In 1516 Venice’s ruling council confined all the Jews in a small area not far from today’s train station, where there had been getti, or foundries. The gates were locked at night, and restrictions were placed on Jewish economic activities. Jews were only allowed to operate pawn shops and lend money, trade in textiles, and practice medicine.
They were permitted to rent but not to own real estate. Although restrictive, the Ghetto also provided a safe haven for Jews from the violence and aggression against non-Christians in the economically and politically strained Venice of the early sixteenth century. Despite these severe limitations, the Jewish community prospered in Venice, and they received better treatment there than in many other European cities at this time.
They were allowed to leave the Ghetto during the day, but were marked as Jews: Men wore a yellow circle stitched on the left shoulder of their cloaks or jackets, while women wore a yellow scarf. Later on, the men’s circle became a yellow beret and still later a red one.
The first Jews to settle in the Ghetto were the central European Ashkenazim who settled in the Ghetto Novo. They built two Synagogues. The Scola Grande Tedesca in 1528-29 and the Scola Canton in 1531-32.
Next came the Levantine Jews, who practiced the Sepharadic rite. When they got their own neighborhood, the Ghetto Vecchio, an extension of the Venetian Ghetto granted in 1541, they built the Levantine Synagogue.
Mixed in with the poorer Ashkenazim were Italian Jews who had migrated north to Venice from central and southern Italy. In 1575, they built their own Italian Synagogue.
In 1633 the Ghetto Novissimo was built to house twenty sephardic families. Over the years the number of scole in the Ghetto increased to nine, of which five survive today.
Levantines and Ashkenazim, Italian and Spanish Jews all lived together in the Ghetto through hard times – including the plague of 1630 – and better times, until Napoleon threw open the gates in 1797 and recognized equal rights to the Jews of Venice. At its height, around 1650, the Ghetto housed about 4,000 people in a space roughly equivalent to 2-1/2 city blocks. Before World War II there were still about 1,300 Jews in the Ghetto, but 289 were deported by the Nazis and only seven returned.