The oldest ghetto in the world – Part I

Welcome in Europe’s , and the world’s, first ghetto. Have a look at the Campo de Gheto Novo, maybe the one or the other is going to be able to discover the – hardly visible – hidden treasures in the palazzi that line the square: the synagogues.

Well, for which reason was this enclave created in the Venetian city center? Let’s give you some historical background: The first Jews arrived in Venice in the beginning of the11th century and in spite of alternating stay and non-stay permits in the city center, they reached a considerable number.


In 1492, when Ferdinando D’Aragona and Isabella di Castiglia forced the Jews to choose between conversion to Christianity or leaving the Iberian Peninsula, the refugees settled down in the Venetian mainland till the outbreak of the (franco-italian) war in the 16th century. At this point the Jews decided to search shelter in the city center, protected by the sea and therefore hardly reachable by enemy attacks: That’s how the first jewish ghetto was born.

This idea was, certainly, not new: in Constantinople the Christians (of Genua) lived isolated and monitored in the quarter of Galata; and in Alexandria (Egypt) too existed a Christian quarter. Furthermore, the same Serenissima disposed in the 13th century that the “German” merchants (means, all those from central Europe including Hungarians and Bohemians) had to be locked up in the fondaco dei Tedeschi by night.

Venezia: Ghetto Nuovo
Venezia: Ghetto Nuovo
Venezia: Campo del Ghetto Nuovo - Sinagoga
Venezia: Campo del Ghetto Nuovo – Sinagoga

The Venetian ghetto

The ghetto was established in Venice, in the island of the parish San Girolamo (Cannaregio), as a result of the decree from the 29th of March 1516. The island, surrounded by a canal, was only accessible by two bridges, a fact that permitted the Venetians, in addition to Christian guardians that passed through the surrounding canals by boat, to close the “Gheto” during the night in order to prevent nightly exits/entrances. The same decree from 1516 disposed in addition to that, that the Jews had to wear a sign of identification and obliged them to manage pawn shops at specific taxes (determined by the Serenissima) in order to have religious liberty and protection in case of war (for example the “Banco Rosso” – today a museum, admission €2.

Venezia Gheto Novo: Banco Rosso
Venezia Gheto Novo: Banco Rosso

Lack of space

Have a look around you. Have you realized that the houses in the Campo del Ghetto Nuovo are higher than usual? This is due to the fact that space was limited and, therefore, when the number of inhabitants reached five thousand persons, they started to add other floors to the existing buildings. Therefore, the houses in this area are sometimes seven/eight floors high in contrast to Venetian ones that are only three/four floors high.