgment of their excellencies.”
The sign adds that “secret denunciations may be deposited in the usual receptacles,” with accusers entitled to a bounty of 100 ducats.