The Ghetto was the circumscribed area near San Geremia, which, from 1516, isolated and segregated the Jewish community from the rest of the Venetian population. There are three areas: the Gheto Vechio, the Novo and finally the Nuovissimo, which only opened in 1633.
Despite the continuous influx of tourists, it’s still possible to feel a strong sense of belonging, commemoration and closeness to the victims of the genocide even today, with numerous plaques as testament to what occured.
In the 14th century, in the westernmost section of the district, between the Canal (Rio) of Cannaregio and the bridge of the Agudi (known today as the Ponte di Ghetto Vecchio) was a plot of land known as the Geto de rame, as a foundry with 14 furnaces that could be found there: the Geto Vechio.
With an islet in front and a muddy and miry ground where the waste of the foundry was unloaded, it was named the terren del geto. But in the 15th century it housed a cannon foundry and became known as the Geto Novo.
When the foundries proved insufficient, the two plots of land were sold to noble families, the Minotto, who owned much of the Ghetto Vecchio, and the Brolo, who built around 25 houses along the perimeter of the campo i n the Ghetto Nuovo, opened the bridge towards S. Girolamo and dug three wells, some of which still bear noble insignia today.
It is precisely in this enclosed space (Campo di Ghetto Nuovo) , surrounded by low, two-storey houses that are sometimes described as the castle, where the first Jews (mainly Germans and Italians) who had previously lived in the various districts of Venice in the early 16th century were locked up in 1516; whereas the long streets leading to the Fondamenta di Cannaregio (Ghetto Vecchio) housed other Levantine Jews from 1541 and Ponentini (Spanish) Jews from 1589. Only later, in 1633, was the Ghetto Nuovissimo opened behind the New Ghetto.
“The place was delimited by two doors which, as the Senate stated on March 29th 1516, would have been opened in the morning to the sound of the" marangona (the bell of San Marco which dictated the rhythms of the town's activity) and closed the evening at midnight by four Christian caretakers, paid by the Jews and required to reside on the site itself, without a family to be able to better devote themselves to the control activity. Furthermore, two high walls (which will never be erected) should have been built to close the area on the side of the canals that would have surrounded it, walling up all the banks that opened there. Two boats of the Council of Ten with guardians paid by the new "castellans", will circulate at night in the channel around the island to ensure their safety. The following April 1, the same "shout" was proclaimed at Rialto and at the bridges of all the city districts where the Jews resided”
The word "Ghetto"
‘It is of opinion to send them all to the Geto nuovo’ : wrote Marin Sanudo in his Diaries .
The word appears in old documents with various spellings: ghèto, getto, ghetto, geto, but after 1516 always indicated the place where Jews were locked up. That "tract of land called the getto or the ghetto - adds Tassini , in his Venetian Curiosities - was the location of the public foundries, where the cannons were made" and therefore "the place was called the getto because there were more than 12 furnaces and bronze was melted there", testifies Sabellico .
Ghetto, therefore, derives its name from the island where the old foundries could be found. This was the hypothesis proposed by Teza and has the greatest support amongst scholars today.
However, many other explanations have been suggested: from the Hebrew get, a divorce document, used, according to ancient documents, by the Jews themselves to indicate 'separation'; from the German gehegt , closed; from the ancient French gueat , guard; from getto, molo, banchina, onto which the Jewish refugees from Spain would have been thrown at the port of Genoa in 1492; from the Italian borghetto; from the old English gatwon, street; but these are all etymologies that are more difficult to prove.
In any case, the worldwide spread of the word that today indicates segregation and social discrimination was due to Venice.
It was a segregation that, at first, could be seen as an obvious form of discrimination, but which eventually ended up turning into a useful form of defense for the Jews, since they became autonomous inside the Ghetto, almost masters of their lives, in many cases much more so than many inhabitants and subjects who lived at the complete mercy of the Doge, the Prince, the Pope or the King.
As Riccardo Calimani writes:
[...] the Ghetto ".. even with its widespread precariousness, despite everything, had powers and privileges that allowed it to be heard, and it dealt through its own spokespersons on the outside, with a freedom of initiative in some surprising cases" .