The word “ghetto” might have been the name of a pair of foul-smelling foundries located in the outer reaches of Cannaregio, a key Sestiere, or district, of Venice. When the Doge Leonardo Loredan and the Serenissima exiled their 700 Jews there on 29 March, 1516, the moniker stuck. From the start, ghettoization meant a nighttime curfew, punitive taxation, and restrictions on employment. And whenever the Most Serene Republic’s mobs misplaced their serenity and needed a scapegoat to terrorize, the Jewish Ghetto provided an easy target.
The worst popular libel against the Jews (along with apostates, sinners, prostitutes, and youths with acne) was that they had brought on the bubonic plague that spread north from Italy and engulfed Europe in the 14th century. The math is complicated, and the statistics require some heroic assumptions, but more than 50 million Europeans died from the disease—anywhere from 20% to 50% of the population of any given country. Venice lost a third of its population and was destroyed as a military and economic power.
The truth was that Venetian fur traders had brought the plague back from the Crimea, where they were competing viciously with the Genoese to control the traffic in Russian pelts. The Mongols besieged their settlement and, in the first recorded instance of biological warfare, catapulted their own dead plague victims over the walls of the city. When the Italians fled to their boats, they took with them the rats, and the rats brought along the fleas that carried the infection. Within a decade, thanks to the power of Venetian and Genoese trade, Europe lay prostrate under the most violent medical epidemic in history.
And so the Jews had to pay. Yet everything is relative, and, compared to the Cossack massacres and Russian pogroms then erupting, Venice looked like a paradise. So the ghetto grew in population, wealth, and learning until 1797, when Napoleon abolished the restrictions. And then it grew even farther until, in 1944, the Nazis emptied it altogether into the death camps of Poland.
All of which makes it odd today to see well-armed Italian troops operating out of a command post on the Campo de Ghetto Novo. For a change, they’re there to protect and not oppress the 500 members of the local Jewish community. On the other hand—and it might mean nothing—we’ve never come here when it wasn’t gloomy and raining.