The Venice Ghetto: A Memory Space that Travels
Interlinked essays by members of The Venice Ghetto Collaboration
The Venice Ghetto Collaboration was formed by an interdisciplinary group of humanities scholars in 2016 after an immersive workshop in which we explored the legacy of the historic space at the 500thanniversary of its founding. Our proposed collection, “The Venice Ghetto: A Memory Space that Travels” is comprised of interlinking essays that investigate the space of the world’s first ghetto both as a concrete place and as a global metaphor. The scholars joined in this volume contribute to the field of memory studies by suggesting that the Ghetto itself becomes a laboratory for thinking through how this heritage site can be used to consider the ways in which memories can be both rooted in the archive, globally mobile, and transformed and translated by the literary imaginary and the advent of the digital realm. Ultimately, we consider how to move beyond the limitations of tourism to think about the Ghetto as a vibrant and relevant space in the 21stcentury.
Founded in 2016 on the 500thanniversary of the world’s first ghetto, The Venice Ghetto Collaboration, our interdisciplinary research collective, examines the complexity of the site – both as a concrete space and as a global metaphor – tracing its refraction across space and time. We conceive of the ghetto as a “memory space that travels” rather than as a static museum site. Our conceptualization of the site encourages multi-directional memory – memories are carried globally and across time as the word takes on new meanings in each context. The collection explores the nature of this traveling memory space, and also asks the question: How do we resist thinking about the Venice Ghetto as a static site dedicated to the past, and instead focus on revitalizing the physical space as a hub for global interchange?
Our scholarship investigates the history, conditions, physical space, and lived experience of the Venice Ghetto, as well as broader questions about the legacy of the ghetto, how and why the ghetto became a paradigm, and how comparisons have been drawn – and continue to be drawn – between compulsory, segregated, and enclosed spaces in cultural discourse, literature, and academic research.Thus, studying the ghetto is a heuristic process, leading to further analysis about the nature of this memory space that travels.
The Venice Ghetto organizes memory in ways that necessitate a consideration of its multi-temporality and urges us to think about time in a non-linear fashion: it is a touchstone for memory that is both rooted and global, both metaphorical and concrete. The Ghetto thus becomes a laboratory for thinking through the ways in which we consider how heritage sites “do” memory work. The physical place itself is key to Jewish Venetian memory where tangible traces of this vibrant past can be palpably experienced through monuments, archives, and museums. However, the space has also traveled in the realm of the imaginary – appearing as a literary image in novels and poetry across the globe. The original ghetto gave its name to a space, a social policy of sequestration, and a stereotyping of a people: it has served as the blueprint for other cities’ efforts to think through issues of segregation and inclusion. The word came to describe and label such disparate places as the Nazi ghettos of WWII, the mellahs of North Africa, and the segregated and impoverished pockets of cities in the United States. Finally, the way in which this site travels changes again once we enter the realm of the digital: virtual tours, maps, and exhibits.
The first section of the collection, “The archive: rooted memories”focuses on the physical site of the Venice Ghetto, specifically examining the footprints left behind by the community made visible through studying the archival collections that shed light on its past.
The second section of the collection, “Blueprints: global travels”takes as its starting point the comparison between Italian Jewish communities from a historic perspective, considering how the Venice Ghetto became a model or a blueprint for these later ghettoes. The section then traces how this model began to travel in a global context, examining the cases of the North African mellah, how the term “ghetto” is deployed in post-World War II Jewish American literature, and how “ghetto” was utilized as Zionist imagery.
The third section of the collection, “The map: a memory space that travels”looks at the way in which the Venice Ghetto itself has been taken up in literature in contexts that are distant from the original site in terms of time and space – in the work of contemporary Chilean author Marjorie Agosín and in 19thcentury Jewish-Anglo writing. The authors of these pieces further examine how they used digital mapping platforms (Esri’s Story Maps) to illuminate the layers of meaning attached to the word “ghetto.”
The fourth section of the collection, “The tourist: the future of memory”reflects on the question: What future possibilities emerge from interacting with the Ghetto of Venice? How can we make this space meaningful and relevant in the 21stcentury and how did the 500thanniversary celebrations generate a renewed interest in the site? This section addresses the mock trial of Shylock in the Venice Ghetto by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the tensions presented by sites of Jewish tourism in Venice, Warsaw, Prague, and Krakow, and post-Shoah versions of The Merchant of Venice, including the one performed in the Venice Ghetto itself as part of the 500thanniversary celebrations.