The Jews of Venice were compelled to live in the ghetto from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The Venetian ghetto was the source of the English word, which actually means “foundry,” in reference to a foundry that was located close to the ghetto.
The sign above, “Gheto Vechio,” means “Old Ghetto,” but the name is a bit misleading because the “Old” and “New” ghettos refer to the foundries themselves, not to the Jewish communities. Jews inhabited the New Ghetto first (around 1516), before Levantine Jews began moving to the Old Ghetto (around 1541). The Jewish Virtual Library site has a comprehensive history of the Venetian ghetto.
The photo below is one of the tunnel-like entries into the ghetto. This particular entrance is beside Gam Gam, the popular kosher restaurant, on the Cannaregio Canal.
If you visit the ghetto, be sure to take a guided tour at the Jewish Museum in the courtyard. It’s the only way you will be able to see the interior of some of the five synagogues in the ghetto. When we were there, the two large Sephardi synagogues were undergoing repairs, but we did see the other three synagogues. You can’t photograph the interior (and the group was too small for me to surreptitiously take pictures), but the Jewish Museum site has photos of the sanctuaries.
It’s also worth knowing that the Jewish Museum has a kosher cafe and is reasonably priced, much cheaper than Gam Gam. Since it is only open during museum hours, you have to plan to be there for lunch or in the late afternoon, no later than six. The couple who run it don’t speak much English but they’re very nice. I had an excellent piece of fish there. It was small, but seasoned with great care. The azzimi dolce (sweet wine matzah cookies), probably from the Volpe bakery around the corner, are excellent.
The Levantine synagogue, below, was founded in 1541.
Across the small courtyard from the Levantine synagogue is the Spanish synagogue (below), founded around 1580. It is the largest of the five synagogues in the ghetto.
Spanish synagogue, frontal view:
Door of Spanish synagogue:
Courtyard of the ghetto:
The photo below shows the Canton Synagogue, which occupies the top floor of a residential building. When synagogues and apartments were in the same building, the synagogue was always above the dwelling spaces. The origin of the name is uncertain but the most popular theories are that the synagogue was built by the Canton family or that it was called Canton (= corner) because it is located in the corner of the courtyard.
The German Synagogue (also called Tedesca) is trapezoid-shaped (the Jewish Ghetto of Venice site has floor plans for all the synagogues). The Ashkenazi synagogues tend to have five windows, which we were told was a deliberate design choice, commemorating the Five Books of Moses. The Levantine and the Spanish synagogues, however, have four windows on their front facades.
The Italian synagogue (below) was founded in 1575 and is built over apartments. It is the simplest of the five synagogues and quite austere in its decoration, without the lavish gold interiors that you find in the other synagogues.