THE GHETTO AND THE JEWS OF VENICE
Written by William Dean Howells and originally published in 1866
As I think it extremely questionable whether I could get through a chapter on this subject without some feeble pleasantry about Shylock, and whether, if I did, the reader would be at all satisfied that I had treated the matter fully and fairly, I say at the beginning that Shylock is dead; that if he lived, Antonio would hardly spit upon his gorgeous pantaloons or his Parisian coat, as he met him on the Rialto; that he would far rather call out to him, “Ció Shylock! Bon dí! Go piaser vederla;1” that if Shylock by any chance entrapped Antonio into a foolish promise to pay him a pound of his flesh on certain conditions, the honest commissary of police before whom they brought their affair would dismiss them both to the madhouse at San Servolo. In a word, the present social relations of Jew and Christian in this city render the “Merchant of Venice” quite impossible; and the reader, though he will find the Ghetto sufficiently noisome and dirty, will not find an oppressed people there, nor be edified by any of those insults or beatings which it was once a large share of Christian duty to inflict upon the enemies of our faith. The Catholic Venetian certainly understands that his Jewish fellow-citizen is destined to some very unpleasant experiences in the next world, but Corpo di Bacco! that is no reason why he should not be friends with him in this. He meets him daily on exchange and at the Casino, and he partakes of the hospitality of his conversazioni. If he still despises him—and I think he does, a little—he keeps his contempt to himself, for the Jew is gathering into his own hands great part of the trade of the city, and has the power that belongs to wealth. He is educated, liberal, and enlightened, and the last great name in Venetian literature is that of the Jewish historian of the Republic, Romanin. The Jew’s political sympathies are invariably patriotic, and he calls himself, not Ebreo, but Veneziano. He lives, when rich, in a palace or a fine house on the Grand Canal, and he furnishes and lets many others (I must say at rates which savor of the loan secured by the pound of flesh) in which he does not live. The famous and beautiful Ca’ Doro now belongs to a Jewish family; and an Israelite, the most distinguished physician in Venice, occupies the appartamento signorile in the palace of the famous Cardinal Bembo. The Jew is a physician, a banker, a manufacturer, a merchant; and he makes himself respected for his intelligence and his probity,—which perhaps does not infringe more than that of Italian Catholics. He dresses well,—with that indefinable difference, however, which distinguishes him in every thing from a Christian,—and his wife and daughter are fashionable and stylish, They are sometimes, also, very pretty; and I have seen one Jewish lady who might have stepped out of the sacred page, down from the patriarchal age, and been known for Rebecca, with her oriental grace, and delicate, sensitive, high-bred look and bearing—no more western and modern than a lily of Palestine.
But it is to the Ghetto I want to take you now (by the way we went one sunny day late last fall), that I may show you something of the Jewish past, which has survived to the nineteenth century in much of the discomfort and rank savor of the dark ages.
In the fifteenth century all the riches of the Orient had been poured into the lap of Venice, and a spirit of reckless profusion took possession of her citizens. The money, hastily and easily amassed, went as rapidly as it came. It went chiefly for dress, in which the Venetian still indulges very often to the stint of his stomach; and the ladies of that bright-colored, showy day bore fortunes on their delicate persons in the shape of costly vestments of scarlet, black, green, white, maroon, or violet, covered with gems, glittering with silver buttons, and ringing with silver bells. The fine gentlemen of the period were not behind them in extravagance; and the priests were peculiarly luxurious in dress, wearing gay silken robes, with cowls of fur, and girdles of gold and silver. Sumptuary laws were vainly passed to repress the general license, and fortunes were wasted, and wealthy families reduced to beggary2. At this time, when so many worthy gentlemen and ladies had need of the Uncle to whom hard-pressed nephews fly to pledge the wrecks of prosperity, there was yet no Monte di Pietà, and the demand for pawnbrokers becoming imperative, the Republic was obliged to recall the Hebrews from the exile into which they had been driven some time before, that they might set up pawnshops and succor necessity. They came back, however, only for a limited time, and were obliged to wear a badge of yellow color upon the breast, to distinguish them from the Christians, and later a yellow cap, then a red hat, and then a hat of oil-cloth. They could not acquire houses or lands in Venice, nor practice any trade, nor exercise any noble art but medicine. They were assigned a dwelling-place in the vilest and unhealthiest part of the city, and their quarter was called Ghetto, from the Hebrew nghedah, a congregation3. They were obliged to pay their landlords a third more rent than Christians paid; the Ghetto was walled in, and its gates were kept by Christian guards, who every day opened them at dawn and closed them at dark, and who were paid by the Jews. They were not allowed to issue at all from the Ghetto on holidays; and two barges, with armed men, watched over them night and day, while a special magistracy had charge of their affairs. Their synagogues were built at Mestre, on the main-land; and their dead were buried in the sand upon the seashore, whither, on the Mondays of September, the baser sort of Venetians went to make merry, and drunken men and women danced above their desecrated tombs. These unhappy people were forced also to pay tribute to the state at first every third year, then every fifth year, and then every tenth year, the privilege of residence being ingeniously renewed to them at these periods for a round sum; but, in spite of all, they flourished upon the waste and wickedness of their oppressors, waxed rich as these waxed poor, and were not again expelled from the city4.
There never was any attempt to disturb the Hebrews by violence, except on one occasion, about the close of the fifteenth century, when a tumult was raised against them for child-murder. This, however, was promptly quelled by the Republic before any harm was done them; and they dwelt peacefully in their Ghetto till the lofty gates of their prison caught the sunlight of modern civilization, and crumbled beneath it. Then many of the Jews came forth and fixed their habitations in different parts of the city, but many others clung to the spot where their temples still remain, and which was hallowed by long suffering, and soaked with the blood of innumerable generations of geese. So, although you find Jews everywhere in Venice, you never find a Christian in the Ghetto, which is held to this day by a large Hebrew population.
We had not started purposely to see the Ghetto, and for this reason it had that purely incidental relish, which is the keenest possible savor of the object of interest. We were on an expedition to find Sior Antonio Rioba, who has been, from time immemorial, the means of ponderous practical jokes in Venice. Sior Antonio is a rough-hewn statue set in the corner of an ordinary grocery, near the Ghetto. He has a pack on his back and a staff in his hand; his face is painted, and is habitually dishonored with dirt thrown upon it by boys. On the wall near him is painted a bell-pull, with the legend, Sior Antonio Rioba. Rustics, raw apprentices, and honest Germans new to the city, are furnished with packages to be carried to Sior Antonio Rioba, who is very hard to find, and not able to receive the messages when found, though there is always a crowd of loafers near to receive the unlucky simpleton who brings them. “E poi, che commedia vederli arrabiarsi! Che ridere!” That is the Venetian notion of fun, and no doubt the scene is amusing. I was curious to see Sior Antonio, because a comic journal bearing his name had been published during the time of the Republic of 1848, and from the fact that he was then a sort of Venetian Pasquino. But I question now if he was worth seeing, except as something that brought me into the neighborhood of the Ghetto, and suggested to me the idea of visiting that quarter.
As we left him and passed up the canal in our gondola, we came unawares upon the church of Santa Maria dell’ Orto, one of the most graceful Gothic churches in the city. The façade is exquisite, and has two Gothic windows of that religious and heavenly beauty which pains the heart with its inexhaustible richness. One longed to fall down on the space of green turf before the church, now bathed in the soft golden October sunshine, and recant these happy, commonplace centuries of heresy, and have back again the good old believing days of bigotry, and superstition, and roasting, and racking, if only to have once more the men who dreamed those windows out of their faith and piety (if they did, which I doubt), and made them with their patient, reverent hands (if their hands were reverent, which I doubt). The church is called Santa Maria dell’ Orto, from the miraculous image of Our Lady which was found in an orchard where the temple now stands. We saw this miraculous sculpture, and thought it reflected little credit upon the supernatural artist. The church is properly that of Saint Christopher, but the saint has been titularly vanquished by the Madonna, though he comes out gigantically triumphant in a fresco above the high altar, and leads to confused and puzzling reminiscences of Bluebeard and Morgante Maggiore, to both of which characters he bears a bewildering personal resemblance.
There were once many fine paintings by Tintoretto and Bellini in this church; but as the interior is now in course of restoration, the paintings have been removed to the Academy, and we only saw one, which was by the former master, and had all his striking imagination in the conception, all his strength in the drawing and all his lampblack in the faded coloring. In the centre of the church, the sacristan scraped the carpenter’s rubbish away from a flat tablet in the floor, and said that it was Tintoretto’s tomb. It is a sad thing to doubt even a sacristan, but I pointed out that the tomb bore any name in the world rather than Robusti. “Ah!” said the sacristan, “it is just that which makes it so very curious,—that Tintoretto should wish to be buried under another name!5”
It was a warm, sunny day in the fall, as I said; yet as we drew near the Ghetto, we noticed in the air many white, floating particles, like lazy, straggling flakes of snow. These we afterward found to be the down of multitudes of geese, which are forever plucked by the whole apparent force of the populace,—the fat of the devoted birds being substituted for lard in the kitchens of the Ghetto, and their flesh for pork. As we approached the obscene little riva at which we landed, a blond young Israelite, lavishly adorned with feathers, came running to know if we wished to see the church—by which name he put the synagogue to the Gentile comprehension. The street through which we passed had shops on either hand, and at the doors groups of jocular Hebrew youth sat plucking geese; while within, long files of all that was mortal of geese hung from the rafters and the walls. The ground was webbed with the feet of geese, and certain loutish boys, who paused to look at us, had each a goose dragging at his heels, in the forlorn and elongated manner peculiar to dead poultry. The ground was stained with the blood of geese, and the smell of roasting geese came out of the windows of the grim and lofty houses.
Our guide was picturesque, but the most helpless and inconclusive cicerone I ever knew; and while his long, hooked Hebrew nose caught my idle fancy, and his soft blue eyes excused a great deal of inefficiency, the aimless fashion in which he mounted dirty staircases for the keys of the synagogue, and came down without them, and the manner in which he shouted to the heads of unctuous Jessicas thrust out of windows, and never gained the slightest information by his efforts, were imbecilities that we presently found insupportable, and we gladly cast him off for a dark-faced Hebrew boy who brought us at once to the door of the Spanish synagogue.
Of seven synagogues in the Ghetto, the principal was built in 1655, by the Spanish Jews who had fled to Venice from the terrors of the Holy Office. Its exterior has nothing to distinguish it as a place of worship, and we reached the interior of the temple by means of some dark and narrow stairs. In the floor and on the walls of the passage-way were set tablets to the memory of rich and pious Israelites who had bequeathed their substance for the behoof of the sanctuary; and the sacristan informed us that the synagogue was also endowed with a fund by rich descendants of Spanish Jews in Amsterdam. These moneys are kept to furnish indigent Israelitish couples with the means of marrying, and who claim the benefit of the fund are entitled to it. The sacristan—a little wiry man, with bead-black eyes, and of a shoemakerish presence—told us with evident pride that he was himself a descendant of the Spanish Jews. Howbeit, he was now many centuries from speaking the Castilian, which, I had read, was still used in the families of the Jewish fugitives from Spain to the Levant. He spoke, instead, the abominable Venetian of Cannaregio, with that Jewish thickness which distinguishes the race’s utterance, no matter what language its children are born to. It is a curious philological fact, which I have heard repeatedly alleged by Venetians, and which is perhaps worth noting here, that Jews speaking their dialect, have not only this thickness of accent, but also a peculiarity of construction which marks them at once.
We found the contracted interior of the synagogue hardly worth looking at. Instead of having any thing oriental or peculiar in its architecture, it was in a bad spirit of Renaissance art. A gallery encircled the inside, and here the women, during worship, sat apart from the men, who had seats below, running back from either side of the altar. I had no right, coming from a Protestant land of pews, to indulge in that sentimentality; but I could not help being offended to see that each of these seats might be lifted up and locked into the upright back and thus placed beyond question at the disposal of the owner: I like the freedom and equality in the Catholic churches much better. The sacristan brought a ponderous silver key, and unlocking the door behind the pulpit, showed us the Hebrew Scriptures used during the service by the Rabbi. They formed an immense parchment volume, and were rolled in silk upon a wooden staff. This was the sole object of interest in the synagogue, and its inspection concluded our visit.
We descended the narrow stairs and emerged upon the piazza which we had left. It was only partly paved with brick, and was very dirty. The houses which surrounded it were on the outside old and shabby, and, even in this Venice of lofty edifices, remarkably high. A wooden bridge crossed a vile canal to another open space, where once congregated the merchants who sell antique furniture, old pictures, and objects of vertu. They are now, however, found everywhere in the city, and most of them are on the Grand Canal, where they heap together marvelous collections, and establish authenticities beyond cavil. “Is it an original?” asked a young lady who was visiting one of their shops, as she paused before an attributive Veronese, or—what know I?—perhaps a Titian. “Si, signora, originalissimo!”
I do not understand why any class of Jews should still remain in the Ghetto, but it is certain, as I said, that they do remain there in great numbers. It may be that the impurity of the place and the atmosphere is conducive to purity of race; but I question if the Jews buried on the sandy slope of the Lido, and blown over by the sweet sea wind—it must needs blow many centuries to cleanse them of the Ghetto—are not rather to be envied by the inhabitants of those high dirty houses and low dirty lanes. There was not a touch of any thing wholesome, or pleasant, or attractive, to relieve the noisomeness of the Ghetto to its visitors; and they applauded, with a common voice, the neatness which had prompted Andrea the gondolier to roll up the carpet from the floor of his gondola, and not to spread it again within the limits of that quarter.
In the good old times, when pestilence avenged the poor and oppressed upon their oppressors, what grim and dismal plagues may not have stalked by night and noonday out of those hideous streets, and passed the marble bounds of patrician palaces, and brought to the bedsides of the rich and proud the filthy misery of the Ghetto turned to poison! Thank God that the good old times are gone and going. One learns in these aged lands to hate and execrate the past.
- “Shylock, old fellow, good-day. Glad to see you.”
- Galliciolli, Memorie Venete.
- Del Commercia del Veneziani. Mutinelli.
- Members of the family of Tintoretto are actually buried in this church; and no sacristan of right feeling could do less than point out some tomb as that of the great painter himself.