The Venice Ghetto: 1516-1797

Learning Objectives

In this module, students will learn: why and how the Venetian State formed a ghetto for the Jews; what the lived experience was like for the Jews; how the relationship of Venetian Jews to the state and to the economy operated and changed; and why and how the Ghetto was dissolved by Napoleon. Based on these readings and sources, students should be able to make critical arguments about: whether (and to what extent) the Ghetto benefitted or oppressed Jews; the extent to which the Ghetto segregated and enclosed Jews; whether social, religious, and cultural life flourished in the Ghetto; and how Venice benefitted from and was affected by its Jewish community.


Donatella Calabi, “The ‘City of the Jews,’” in Robert C. Davis and Benjamin Ravid, Ed., The Jews of Early Modern Venice (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 31-49.

  • This article provides an overview of the social structure of Venice (and the ghetto’s place within it), as well as insight into the social structure within the ghetto’s Jewish community.
  • This reading may be more approachable for advanced undergraduates, because although the content is accessible, the writing hews towards academic.
  • This text could be paired with: Virtual, app-based tour of Venice landmarks

Richard Sennett, “Fear of Touching: The Jewish Ghetto in Renaissance Venice,” in Sennett, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996).

  • This text explains the history the Venice Ghetto’s formation, rationalization, and social structure by pairing an analysis of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with early-modern history of medicine. Sennett agrees with other scholars that Venetians segregated Jews in the ghetto to preserve their Christian community, but he powerfully argues that there was an additional reason: Venetians’ perception of Jewish bodies as alien, seductive, and infected led them to prophylactically separate the Jewish community to preserve the “health” of the Venetian body.
  • This reading is accessible for most undergraduates. The literary analysis is narrative and engaging, and Sennett delivers the history in a straightforward style. Even with the occasional theoretical digression, most students will still get a lot out of this readings.
  • This text could be paired with: John Firth, “Syphilis – Its early history and Treatment until Penicillin and the Debate on its Origins,” Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health 20, no. 4 (2012).

Benjamin C.I. Ravid, “From Geographical Realia to Historiographical Symbol: The Odyssey of the Word Ghetto” in David B. Ruderman, ed., Essential Papers on Jewish Culture in Renaissance and Baroque Italy (New York, 1992)

  • In this article, Ravid argues that despite the existence of similar Jewish quarters before 1516, it was in Venice where the term “ghetto” was first used and so the authentic definition of “ghetto” is, like the Jewish area of Venice, a neighborhood that is “compulsory, segregated, [and] enclosed.” The article examines the historical characteristics of the Venice ghetto and then briefly compares it to later ghettos in other Italian and European cities. Ravid concludes that it was much later that the term began to be applied to “any area densely populated by Jews, even in places where they had freedom of residence and could and did live in t academic he same districts and houses as Christians.”
  • This reading is accessible for most undergraduates, with support. The writing is academic in style, and while more advanced undergraduates should be able to parse it fairly easily, instructors of more novice students could consider providing students with a brief overview of the reading beforehand, or scaffolding in-class discussion by beginning with an opportunity for students to ask clarificatory questions.
  • This text could be paired with: Oxford Bibliographies Online entry on “Ghetto” (DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0081)