There’s a square in Venice which words fail to describe. A square where gates for centuries were locked nighttime to help you know where you were. Both the ones living inside and the ones living outside. However, when you enter it, it’s as if you are meeting with a charlatan on a stage: you listen to him because he fascinates you, but you know he’s not telling you the whole truth. That space is the Campo del Ghetto Novo.
Starting from the name…
The Campo of the Ghetto Novo (new ghetto) is the name of the square of the oldest of the three ghettos where the Jewish community in Venice used to live for nearly four centuries. And so it happens that the Ghetto Vecchio (the “old” ghetto) is newer than the New Ghetto 🙂 Why so? Well, that’s the easiest part as the word “ghetto” in Venice meant metal foundry.
In fact, the ghetto was originally the seat of a metal foundry, an industrial area of debris, pollution and unhealthy air. But in the middle of the 1400s it became a residential area for Christians that were eventually thrown out in 1516 to segregate the Jewish community in the same buildings. And it was a place of segregation that looked like a fortress from the outside, surrounded by a canal where a patrol would go back and forth to control the Jews and to prevent Christians from looting the Jewish homes.
But when you look at the Ghetto Novissimo (the “newest” ghetto) and the size of the imposing gate that closed it on one of its sides, you get the idea that the Ghetto must have not been the same ghetto for all that lived in there. While the majority would live in slums, some dwelled in homes similar to some palaces on the Grand Canal. And even a gate could be a prison latch or a protective door.
Not to mention that there’s still the inscription dating back to 1704 that established that Jews that had converted were not allowed in the Ghetto, thus addressing the issue of Marranos, Jews that had pretended to convert to have their lives saved… So there was a reverse Ghetto!
When in 1797, the 11th of July, the gates were torn down and burnt in the middle of the campo, a liberty tree was planted in the centre and the campo was given a new name, “reunion”, so as to seal a new sense of belonging. But the old word survived as a successful brand marked in the flesh, even now when Jews in Venice meet at the Ghetto for the synagogue services and only four or five Jewish families permanently live there.
The more recent years
Exploring the visible signs of the ghetto today is also confusing. You see the members of the Chabad Lubavitch community wearing their traditional clothing that came from Brooklyn to Venice in the 1990s. Visible, active, their children play in the square.
And then you see the Shoah memorials by Arbit Blatas who with his “The last train” portrayed victims and Nazis with their blurred faces in the everlasting bronze plate and carved in the fragile wooden planks the names and the age of the over two hundreds Venetian Jews that died in the concentration camps. And spread around, you see the Stolpersteine (stumbling stones) in brass by Gunter Demnig evoking those tragic moments of the arrest and deportation. Powerful works. And then barbed wire fencing a high brick wall.
If the Jewish ghetto had just been a ghetto, Jews would have not come. The ghetto was not a concentration camp, but these signs have led many I have met think that it was. A setting with Schindler’s list soundtrack.
While tasting an almond impada cookie, an old Venetian kosher recipe, made by Venetian Christians under the Rabbi’s supervision —yes, even a cookie can have a complicated story in the Ghetto!—, I am thinking how this space has been reinvented so many times in its history.
And this year, the 500th anniversary, how will the Ghetto change without changing its name?
The historic Jewish Community is renovating and expanding its museum and its premises to be even more welcoming to the visitors. A new Info Point has opened and the Ghimel Garden Kosher restaurant offers in its relaxing garden a new flavor experience 🙂
Many events are planned, including a new soundtrack: Beit Venezia has invited the trumpet player and jazz musician Frank London to compose new songs on the Ghetto. They have also invited contemporary international authors to write new poetry and fiction on the Ghetto, and eight artists to design a new Venice Haggadah, the book Jewish families read on Passover.
And, as for our Campo, the Venice Ca’ Foscari University is promoting the production of the first ever performance of The Merchant of Venice in the Campo of the Ghetto Nuovo in Venice. So, yes: the campo will become an open air theatre stage for five nights for the international Compagnia de’ Colombari directed by Karin Coonrod.
Will we meet with Shylock then in the original setting where William Shakespeare had imagined the story?
Yes, but Shylock will change every night. Five different actors interchanging during the performance, different scenes and also flashes of the different languages spoken in the campo in the 16th century: all intertwined to remind us how the plural nature of this amazing urban space cannot be and will likely never be framed by any gate.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy